It’s been Scott Sparlin’s dream for decades to join the diverse forces which loom along the Minnesota River. After Thursday, he again moved closer to a unified strategy.
The sixth organizational session, billed as the Minnesota River Congress, met in New Ulm, drawing some 75 advocates who have varied interests in improving and developing the 331-mile waterway. It’s been an underutilized economic development tool for tourism and fishing, but the Minnesota River Watershed is also one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation.
Those competing factions — environmentalists and agricultural interests — have at times clashed. And it surfaced again in a very public manner last legislative session, when Gov. Mark Dayton launched his farm buffer initiative. Ag interests felt targeted and are still trying to better understand the still evolving buffer guidelines.
But Sparlin, a New Ulm resident who has facilitated these six organizational sessions and many more committee meetings, remains optimistic.
“We made significant strides forward to pursue actions which will assist those already working on river system improvement on a number of levels,” Sparlin said following the March 10 session at the New Ulm Event Center. “We also have the beginnings of some great innovative actions and if they do become a reality could have a positive impact on our surface waters all over the watershed.”
Blending interests from 13 different watersheds is no simple task, Sparling admitted. But with Dayton’s interest in the state’s water quality, it’s expected to be a point of major discussion in the 2016 Minnesota Legislature. Sparlin also has an active legislative leader in his home district — Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska — who chairs the House Capital Investment committee and is a member of the Environment and Natural Resources committee.
But in a legislative year in which transportation, taxes and the bonding bill take priority, the massive needs of the Minnesota River may take a back seat to other political priorities. A Minnesota Senate bill — One Watershed, One Plan — was introduced last year, but fell by the wayside.
Still, there may be a funding stream dedicated to improving water quality which may become available for groups like Sparlin’s collaborative.
The organizational effort — structured as the Minnesota River Interest Network — includes 10 categories for potential participants. Those include:
Public policy; conservation and integration of land and water management goals; communications; natural resource restoration and adaptive management goals; outdoor recreation and environmental education goals; sustainable and compatible economic activity goals; stakeholder engagement (civic engagement); fiscal resources in watershed (grand writing and fiscal agent); actions which are inclusive and transparent; innovative programs and initiatives.
It’s been a long, comprehensive organizational effort which might have made even the most dedicated policy wonk cringe, Sparlin admits.
Eileen Brandt of the Joseph R. Brown River Center in Henderson agrees that the number of sessions and committee meetings could have worn down some participants. But the Brown Center, upstairs in the original Sibley County Courthouse building on Main Street Henderson, highlights the Minnesota River’s grand history and its importance to the region. And Brandt and the center’s leaders have supported Sparlin’s efforts.
For others, like Amy Lynch of rural Mapleton, the diverse contrasts between water quality and economic development are simply a reality to the region. Lynch, who brought 16-month-old son Stetson to the March 10 session, is both a drinking water engineer with the Department of Public Health and a farmer. And that seems to symbolize the Minnesota River Watershed’s diverse presence, needs and opportunities.