Citizens getting caught up in Minnesota River cleanup

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GRANITE FALLS - A big net is being cast for ideas on how to help the Minnesota River basin, and it is pulling in a surprisingly diverse catch.

Calls for completing a trail the length of the Minnesota River Valley, increasing the organic content of the soils in the basin, and working to reduce the flashy hydrology of the system are just a sampling of the proposals citizens are bringing to the Minnesota River Congress.

The citizens' group has wrapped up a series of six meetings it has hosted in recent months in communities scattered throughout the basin. The proposals will be shaped into resolutions to be either supported or rejected at a Minnesota River Congress to be held November 17 in Mankato.

"We want to effect change on a large scale,'' Scott Sparlin, executive director of the New Ulm-based Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, told the Tribune. Sparlin and Ted Suss, executive director of the Friends of the Minnesota River Valley, are hosting the sessions for the Minnesota River Congress.

The Congress was launched about two years ago, shortly after the Minnesota River Board had disbanded. The River Board had been created by legislative action, and its directors were appointed by the county boards of commissioners of the member counties.

When it disbanded, a vacuum was created, said Sparlin. "There is no government entity out there that wants to deal with the Minnesota River, let's be frank.'' said Sparlin.

"The grassroots got together and said geeze, we've got to have some type of entity that is looking out for the entire basin and seeing this from one thousand feet up and trying to get basin- wide things done,'' he explained.

The Minnesota River Congress now includes a board of directors with representatives from throughout the entire basin.

Two dozen people attended the Minnesota River Congress session held on Tuesday evening in Granite Falls. It was the fifth of six meetings, with the final held Thursday in Morton.

Agriculture and land use practices, and steps to promote perennial cover, were the focus of most of the discussion in Granite Falls. There was also a call to develop a whitewater park at the Granite Falls dam and pursue other recreational opportunities in the valley.

Suss said that the topics raised at the meetings have varied across the basin. Meetings in the metropolitan area have focused on environmental issues. Upstream in Mankato, recreational uses of the river were the main focus.

No matter the site, there were plenty of calls for balancing the economic, environmental and recreational goals of the residents in the valley. "I think we have to have a proactive approach to make Minnesota a place that we can live in and not just simply farm,'' said Del Wehrspann of rural Montevideo, one of the attendees in Granite Falls.

Along with serving as a public policy advocate, the Minnesota River Congress will be promoting a wide variety of activities within the basin. Sparlin and Suss said the Congress has created nine different interest teams, each with 20 to 35 members at this point. Each team is focused on a topic, such as civic engagement, resource conservation, and education, and will work on a grassroots level.

Sparlin said the Congress is founded on the idea of being inclusive and has reached out to encourage participation from all residents in the basin. In particular, it is encouraging those representing agriculture and business to be part of the effort.

He said the Congress also serves to get "new" people involved on behalf of the Minnesota River. "Not everybody wants to throw themselves into an existing situation or organization,'' he said. "This way they can get their feet wet.''

"This is a real exercise in democracy,'' said Sparlin of the citizens-based approach. "That's what we're trying to do. Exercise democracy.''

Those who would like to propose policy ideas for the Congress to consider at the November 17 get-together or join one of the interest teams can do so by sending emails to Scott Sparlin at sesparlin@gmail.com; or Ted Suss at tedsuss@gmail.com.