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Water supports life and is essential for our economy, but everything we do is likely to impact the quality of our water supply in some way. How do we provide for the water-related needs of a growing population, while ensuring an adequate supply of clean water for our neighbors and for future generations?
To begin to understand what makes water quality a "wicked problem," consider the Mississippi River Watershed. This vital region in the central U.S. is really a system of people living in cities, growing food, integrated with the natural environment, an essential player in regional and global trade, and a set of complex societal and environmental challenges that need to be solved. In this exercise, you will explore the way complex problems intertwine natural systems with human activities that provide for our physical health and economic well-being.
By the end of the exercise, you will be able to:
- Locate and describe interactions between human and natural systems.
- Diagram key components of a complex system focused on water quality and identify different stakeholder perspectives or interests associated with water use.
- Explain how differing power dynamics among stakeholders creates conflict and the potential for social/environmental injustice.
What do we mean by a "system," and how can it help us analyze complex problems?
A "system" is an interconnected group of parts that define a unified whole (Wikipedia). We can study ecosystems (interrelated organisms and the components of their natural environment), social systems (human communities and their physical infrastructure), economic systems (people and institutions involved in the production and distribution of goods and services), and many other types of natural and human-created systems. In order to analyze a system, you must be able to identify the critical (or key) components of the system and understand how they interact. You also need to have some idea of how a disruption in one part of the system causes a reaction in other parts of the system. We will explore this in more detail by looking at water pollution in the Mississippi River Watershed, a complex integration of natural and human systems.
The Mississippi River Watershed as a Complex System
Clearly such a large region contains lots of people, industry, and farmland, not to mention the major cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. The sheer size of the Mississippi River Watershed means that human activities — like the intensive agriculture required for our food supply, livestock, and global trade —are intimately connected to the natural and human systems that move water downstream and keep the water clean for the plants and animals inhabiting it. Since all water (for example, rainwater, snowfall, surface streams, groundwater, and water vapor in the atmosphere) is connected, the "fingerprint" from human activities like farming, waste disposal, transportation, or even just urban street runoff, all moves downstream. When the chemical or biological fingerprint has a negative impact, that's downstream pollution.
Pollutants in the Mississippi River Watershed