Feature Story

The Minnesota River: A Friendship Tour of the Commons

By Allie Breyer, Aaron Fitch and Heather Kachel

On the Minnesota River, downstream communities meet with upstream neighbors to discuss differences and commonalities in managing their shared waters.

All too often issues related to the environment and policy become divisive, with two polarized sides arguing on menial points and blaming one another rather than working with one another to meet common goals. As we look towards a future of mounting environmental concerns, we will have to put aside this negative rhetoric if we are to truly see a commons-based movement.

Fortunately, at present there are a variety of initiatives across the world actively working to bridge gaps and foster communication to better global communities.

The Minnesota River drains nearly 20% of Minnesota as it flows east from the South Dakota-Minnesota border to it’s confluence with the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul. Once surrounded by vast prairies and a network of wetlands, the Minnesota River Basin is now dominated by two major landscapes - vast arrays of agricultural fields and urban sprawl. Years of land use changes and an increase in pollution and runoff has taken its toll on the river and its 13 tributaries -the Minnesota River is often cited as one of the most polluted rivers in the state of Minnesota and across the country. A particular point of concern is the increasing sedimentation load in Lake Pepin, a wide slow-flowing portion of the Mississippi River. Located downstream from the Mississippi’s  confluence with the Minnesota, this sedimentation is largely blamed on residents and farmers in the Minnesota River Basin.

In response to growing issues of water quality, Patrick Moore of Clean Up Our River Environment (CURE), an environmental non-profit, and Warren Formo of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition bonded over a common desire to foster communication and a community over the subject of clean water. To address this need, an exchange was proposed, where “upstreamers” located in rural western Minnesota and “downstreamers” from Lake Pepin visited one another to see firsthand the issues facing the regions, respectively.

These exchanges, dubbed Friendship Tours, were joint efforts put together by members of Clean Up Our River Environment (CURE), the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition (MAWRC) the Minnesota River Board (MRB), the Minnesota River Watershed Alliance (MRWA), the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP) and the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA).

Looking to address issues relating to water quality in a way that didn’t further polarize organizations and individuals, these Friendship Tours were designed to foster communication in a relaxed atmosphere where conversations occurred over shared meals, on a scenic river boat, and in farm fields across the state. These opportunities to talk face-to-face with each other served as a way to disintegrate popular misconceptions that both parties held about the other and helped each group work together effectively to address their shared concerns.

In many cases, those upstream do not consider their consequences downstream while those downstream place the burden of blame on those upstream. By expanding boundaries through physical trips and social connections, the Friendship Tours broke down the mentality of upstream and downstream; and over the course of 4 days, nearly 50 people came together to address concerns and comments about their collective water commons. The framework of the Friendship Tours along the Minnesota River may be just what the Commons need to thrive throughout the world.

For more information on the Friendship Tours and ways you can get involved, check out the CURE website at www.curemnriver.org

For a slideshow: http://www.photosnack.com/slideshows/d8015e99d2696070c838adc28a332726

Outside Author
Outside Author: 
Allie Breyer, Aaron Fitch and Heather Kachel