I was in Biloxi, Mississippi for a meeting last month, just before Hurricane Nate. While I was disheartened to see images of floodwaters where I’d been walking just a week before, I was grateful the damage was not worse. At that meeting, we were addressing a challenge that seems nearly as impossible as keeping the Mississippi Sound at bay as hurricane force winds push the water inland: substantially reducing the hypoxic zone in that same body of water, while still producing food, housing, and other services important for human life on the land that funnels water to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to nutrient management challenges before us, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recent Infrastructure Report Card tells us that funding gaps for water infrastructure from 2015-2025 include $105 billion for drinking water and wastewater, $15 billion for inland waterways and marine ports, $39.4 billion for dams, and $70 billion for levees. Total: nearly $340 billion. And if that’s not enough, the stories we hear on the news are less about Herculean accomplishments, and more about clashes of the Titans.
Clearly, we are not the first people in history to face challenges that at times feel insurmountable. Before the internet and the expansion of retail therapy, we used great stories to comfort ourselves and gain insights on how to get through the seemingly impossible tasks in our lives. Consider Hercules, who had to complete the twelve labors – including killing a formidable lion, cleaning vast stables in a day (his solution was a precursor to today’s manure management systems!), and stealing Zeus’s golden apples. In these stories, “impossible tasks” often required super-human powers (like the strength of Hercules) or divine intervention. Others required mere mortal smarts and cleverness, such as carrying water in a sieve, filling an entire room with an object that can be bought with a single coin (solution: buy a candle, which fills the room with light), or sorting spilled lentils from the ashes of a cooking fire. But no matter what the “impossible task” may be, they all required a dogged commitment to getting the job done.
Which brings me to the potential upside of all this. News aside, in the Great Lakes, in the Mississippi River Basin, and in my local watershed, I see a marked willingness to compile accurate data about the water challenges we face, and to collaborate among farmers, ag industry representatives, watershed organizers, state and federal agency personnel, and others to find solutions that work for everyone. And while there are no guarantees that our current plans will work, it’s the accurate and transparent information about performance that will give us the ability to collectively examine whether our efforts are succeeding, or if we are, like Sisyphus, continuing to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again day after day. Hopefully we will have the courage to chart a new course if required.