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Clear future emerging for Minnesota River

A River Congress held June 19 in New Ulm brought more than 100 people from a variety of interests together to work to build a unified voice for the Minnesota River basin. Forum News Service

WILLMAR — After 25 years of progress, the future for basinwide work to clean up the Minnesota River was beginning to look as muddied as the waters of the river itself.

The Minnesota River Board disbanded at the start of 2014, after an 18-year run of representing the 37 counties in the watershed.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior sunk its Blueways program. Citizen and government agencies from around the watershed had rallied in hopes of winning the designation and support it promised, only to have the banner they carried yanked from their grasp.

The future is starting to look a little clearer now: Ever since a June 19 “River Congress’’ was hosted in New Ulm, momentum has been building to develop a citizens-based entity to serve as both forum and voice for the Minnesota River basin.

Corn and soybean growers, anglers, river paddlers, watershed and government agency representatives and people interested in promoting the recreational and economic opportunities in the basin are working to create a markedly different entity to speak for the watershed.

“This is the first crack at a basinwide, democratic attempt to be this more unified, all-inclusive place where people can feel their voice is going to be heard,’’ said Scott Sparlin of New Ulm, who originally urged that a River Congress be held.

The Minnesota River Alliance, a grassroots citizens group, is serving as the catalyst. It met last week in New Ulm to begin planning the next steps toward creating a basinwide entity.

More than 100 people from a wide range of interests had joined at the June 19 Congress. The next step is to make sure more people have a voice and role in what develops. A series of regional listening sessions are to be held in September in communities along the 335-mile-long river.

Tedd Suss of Wabasso, who is among those working on the effort, said two goals are foremost: “Number one, we want to work together, and number two, (we want) to try and find that one voice.’’

The Minnesota River watershed comprises about two-fifths of the state’s land mass. Its agricultural economy and the industries in its communities make the basin a major, regional force in the state.

If the basin can speak with one voice, there is no question that political leaders will listen, Sparlin said.

He was among those concerned about what the future would bring absent a basinwide voice. He raised the idea of holding a Congress without any idea of how it would go.

“What is the alternative?” he asked rhetorically. He didn’t want to see all of the hard work and progress come to a sudden stop.

Nor do others, as has been obvious by attendance at Minnesota River Alliance meetings in Hutchinson.

Sparlin believes nothing is more important than the fact that those meetings have brought together people who might formerly have been considered adversaries.

“The more we continue to meet, the more we continue to familiarize each other and value each other’s views (and) contributions to our lifestyles,’’ he said.

A second River Congress will be held Oct. 30 in New Ulm to consider the input gathered during the listening session. It’s expected that work will continue into next spring to develop the citizen-led partnership being envisioned.

Suss and Sparlin said they are optimistic, and for good reason. Things have come a long way in the last 25 years, and people recognize it.

“Mention the Minnesota River today, and people will give you an opinion,’’ Sparlin said. “Twenty-five years ago they would have shrugged their shoulders in apathy.’’

Regional meetings are planned for 7 p.m. in several communities on the following dates:

  • Sept. 10, Montevideo, Community Center in Southtown Plaza.
  • Sept. 11, Rural Advantage, Fairmont.
  • Sept. 15, J.R. Brown Center, Henderson.
  • Sept. 16, Friends of the Minnesota Valley, National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington.
  • Sept. 17, Lower Sioux Community, Jackpot Junction.
Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335