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River Congress pushes for water storage

Minn. projects reduce runoff, erosion

Staff photo by Fritz Busch A man walks towards the Minnesota River that floods part of Riverside Park in New Ulm Thursday. The river was observed at 796.7 feet Friday, according to the National Weather Service. Minor flooding level is 800 feet.

MANKATO — As the Minnesota River floods the Minnecon Park boat/fishing access and erodes Riverside Park, river conservation officials, river advocates and concerned citizens met at the Kato Ballroom Thursday to discuss current and future conservation efforts.

The River Congress, a citizen-led group focusing on the natural resource and economic health of the Minnesota River Basin, continues to pick up steam in the Minnesota Legislature.

Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) Chief Engineer Rita Weaver said last session, the state Legislature appropriated $19 million to BWSR for water storage projects.

Since 2021, 13 state projects include four weather restoration/added water storage projects, three for grade stabilization, three for road retention, two storage basins and one terrace project.

“A federal funding application is due in July. We hope to get more federal funding to match (state funding) to extend our efforts. New projects must improve water quality and reduce peak water flow,” Weaver said.

She urged people to talk to their federal politicians about getting more funding for future drainage projects that address climate change.

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy Water Program Director Carly Griffith talked about the need to incorporate water quality measures in the design of new ditch systems.

“With many old ditches being replaced, we have a critical opportunity now to protect state waters. We won’t meet water quality goals until we design new ditches with water quality measures,” said Griffith.

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources Executive Director John Jaschke said wetland restoration projects can be improved with more state and federal funding.

“We need to find the places for these projects and persuade people to do them on their land. Drain tile adds profitability to land, but Minnesota has a public drainage authority that manages the projects. We’ve got more water storage mechanisms now than we’ve ever had,” said Jaschke.

Dist. 18 Sen. Nick Frentz, D-Mankato, talked about the value of partnerships in getting things done.

“This is an opportunity to put together partnerships and coalitions with landowners, the DNR and BWSR to pass on clean water to the next generation. Together, there isn’t anything we can’t do. Bring truth to the table. We’ll get a lot more done pulling in the same direction,” Frentz said.

Dist. 18A Rep. Jeff Brand, D-St. Peter, said the Minnesota River was the super highway of Native Americans generations ago.

“We are here to protect the river. We all have a stake in it for many reasons. We need more places to withhold water. We need federal partners,” Brand said.

Minnesota River Collaborative volunteer Ted Suss said the Minnesota River was measured at moving eight times as fast in 2015 than it did in 1940, according to the Minnesota State University Mankato Water Resources Center (WRC).

“Our goal is not to stop agricultural drainage. It is to mitigate (reduce) the harmful effects of it. The downstream impact of drainage can be addressed if we talk to the drainage authority (a local government entity overseeing drainage systems and water management) soon enough,” Suss said.

The River Congress is considering establishing a Minnesota River Commission to ensure government accountability and citizen participation in meeting river cleanup goals, advocating for and educating people about the river and cleaning it up.

At least half of commission members should represent the interests of river basin farmers, business people, educators, and conservationists, according to the River Congress. Other members would be elected officials or agency staff including the MPCA, BWSR, MDA and DNR that already work on the river cleanup. Members should also include representatives of the Shakopee Mdewakanton, Lower and Upper Sioux, and Prairie Island Dakota communities.

Commission costs are estimated at $100,000 a year including staff, administrative support and per diem expenses of commissioners.

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