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To Minnesota: A Warning from Kazakhstan

December 31, 2013 By Rebecca Jeong, Macalester College

In today's installment of environmental op-eds from Macalester College students, we examine what Minnesota can learn from one of last century's worst natural resource disasters. We hope you're enjoying this collaboration with the college's Environmental Studies Department.

I have lived in an area that experienced one of the globe’s worst environmental catastrophes of the 20th century. After a decade living by the Aral Sea, I realize certain resources never come back, like abundant and life-sustaining water supplies.

As a child, I flipped through a book my father bought celebrating Kazakhstan’s successful economy and natural abundance, thanks to the sea, which was once among the world’s four largest lakes. Photographs showed women skillfully picking plump cotton flower buds, local cannery workers frantically loading fish cans into trains leaving for Moscow as well as snapshots of fishermen on the giant vessels hauling fish from the salt lake.



Out my window, however, all that remained were rusted ships sinking in the shimmery sands under the scorching desert sun.

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government diverted natural channels of two rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to feed the thirsty cotton fields that symbolized regional income and livelihood. The changed waterways, quickly depleted adequate water inflow. Prolonged irrigation practices along with reckless chemical use spelled out one of the greatest environmental tragedies in less than two decades.

Today, the Aral Sea has shriveled up to one tenth of its size, leaving waters poisoned with fertilizers and pesticides that are too contaminated for fish and too saline for crops. Villages dependent on cotton and fish died away as the economy crumbled.

People began to realize that they had made an irreversible mistake only when the tragedy unfolded. The high winds carried away salt from the dried Aral Sea crusting the land with fine salt crystals that killed off most of the vegetation in the region. Without the roots to hold the soil in place, dust storms scattered high concentrations of pesticides in the air.

As a result, respiratory diseases became a common illness in their communities. In 2006, respiratory diseases accounted for the half of the child mortality rates, which is the highest in the region and for 1.5 million cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which is the highest in the world.

Only the poor without the means to relocate continue to live, fight, and struggle against the raging dust and salt storms.

The Aral Sea is not coming back; it is forever lost. Individuals who have witnessed its destructions will tell you without a moment’s hesitation to value your waters whether you have one or 11,842 lakes.

Minnesota is facing a similar challenge with the shrinking size of the Lake Pepin, which has been the largest lake on the Mississippi River ever since the first settlement in the 1830s. The Lake Pepin currently nurtures about 89 species and serves as a recreational ground for Minnesota residents and visitors. However, like the Aral Sea, the Lake Pepin is incrementally disappearing, due in part to man-made actions.  Between 1996 and 2008, about 851,400 tons of sediment have been deposited in the lake annually, “enough sediment to cover a city block to the height of the Foshay Tower,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). If this continues, in about 340 years Lake Pepin will vanish.

MPCA reports that the Minnesota River contributes three fourths of Lake Pepin’s sediments. There are a number of sources feeding these sediments including erosion from bluffs, ravines and uplands. A significant portion of sediment, roughly 30 percent, comes from farm fields, which are also the central cause of nitrogen pollution in Minnesota waters.

The latest state water assessment found that an alarming rate of 41 percent of lakes and streams in southern Minnesota contain high levels of nitrogen that are potentially toxic to aquatic life, with nearly one-third of that area’s lakes and rivers unusable for drinking water.

While there is a movement in farming to more environmentally sustainable practices it’s not gaining enough momentum to have a significant impact yet. It might just need more of a carrot approach from regulators to encourage both producers and consumers to change.

We must also encourage city and county planners to be more proactive in reducing overall water pollution. There are a number of studies and action plans in place, but we all have to get involved to make change.

Currently the MPCA is in the process of accepting public input on its Triennial Standard Review (TSR). Make your voice heard on issues related to water quality before the agency finalizes and adopts new water standards.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Les Bensch says:

    January 2, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    At a very early age you already understand the disastrous consequences of destroying our precious water and land resources. I live in Ottertail co in western Minn and have been involved for many years in conservation practices,from helping to pass the constitutional legacy amendment and serving on the Legacy Council to make recommendations to
    the legislature on proper spending of the funds on conservation projects. I am presently working on establishing an environmental learning center and research center to address the many environmental problems. I’m working with the UMM, NDSU, and UMD to form a working coalition of colleges in addressing environmental issues and related research. If you are interested in getting involved give me a return reply. I’d love to have Macalester College Involved.

  • Steven Miller says:

    January 2, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    A nicely written article.  We take our 10,000 lakes for granted.  We know how these lakes should be cared for and preserved, yet their water quality continues to be threatened.  Thanks for alerting us to the threat to Lake Pepin.

  • Joan Tangen says:

    January 9, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Last year I was able to watch our state legislatores at work.  One of the areas which concerned me most was the lack of concern for the sustainable mannagement of our natural resources by too many legislators.  The land of 10,000 lakes seemed to have to have lulled many into thinking water was a limitless commodity in our state.  So the removal of sand from the southern part of the state was ok because there was plenty and so what if it endangered underground water supplies.  I am concerned about the purposed mining operations in the boundry waters area for the short term benefit of a few jobs with the 500 years contamination of the water in that area. As for farmers and the continued use of too many chemicals which drain-off into lakes and streams, I suggest a reading assignment of one or two of the history books written about the dustbowl.