NEW ULM -The First Minnesota River Congress was held Thursday in Turner Hall. Its main goal was to discuss the fledgling citizen-led, basin-wide organization and how it should be managed.
This new organization comes as the result of the disbanding of the Minnesota River Board in April. The Minnesota River Board originally included 37 counties but eventually dwindled down to a few counties.
Event organizer Scott Sparlin said that while the Board lasted for 20 years, it ultimately lost momentum because the government officials on it focused on too many other issues.
The Minnesota River Congress will be a non-governmental, citizen-run organization. The hope is that people with close ties to the river will maintain a stronger focus. "We need something that we are going to do," said Scott Sparlin. "Not something that is top down from the government, but something from the grassroots up."
Conference participants broke into small discussion groups. The groups were split on whether a single entity could be structured to manage the entire Minnesota River Valley, which is covers about one-fourth of the state. Other groups believed it could be managed if properly structured. There was a consensus that the Minnesota River had shown significant improvement over the years.
The small group discussions were facilitated by Natalie Warren of Wild River Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging communities in watershed education and outdoor recreation.
In the summer the Academy organizes groups of young adults to canoe a major river in the U.S. The congress coincided with a the Wild River Academy's five-day expedition on the Minnesota River. The group camped in Riverside Park on Wednesday night despite the raging thunderstorm.
One of Warren's goals is to destigmatize the river, which many have associated with pollution. However, Warren and others at the conference acknowledged the river has significantly improved over the last decades. The improvement is largely due to citizen involvement.
The conference will kick start a series of five regional meetings in the next few months. The meetings are intended to enhance and refine ideas brought up during small group discussions. At this time no official schedule has been established, but the regional meetings will likely take place in the end of August and September. A second meeting will be held at Turner Hall in late October that will include all the regions.