Listening session participants ponder citizen-led oversight of Minnesota River Basin

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Meeting at the Montevideo Community Center on Wednesday, Sept. 10 from 7-9 p.m., a listening session hosted by the non-profit organization CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) was offered to all residents. The session is the first of five to be held throughout the Minnesota River Basin, hosted by various cities and organizations who carry this out for the Minnesota River Congress.
The sessions are on how to approach monitoring and managing the Minnesota River Basin, specifically asking if the creation of a citizen-led “entity,” as the discussion leaders insisted on calling it, is an effective if not necessary measure.
The entity would be citizen-led, according to discussion leaders at the meeting, to keep river basin protection accountability on the citizens. If the citizens have a succinct, logical approach, the idea goes, then the state legislature should follow.
Just over 40 people were in attendance, according to CURE representative and Watershed Sustainability Coordinator Ariel Herrod, that were split into groups. Herrod welcomed participants to start the discourse led by representatives from the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River and Friends of the Minnesota River Valley, Scott Sparlin and Ted Suss, respectively.
Sparlin and Suss then began asking those assembled to answer a series of questions to be first considered individually and written on provided note cards. The individuals then shared with their groups who were to collectively report to the others and Sparlin and Suss their thoughts.  
Aspects of water conservation, big and small agriculture, engaged residents concerned with water quality and many other elements of the conversation of how to handle water run-off into the Minnesota and Chippewa rivers were represented. Many voices were heard, and it must be acknowledged that the session devolved into a somewhat contentious affair. Sparlin started the meeting as moderator and ended it as a man with an agenda, swatting away concerns from citizens he felt were addressed or unwarranted, but the attempt to have a safe space in which all ideas about how to achieve and sustain a healthy ecosystem in the river basin (which remedy the detrimental consequences that make its way down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico) was clearly achieved. “Even the most outspoken negative had some really strong positive suggestions,” said Suss, “I think there was a lot of frustration expressed because there have been so many efforts for so many years that haven't accomplished the ideal. Will this accomplish the ideal? I have no idea, but I’m in the camp that if we don't try and do something, I think we guarantee defeat.” Herrod also spoke to the surprisingly difficult but fundamentally necessary accomplishment of assembly, echoing Suss’s commitment to collective. “We believe that collaboration is critical to making change and are happy to work with others,” wrote Herod to the American-News.
The first question asked was if another organization developed to help protect the river basin is necessary, which yielded a varied response. Some felt adding another organization would start everything from the beginning again and that concentrating on the groups that already exist is a better use of energy. A theme throughout the evening was the intolerance of meeting, discussing but not taking action.
Some felt that another entity might be helpful but with disparate stipulations. For example, some thought another organization might be helpful, but that attempting to concern itself with the entire river basin is impractical. Others felt that it would be a good idea if it was constructed like a river basin United Nations - it would oversee the groups already in existence to ensure no blind spots in management or overlapping endeavors that might be more efficiently deployed in other ways. Those ways would be discussed, even amongst those that disagree, as a unified coalition of the willing.
What was successful and admirably civil was the time taken to air out any concern and perspective. Though this is a topic that has been on the collective conscious of Monte and the Minnesota River basin for some time, it was clear at the end that residents left with a better idea of how their neighbors felt about it. But, according to Monte resident Amy Bacigalupo, the participants still needed more time to flesh things out. “My feeling of the meeting is generally positive,” said Bacigalupo, “I wish there were more open ended questions asked of the group.” Resident Paul Wymar concurs, “I still have a lot of questions as well walking out of here. There have been a number of similar efforts in the past. They have struggled. How is this next version going to go forward and be successful? A lot of it is about structure and politics. What new ideas are coming forward to overcome them?”
Bacigalupo and Wymar seemed open to hearing out what a hypothetical, citizen-led entity would actually look like or might accomplish. Cheryl Landgren, CURE board member, did not. “Thought it was a good exchange of ideas, got a chance to voice my opinion,” said Landgren, “Collaboration is always good, but I was a no on the new entity because there are already so many different organizations. It’s so hard to start anything new. Collaboration, yes, but the entity part held me back.”
Some, like resident Mike Anderson, wasn't all that concerned with new entities or old organizations, but that anybody does anything to fight against those that act in disregard to water quality and over-run rivers. “Thought at times people gave good ideas,” said Anderson, “but it seems like all the meetings you go to people don't tend to speak out and get involved as much. They kind of sit on their hands and see whatever comes from it. A lot of meetings nothing comes from it. There’s entities for everything now ... why not use one of these entities if we want to have a driving force and a centralized force. A voice like that isn’t a bad thing, I just don't think we need a new entity.” Anderson continues, “a lot of entities right now are so worried about making people upset, trying to stay too politically correct, like a lot of things now. We have to be willing to take a stand and fight for something. We can't keep stepping around big agriculture ... big agriculture business is the monster we have to confront.”
Anderson was not the only person pointing to ‘big agriculture’ as the culprit behind the current state of affairs. The amorphous ‘big ag’ was brought up in many different lights, including tax and subsidy incentives for farmers to farm certain crops in certain ways. The imagery was that of the good guy, bad guy binary a lot of larger, complex issues like this tend to get boiled down too. Whether or not there is a specific or singular malevolent person, organization or idea propagated to protect profits has yet to be definitely and explicitly determined or announced by any group.
Some, like Anderson, find this passivity to  be the root of the problem. That those in favor of protecting the river basin should be on the offensive. According to Suss, an aggressive approach will not only ultimately result in an embittered fight which will yield nothing of use but will undo the majority of the work already done. “You have to be willing to stand up and fight, but if we are going to solve these problems we’re probably going to get a lot further if we have everybody at the table including people who are on the other end of the spectrum and see if we can't find some things we all agree to work towards. I believe if we follow the metaphor of going to war, we lose. A large percentage of the population doesn't care and if they see a war they're going to probably back away. There are an awful lot of resources at stake and a lot of money available to protect certain peoples ability to use or access those resources. I would rather have a conversation with those people rather than fight with those people. That is not a position that would be well received in the room tonight. Of those that expressed a desire for an all out fight, philosophically I’m sympathetic. From a practical perspective, I don't think we win the fight.”
Though any efforts were clearly defined as citizen-led, the intent is to ultimately garner the attention of the state legislature. Already aware was Monte’s District 17A Minnesota State Representative Andrew Falk (DFL) who made the trip from Swift County and was happy to see the turnout. He’s also the Vice-Chair of the Environment, Nature Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee and is looking to find a way for citizen time and state investments to yield results.  “We’ve spent (in the last 20 years) a billion dollars and haven't gotten the results we expect as tax payers form the investment we have made in clean water,” said Rep. Falk, “we have the shared vision of clean water. The old idea that we’re going to sprinkle money on the landscape and see what happens, that hasn't worked. How do we target, measure and assess deliverable outcomes - unless you can measure something you can't really control it - we need to fund outcomes not process. Let’s determine some outcomes, figure out what steps we need to get there and asses if we’ve actually met those outcomes versus just funding people kind of doing the same thing over and over and not getting the result we need as quickly as it should be reached.”
Awareness on the state of the river basin is spreading and, as it appears that the momentum of some action or another is to come to fruition sooner than later, the time to speak up is now.