Can Minnesota find a way to protect wild rice, and, perhaps, save ourselves in the process?
It’s a question that’s particularly relevant with the Legislature back in session. For the past several years, the Legislature has taken repeated steps to undermine a water quality standard designed to protect wild rice— that extraordinary natural grain that has been a mainstay of Ojibwe culture, spiritual life, and diet in Minnesota for centuries. Perhaps this will be the year that legislators decide to redeem themselves.
They have the opportunity to do so through the creation of an effective wild rice stewardship council, which was one of the recommendations of a task force created last year by Gov. Mark Dayton, which issued a report last month. Wild rice is clearly in need of some stewardship. This once-ubiquitous grain has been on the decline in recent years, most likely as a result of a number of environmental problems. It’s a sensitive species. Some liken it to a “canary in a coal mine,” signaling changes in the overall environment that might not be immediately detectable to most people.
Wild rice has already disappeared from the vast majority of its historic range and is largely confined today to parts of central and northern Minnesota and adjacent portions of Canada and Wisconsin. Even here in the heart of its range, however, we’ve seen worrisome declines in both distribution and abundance.
We know that discharges of sulfate from some industrial polluters are at least part of the problem, particularly in areas downstream from mining operations. In fact, the link between sulfate levels and the health of wild rice has been known since the 1940s and formed the basis for Minnesota’s strictest-in-the-nation sulfate standard, enacted back in 1973. Recent attempts by the Legislature to undermine that standard, simply to placate the state’s mining industry, have been telling. For a state that has long prided itself on protection of the environment, it’s been eye-opening to watch a Minnesota Legislature ignore science and take its environmental cues almost entirely from a powerful industry. It’s like waking up one day to discover we’ve become Texas.
The Legislature’s failure, to date, to address the water quality threats posed to wild rice, has justifiably increased the sense of urgency among the state’s native peoples. In their own report on wild rice, the state’s Ojibwe and Sioux bands reaffirmed their conviction that control of sulfate emissions from taconite mines and major electrical utilities, is critical to their goal of restoring wild rice to its former abundance.
In the end, it’s really a matter of health— for all people in our region. We would all benefit from incorporating wild rice into our lives. The true, native grain is an extraordinary food, high in protein, scarce minerals, and anti-oxidants, not to mention delicious. Harvesting and preparing the grain for the table is a meaningful and deliberate act that stands in remarkable contrast to the industrial food system that has left so many Americans sick or in failing health.
And our medical establishment is well aware that increasing sulfate levels in lake and stream sediments not only boosts the production of sulfide, a toxin known to harm wild rice, but also converts elemental mercury to toxic methyl mercury, mobilizing it through the aquatic food chain.
And a 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Health found already-elevated levels of mercury in the blood of infants within the Lake Superior basin, with nearly 10 percent exhibiting levels considered above a safe level. Fish consumption is believed to be the primary cause of these elevated mercury levels, and the same pollutants that are harming wild rice may be facilitating a worsening situation with mercury in our region’s fish.
Perhaps this year, the Minnesota Legislature can begin to put the pieces together and recognize the connection between water quality and public health and well-being.
Better late than never.