Imagine that you are canoeing down the St. Louis River towards Lake Superior, gazing at the full and luscious wild rice crops along the river, when you notice that they begin to become thinner and scarcer the closer you get to Superior. Wild rice provides an important food source for wild life, and is therefore integral to the overall ecology of northeastern Minnesota. Sulfide mining and its environmental consequences, which are relatively new to the state, represent an immediate and urgent threat to not only Minnesota’s wild rice beds, but to the state’s water systems and every being that depends on them. The St. Louis River already has fish consumption advisories and an enormous 140-mile long wild rice “dead zone” downstream from mining discharges. Where the river meets Lake Superior, the only wild rice is currently found where new, fresh water comes into the river and displaces the river water, thereby reducing sulfate levels.
WaterLegacy was formed in 2009 by seasoned activists who quickly realized that there wasn’t an existing organization that had the time or resources to devote solely to this issue. The founders had been following the effects of sulfide mining in other places and knew that it has and always will adversely affected aqua and ecosystems. Many legal and technical experts have joined WaterLegacy in order to help citizens develop an effective voice in environmental review, permitting, and enforcement. They employ a unique strategy comprised of technical expertise, like assessing environmental laws and risks, and grassroots outreach campaigns to alert people in the affected area. WaterLegacy believes that it is extremely important to provide resources to ordinary citizens so they can inform themselves and participate in the fight to protect Minnesota waters.
WaterLegacy collaborates with a large variety of partners including Native American tribes, environmental groups, and those who fish, hunt, gather wild rice, and live near natural resources potentially affected by mines. Presently, they are focusing their efforts on working with people who live around the area of most intense exploration, about one hour north of Duluth, which includes the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The detrimental effects of mining can be seen along the 20 miles of shared border with the reservation, and WaterLegacy is working with the tribe to build up resources to combat any further damage.
Of course, all of this work does not come without protest from the mining community. The industry is fighting the current 10 mg/L sulfate limit in wild rice waters and is suing pollution control. This has the potential to be a landmark lawsuit, and WaterLegacy has acted as an intervener and moderator.
Water is a basic necessity, not just for us but for the entire environment. Everything is intimately connected by these water systems – native wild rice crops are an important food source for animals like ducks and other water fowl, and many members of the community live, canoe, fish, and hunt on and near the river. All of these things are under threat by sulfide mining and its harmful externalities. WaterLegacy is the only organization completely devoted to protecting Minnesota waters from this danger and has thus far done an amazing job of engaging the community at large to participate in this campaign to save their livelihood.