GRANITE FALLS -- More than two decades of work to clean up the Minnesota River has brought together a diverse partnership of stakeholders in the state's namesake watershed, and produced something once unimaginable.
The river once derided as an open sewer is a candidate for designation as one of the country's first Blueway Rivers, intended to be a "badge of honor, a mark of prestige."
The designation is a way of saying: "We've got something really good here you might want to come and see," said Rebecca Wodder, senior adviser to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. Wodder has spent the past two days touring the Minnesota River and meeting with a variety of citizen, business and local government groups, as well as state and federal agencies. All are working to promote the Minnesota River's designation as a Blueway River.
The Department of Interior launched the program last May, and has designated one river as a Blueway to date. It is the Connecticut River in New England. It has a story much like that of the Minnesota, Wodder said Thursday during visits in Granite Falls and Morton.
The department is looking to designate up to five rivers a year as Blueway Rivers. The designation won't bring any new rules or regulations, Wodder said.
It will bring a partnership of federal agencies to offer their technical support -- and possibly financial help -- for a five-year period to promote the recreational, cultural and sustainable economic assets of the entire watershed. It will allow the stakeholder groups to better leverage existing federal resources to continue their work, according to Wodder.
She emphasized that the system is meant as a watershed-wide approach.
To win the designation, the coalition of partners in the Minnesota River must demonstrate that the river offers high-quality natural and cultural resources. To make their point, the local hosts led Wodder to sites ranging from the Minnesota History Center in Morton to the Whispering Ridge Aquatic Management Area along the Renville-Redwood county line.
Wodder said the department is also looking for watersheds where there are "committed and diverse stakeholder partnerships."
That is exactly the case in the Minnesota River watershed, according to Loran Kaardal, one of the founders of the Tatanka Bluffs and Green Corridor Initiatives which has brought many of the stakeholders in the watershed together. Speaking in Morton, Kaardal told Wodder that the initial challenge was to get beyond the "Friday night" rivalries that had so long shaped the relationships of communities in the region.
Today, there is support for working together to promote the economic benefits that come with recreational opportunities. There are today many different groups working together, and they bring lots of passion to it, he said.
"We put the borders of the puzzle together with the river running through it," said Kaardal. "And we let all the people with passion work on their own puzzle pieces in it."
The partners -- ranging from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to Clean Up the River Environment and the Minnesota River Watershed Alliance -- are putting together an application for the Blueway designation to be submitted later this year. If accepted, it would be the first step in a two-step process to win the designation. Wodder said a variety of rivers are candidates, including the Yellowstone in Montana, and did not comment on the prospects of success for the Minnesota River.
Her hosts saw her visit here as an encouraging sign.