While working in Minnesota and living a quarter of a mile from the riverfront of the mighty Mississippi, I have begun to think about water in new ways.

Ownership of water has become an urgent concern as climate change requires better stewardship of existing resources.

Growing up in northeastern Oklahoma with lakes in abundance, I gave little thought to issues of conservation, contamination and citizenry as it related to just practices concerning water. Now, I regard this issue from a different angle of vision, and it matters that we consider comprehensive approaches for the common good.

There is nothing quite like observing the soaring eagles above the Mississippi as the snow melt makes its way down river. This exquisite ballet careening overhead is breathtaking, and it reminds how all of life depends upon the wonderful resource that lies at the very beginning of creation.

Yet, we know that this major waterway is losing capacity, and barges stall at varied junctures heading south as industrial water consumption burgeons while global warming threatens replenishment.

With the climate changing faster than earlier imagined, water remains at the center of ecological concerns as foresters, farmers and fishers contend for sufficient water for sustainable pursuits. The givenness of access, once enjoyed by all who sought it, is no longer possible.

Siphoning water from rivers and aquifers for private/corporate usage is rapidly depleting supplies, and the possibility of renewable water long-term looks less likely. While the atmospheric rivers that over-watered California in recent weeks constitute a surfeit, this abundance cannot provide a solution to the arid West.

Who are the stakeholders in all of this? A novel case in Minnesota argues that nature itself is a stakeholder, and it holds legal rights.

In 2018, the White Earth Band of Objibwe in Minnesota enshrined in tribal law the right of manoomin (wild rice) to “exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” The intent is to give legal rights to nature and change its status as property.

At issue is the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline that will divert five billion gallons of groundwater. The case argues that this construction would violate the rights of this food at the center of this Indigenous culture. In addition to violating treaty rights, the environmental impact is staggering.

Legally, it is a daring gambit, and it changes the conversation about public waters and public forests where historically the Ojibwe have hunted, fished and gathered.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes have rights to as much water as they need to establish a permanent homeland, and those rights stretch back at least as long as any given reservation has existed. Our government has notoriously abridged such statements, and tribal people are rightly wary of egregious encroachment on their way of life.

Climate change affects former agreements since reservations and treaty areas have geographically defined boundaries that do not allow them to follow shifts or changes in natural resources, as a recent study notes.

Student activists and faculty at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where I now serve, have been present as the dispute has continued with additional pipelines in the works.

About her activity, graduating senior Stephani Pescitelli writes: “I am specifically motivated by repairing right relationship to place. Near the beautiful wetlands, lakes, and rivers of the Anishinaabe territory in northern Minnesota, I met kindred spirits … and was inspired to put my story, relationship to place, and lineage in a larger ecosystem story. I am grateful to be finding my role in the climate justice movement.”

Her vital witness, along with others, is essential for protecting water rights.

Medieval theologians enjoined people to read “the two books,” the Bible and the book of nature. Both are revelatory, these forebears argued.

While Holy Scripture narrates a relationship between God and Israel and, later, God and the church, nature is no less revealing of the mysterious ways of the divine. Historians credit Galileo as the first to use the language of “Book of Nature,” and it was his desire that it be comprehensible for those who sought its truth.

Could it be that the destruction of nature, the trampling of the “rights” of our environmental neighbors, is a diminishment of revelation? Are there beautiful and painful realities we cannot conceive apart from the luminous natural world?

Scripture points beyond itself to the revelatory function of all creation — even stones — that can both wound and praise. And water can be both a participant in salvation and an overwhelming threat, drawing us into the life of Christ through baptism or a means of divine judgment, as Noah’s generation attested.

Humans are called to care for creation as God’s own representatives, as Genesis teaches. How we tend to water, whether in cities like East Lansing, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi, or the outlying polluted Crow River in Minnesota, says much about how seriously we take our stewardship.

Our partnership with God can make watering the land a diligent and urgent pursuit.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Earth Day (April 22). The previous articles in the series are:

What Can We Do With a Global Population of Eight Billion? | Don Gordon

Urging Big Business to ‘Invest In Our Planet’ | Martin J. Hodson

We Cannot Live Without Earth’s Bounty | David Wheeler

Would Jesus Invest In Our Planet? | Helle Liht

Natural Disasters and Our Collective Sin | Kali Cawthon-Freels 

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