Letter to the Editor


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dear Editor,

Sustainability -- the word means different things to different people. For any discussion about sustainability to be meaningful there needs to be an agreement on what the definition is.

There are three elements to the definition. What is the resource, what is the area measured, and what is the time period measured.

Resources that we want to be sustainable might be water, oil, natural gas, energy, timber, nitrogen, potassium, food, etc.

A shortage of any one of these resources would have a significant impact on each of the others.

The size of the area we discuss has a large effect on whether the resource we are talking about is sustainable. The smaller the area we consider the more difficult it is for that area to be sustainable.

For example, if we required a city to have a sustainable food supply then we would be requiring all of the food to be produced within the city limits.

While that might be possible it would severely limit the food choices we would have. Few of the foods that are common to our diet can be raised within the city limits.

And even if they could be, few of the resources necessary to produce the desired food items are available from within the city limits. Let's expand the area to a state. While Nebraska can easily produce all of the proteins we want we are not very sustainable in the fruits we can produce.

We import most of the fruit we consume. So even if we define the area that we measure for sustainability to be as large as a state we may find that we still fail to meet the goal.

It is easier for us to be sustainable if we also have a larger period of time. For example, if we want to measure the sustainability of water then we do measure this over a 1 month, 1 year, or 10 year or some other period of time? It is common for people to use far more water during the summer months than what our supply is.

If we were to measure sustainability in the month of August only we would fail. If we measure sustainability over a period of a year we may still fail to meet our goal of sustainability during a drought.

So what is the definition of sustainability? Do we permit an area to import a resource it is short on in order to be "sustainable"? Most states move resources to wherever they are most efficiently used. Most every state west of the Missouri moves large amounts of water to cities and to farm land to create "sustainable" cities and food supplies. Every state in the nation moves large amounts of timber, fertilizer, energy, and other resources to where they are needed most. Does the ability to import a resource change the definition of sustainability?

What makes water different? Nebraska's a very water- rich state. Nebraska has huge surpluses of water. There is more water in the Nebraska aquifers now than there was a hundred years ago. In many areas of the state the aquifers are completely full.

Sen. Carlson has introduced legislation that would set up a task force that would be given one year to produce a report about how to achieve sustainability. Since the bill does not define what sustainability is it will be left up to the task force to define the word.

How this group of about people 29 people, largely chosen by one person, from one part of the state, defines sustainability will have a large impact on policy decisions everywhere in the state. Once an official definition of sustainability exists we will probably see public policy throughout the state based on that definition.

The last statewide water policy task force was prohibited from talking about water issues in the Republican River Basin by the attorney general's office. The new Republican River Basin only task force will be charged specifically with talking about the things the AG's office has opposed being talked out in public.

Steve Smith,



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