The Simplicity of Our Complex Ecosystem

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

(photo by Sarah Whiting)

Kate Brauman’s enthusiastic description of the work she has devoted her career to is deceptively simple: “Much of my life is focused on this: If you put stuff in the water, you end up with stuff in the water.” 

After graduating from Columbia University with a self-designed interdisciplinary degree in science and religion, Brauman started work at a call center at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). She realized she gravitated toward issues involving how we value the elements we take for granted — air, water, and energy. 

A woman who had recently bought a farm, for example, called the NRDC and was upset because she found animal carcasses illegally layered into the water and soil. How could she clean it up, and who was responsible? Brauman was intrigued by the many pieces involved. “It’s not a problem that could be solved with a simple checklist,” she says. 

Brauman recognized that she preferred to study how things work, and what questions need to be asked to get to actionable, relevant science. From that revelation, it was a matter of deciding how to specialize. 

“I like streams much more than power plants,” she determined. “All are important as we face climate changes but working with water would make me much happier as a person. And, unlike medicine, no blood!” 

After getting her Ph.D. from Stanford in 2010, which included dissertation research in Hawaii, she was invited to join the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, where she now leads the Global Water Initiative. 

One of her passions is “Crop Per Drop” — how do we make most effective use of the water we have, especially in agriculture. “We cannot make more water, but we can share it in a bigger way by using it more effectively.” 

In one study by Brauman, research determined that in certain parts of the world, 40 percent of irrigation water consumption goes to production of 20 percent of food calories. In old soils, for example, without access to mineralized fertilizers, plants do not get enough nutrients to grow prolifically and simply waste irrigated water supply. 

Brauman points out that our aging infrastructure of municipal wells and sewage requires significant re-investment. In addition, “The health of our soil is paramount to keeping our drinking water as clean as possible in the first place.” 

She says we “use up” more water in the space around our homes than in them, since the water we use goes back to the Mississippi through our sewers. Sprinklers are wasteful. Fertilized yards fill storm drains with chemicals that are not necessary. Water softeners also put a tremendous amount of chloride into Minnesota waters, which kills flora and fauna. “We could dial back on its usage.”

Brauman also wants Minnesotans to create stronger markets and connections that enable people to farm in different ways. “Agriculture requires a lot of knowledge, and connections that are complicated to develop,” she says. A hemp farmer has legal restrictions that limit access to supply chains. Hmong farmers have a hard time connecting to grocery stores or community-sponsored agriculture. “We need to help the bottom line in rural development so people can stay engaged on the land.” 

Collaborative Women 

Many of Brauman’s interdisciplinary teams consist of primarily women, both at the University of Minnesota and globally, including specialists in agriculture, physics, ecology, energy, decision sciences, and economics. 

“I get to talk to everyone and see how different disciplines think about the world,” Brauman says. “What do policy makers need to know to make choices? What model can we build to get that information? It is about having an ongoing dialogue with many perspectives.” 

Brauman enjoys working with women, she says. “The women work hard to make sure they understand what others are saying, and that they are communicating in a way that is clear. This is an integral skill in interdisciplinary research, which requires communication across barriers of jargon and ways of understanding the world that are deeply rooted in the disciplines we were trained in. 

“It’s about getting to a place where we know enough about how the building blocks weave together,” Brauman says. “Otherwise we simply have blocks with no mortar.” 


Minnesota’s Impaired Waters 

Water quality in the state is impaired by sediment, bacteria, and toxic contaminants. Recent studies of Minnesota’s waters show that a wide variety of unregulated chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, fragrances, fire retardants, and insecticides, are ending up in lakes and rivers. Many of these substances have properties that can interfere with the functioning of hormones in animals and people. 

In a 2008 Freshwater Society report, the number of impaired lakes was 1,028, although over 80 percent of lakes, rivers, and streams had not yet been assessed. A draft of the 2020 report indicates that there are 5,774 impaired lakes in Minnesota. 

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “in general, Minnesota streams in the northeast part of the state are in better condition than elsewhere. Stream conditions — including the condition of fish and other organisms, and levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants — worsen as you move west and south in the state. Good progress has been made — mostly through improved wastewater treatment by cities and businesses — in reducing the levels of several pollutants in Minnesota waterways, including phosphorus, ammonia, and bacteria. Nitrogen is the key, high-volume pollutant in state rivers and streams and has been increasing over time. Chloride concentrations are also rising.” 

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