Missississippi River in Little Falls, MN

The “Mighty Mississippi” was my childhood backyard. The river provided endless wonder with its ever-changing scenery and activity. Amid fall colors, large flocks of geese and ducks migrated south. During winter, snowmobiles and cross country skiers traveled over the river’s frozen surface. Deer and fox tracks crept across thin ice. Come spring, sheets of ice crashed and clawed against the riverbank’s budding trees. Summers featured water-skiers, fishing boats, canoes, and kayaks. Jumping fish. Ducklings paddling by. Plus, our Tarzan rope swing promised a cool plunge on a hot day.

In contrast, water’s wonders were rare when I wintered in arid New Mexico. While there in 2021, I volunteered as a dogwalker at the High Desert Humane Society. To help a special dog find a new home, I started walking him around the Silver City’s downtown area with an “Adopt me” sign. One stop was city hall’s lawn. Few lawns exist because water’s expensive. This dog pranced for joy on the grass—much different then the dry region’s sharp stones and prickly cactus. Another stop was a tiny creek hidden in a ravine. On his first visit there, it was clear he had never seen standing water before. He was suspicious of the water trickling between small pools. He inched forward. He sniffed. He eased a paw into the water. Instant glee. He waded in and didn’t want to leave. His adoption before I departed was memorable for all. Deserts have their own unique beauty, but my furry friend’s lasting impression on me was how precious water is. It creates happiness.

Me at Caribou Falls, Minnesota

Nowadays, I’m a waterfall junkie. Tumbling water creates iconic sounds. Sounds that change through the seasons, and after rainfalls. Sunlight, clouds, and shadows also alter waterfall scenes. Especially in gorges, where mid-day sun highlights the mist, moss, leaves, glistening rocks, and hidden trout or salmon. These subtle variables make a waterfall different on every visit, or even while you watch. This past year, I viewed dozens of waterfalls, many in Hawaii. Some were new, others were perpetual favorites along Minnesota’s North Shore. To celebrate their wonder, I compiled video clips of several below (which will be my webpage header video for awhile).

Unfortunately, clean water, droughts, and aquifer depletion are hot topics. Yet ignoring water problems doesn’t make them someone else’s problem. Growing up, our family drank well water with high nitrate levels (caused by nearby farm fertilizer pollution, which is now gone). I also watched frequent chemical slicks float by our house (Hennepin Paper Company pollution, now gone due to the factory’s closure). Back then, nobody knew, or cared enough, to stop unsafe water practices.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay pollution-8252584_1920 by Pete Linforth

Today, clean water is a priority. Yet water faces new threats from microplastics, mining, “forever chemicals,” and sewage treatment ponds. Threats that create hard questions. Who pays for water pollution that can last centuries? Can we restore vast oceans that billions of people rely on for food? Will irrigation needs exhaust ground water sources? And most importantly, should you feel guilty about flushing toilets? (Probably not, but water conservation and composting toilets are worth learning about!)

Photo courtesy Pixabay global-warming-2958988_1920 by Chris LeBoutillier

Earth’s surface may be 71% water, but less than 1% of all water is fresh water, easily used (i.e. not salt water, or frozen). Fresh water obviously is used for drinking and household needs, but also fuels industry and farming. Competing water needs mean fierce debates will continue over pollution and water access. In Minnesota, some ideas include diverting water out west via freight trains, or filtering mining wastewater “indefinitely” (i.e. for at least a thousand years). Projects like these seem ludicrous, but are real. Climate change, greed, and desperation mean such ideas will persist and evolve. Especially in Minnesota given we’re the literal “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” headwaters of the Mississippi, and have access to Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake).

Vigilance, conservation, and facts are essential for a future with safe, accessible water. That’s why it’s wise to learn more about the “H-two-O” molecule! To start with, I’ve listed kidlit books throughout this post that have water as their subject, plot, or setting (click on any book cover to enlarge it). Although I enjoyed these books, my usual disclaimer is no book is for everyone, or for all-ages. With endless books to read, skip books that don’t appeal to you—unless there’s a test involved! But read more about water. You won’t regret it.

