Musing on Magic Pills and End-of-Ditch Stewardship

My company has spent the better part of a million dollars experimenting with magic pills.  These take several forms in connection with water.  But they truly are just experiments.  They aren’t magic at all.  They are like shooting at clay pigeons…in the dark.

There is a real, and simple, explanation for this.  It explains why results are never exactly replicable in natural systems.  Put very plainly, there are too many variables in natural systems.  From our human perspective this is a problem.  From nature’s perspective, this is biocomplexity.  It’s a wonder!

How many species of microbes are present in a waterway?  More than you could count in an hour.  In fact, more than you could count in a day.  The biocomplexity of waterways is vast.  When a salesman represents that their “magic pill” will accomplish your goal, know that the goal may indeed be accomplished, but that the accurate explanation for the “fix” is probably quite different than the salesperson’s explanation.

Nature is wonderful, and nature does not abide with the human vision of a “fix”.  You don’t just add your magic elixir to a waterway, and say “Abracadabra”, and collect your fee, and walk away.  Not from nature.  

Nature does not abide with human comfort goals.  Nature doesn’t really care about humans.  It just is. 

So what do we do to support nature to “fix” water?  To help it transition from some kind of aberration, like a harmful algae bloom?  We provide nature with more of the two primary variables it uses to cycle contaminants out of water: surface area, and circulation.  Nature’s wetland effect is impacted by other variables too, like “residence time”, and “temperature.”  But surface area and circulation are the big guys.  Our research has quantified that provision of both of these results in the expedited cycling of contaminants, of every sort.

The list of aberrant conditions in water is long.  And getting longer.  But know that biomimetic solutions, ones that track with nature’s model, are being thought of.  They are being developed.  These are hopeful times!

Naturally-occurring floating islands are the inspiration behind BioHaven Floating Islands. This photo shows Bruce Kania of Floating Island International walking on a floating island in Wisconsin.
Bruce Kania on one of his many research trips to study naturally-occurring floating islands in Northern Wisconsin

Last weekend we were visited by a young and really energizing biologist who is with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, based in Bozeman, MT.  He had read an article that described Floating Island International’s (FII’s) work towards water quality enhancement that the State of Montana DNR had commissioned two years ago. His first visit was a year ago.  He is a thoughtful, proactive person, looking purposively for actual sustainability directions.

During that first visit he and I had occasion for an early morning fishing excursion by canoe on Fish Fry Lake.  I can close my eyes and see his fly rod doubled over as he fought a heavy bass, and tried to pull it up and over an island webbing tether.  The fish escaped with us never getting a glimpse of the fish, its actual size…those are the most heart rendering of fishing episodes!  But also, those are the mind’s eye visions that seem to stay with us forever!

On this visit we discussed the business of floating islands.  We discussed “end of ditch” water stewardship, and what it means for everyone downstream.  We extended our discussion and talked about dead zones, including the large one that occurs annually in the Gulf of Mexico, and to which Montana is the eleventh largest contributor.  And then we talked about solutions.

Agriculture is the key to improved water quality.  Agriculture is the premier source of nutrients that fuels harmful algae blooms.  Agriculture is also the premier solution provider.  Inventory of water at end-of-ditch locations could provide a massive window, a huge stewardship opportunity.  Nutrients can be steered towards healthy biota, instead of harmful algae blooms.  We have the science.

There are thousands of “end of ditch” settings across the western United States.  Every river from which irrigation water is pulled is a candidate for real stewardship.  And here’s a quick but factual data point…if they all employed healthy stewardship strategies, there would be no dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  But there would be a wealth of new, incredibly productive fisheries.  The fishing aside, there would also be many more bald eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, blue herons, and the countless other forms of life that associate with critical riparian edge habitat.  Hey, I know it’s weird, but when salamanders thrive…so do we.

The biologist was both energized, and energizing, when he left here.  Youth are tomorrow’s stewards.  They are the lenses from which tomorrow’s vision will happen.  

I am left with hope.  With gratitude, too.  

During these hyper political moments, know that there is still a wealth of calm, pedantic, careful, and patient thinking going on.  Nature doesn’t give a damn about human politics.  We are a blip on the planet, in the scheme of things.  But if we truly want to be here, to be functional and to advance life, we must partner with nature. We sure will not succeed if we attempt to fight nature.  No way.  But if we recognize nature as partner, we will advance!