Take care in 2024, including the wonderful water around you.


Winter can have bad smells too! Photo by Randy Haaland

Should summer smell like rotting fish and algae farts? That’s what I wondered while I was in Fort Myers Beach for ten weeks last summer. During that time, Southwest Florida’s beaches were besieged by red tide. Casualties that washed ashore included threatened sea turtles and manatees, adored dolphins, and uncountable crustaceans and fish.

The costliest casualties though, were tourists. Their cash, wake boards, and sandcastles fled to more enjoyable beaches. Jilted residents and businesses went from frustrated to furious. They’re demanding changes. Otherwise, they fear property values will decline. Hotel empires will suffer. Ice cream stands will close.

All are legit fears. All because of an invasion of microscopic algae.

However, I’m glad my summer stunk. Really, truly, we should thank the algae.

We shouldn’t just be grateful that algae’s photosynthesis makes 70-80% of the oxygen we breath. We should appreciate that reeking algae helps identify careless human actions. In Florida’s case, fertilizer runoff in overdeveloped, flood-prone areas (where drainage ditches send fertilizer into waterways, feeding algae blooms). Other human-caused pollution doesn’t cause a stench, so outcry is less. For example, ocean microplastics and rising mercury levels in seafood get little publicity.

Plastic pollution, photo courtesy of geraldsimon00 on Pixabay
Photo courtesy of 3dman_eu on Pixabay

Thus, red tide’s funky farts and fishkills should be considered a welcome red flag.

Not convinced? Consider two examples of odorless water pollution.

Photo courtesy of USFWS

When I returned to Minnesota last fall, gracious friends let me stay at their island cabin. There, majestic bald eagles circled and perched in the tallest Norway pines. They watched for prey, preened, and rested. And screeched—a less dramatic sound than often portrayed in movies (my video below recorded three eagles screaming at each other). I’d never witnessed such a scene, despite eagles being common throughout Minnesota nowadays.

Rainy Lake eagle nest, photo by Randy Haaland

When I was growing up though, bald eagles were an endangered species. The reason for their decline was their eggs were brittle (breaking in the nest before a chick was mature). Research linked the thin eggs to the pesticide DDT in contaminated fish, a key food source for eagles.

Newborn chicks. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Like canaries in a coal mine, dead eagle chicks helped symbolize that DDT harmed humans too (from autism to many cancers). Yet despite early warnings, the nearly odorless DDT was used for decades before it was banned in 1972. Residual DDT still persists in water today, over 45 years later, but eagle populations have recovered.

The second sad pollution example is a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study I learned about last year when I attended Minicon 53. Scientists found widespread trace pharmaceuticals and chemicals in sampled rivers and lakes, including a remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area lake. The data led scientists to several surprising culprits, one of which was sewage pond evaporation that spread contaminants via rainfall (click to read an MPR article, or the actual report).

Minnesotans would riot if our abundant lakes, streams, and rivers suddenly were putrid. But trace water pollution rarely has a distinctive smell.  Rainfall pollution also has stunning implications, just as acidic rainfall does. Yet, no smell, no fuss.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota PCA

Sadly, politicians and citizens seem to only act when lawsuits and/or health problems pile up (including fish health, which affects fishing tourism). Without sick or dying people, speedy political action on pollution only seems to happen when one of three conditions exist:

These three conditions all apply to Florida’s red tides! Therefore, I’m optimistic Florida will defeat the algae blooms attacking its summer beaches.

Ft. Myers Beach, photo by Randy Haaland

Fresh salty breezes won’t return overnight. But Floridians can’t ignore fertilizer pollution has consequences. They can’t ignore rerouting the “River of Grass” has consequences. They can’t ignore declining tourism.

Stench spurs action.

For this kick to our nostrils, thank you stinky algae! If only all pollution had foul odors.