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Ikes in Action: Upper Mississippi River Initiative: A Bottom-up Approach to Healthier Waterways

Michael Furtman, Minnesota Division
Outdoor America 2020 Issue 1
Upper Mississippi River Initiative

Minnesota >> On a flight home to Minnesota, past IWLA national president Dave Zentner gazed out the window as he passed over the Upper Mississippi River. As beautiful as the scene was, he knew that there were still many problems facing the big river. Decades of conservation efforts had slowed its decline – yet the river still suffered insults daily.

“We have more than enough science to be much further along in cleaning up the river,” says Zentner. “Sure, we’ve set aside some beautiful museum pieces, but we’ve still ended up with depleted soils and polluted water.”

Decades of regulations, hearings, and battles had not stopped the river’s degradation. Billions of dollars hadn’t done it either. “We failed at the human dynamic,” Zentner explains. “We failed to get people involved at the community level.”

He concluded that it was time for a different approach.

A Failure to Communicate

There’s a famous line in the old movie, “Cool Hand Luke.” After whipping Paul Newman’s character, the prison captain says, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

And that, Zentner believes, is also a big problem within the conservation movement.

Without like-minded advocacy organizations – including League chapters – communicating with each other to craft solutions to shared conservation problems, real action has been hard to come by. It has also led to the failure to bring coherent messages to the communities these solutions will impact, including farmers and people who own the land being farmed.

“If we’re going to reduce runoff of non-point-source pollution into the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries, we need coordination among conservation organizations, government agencies, and landowners,” says Zentner. “We need to do a better job of working together locally to implement solutions that protect the environment and strengthen our ties as neighbors.”

That’s the goal of the Upper Mississippi River Initiative (UMRI), a community-based effort working through 77 League chapters in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – as well as partner organizations and government agencies – to create custom solutions to local problems. UMRI staff are presently located throughout Iowa and Minnesota.

One Chapter, One Task

People doing stream monitoringDeb and Jeff Cadwell, Save Our Streams monitors, waded into chilly November waters of Cedar Creek to collect macroinvertebrates. The data have since been uploaded onto IWLA's Clean Water Hub. Stream team enthusiasts reviewed the data in February in preparation for spring monitoring.The success of the UMRI depends on citizen scientists and activists. One great example is the League’s Austin Chapter in Minnesota. In 2018, chapter members went before the Mower County Board of Commissioners to request steps to improve water quality in the creeks and rivers across the Cedar River watershed. They met with some resistance, but chapter members were prepared. They presented the results of 500 water samples taken at 50 sites across the county. The results showed that 70% of the water samples contained levels of E. coli that exceed state health standards. What’s more, a DNA analysis of those samples revealed that the sources of E. coli contamination were humans, swine, and cattle.

At first, county officials did little more than make excuses. When the Ikes pointed out that compliance with existing laws would largely fix the contamination problem, the county board cited expense in monitoring and enforcing the laws and said that  it would take time to gain compliance. When Austin Chapter members asked for a specific timeline, the board proposed a 20-year solution. That was unacceptable. Instead, chapter members pushed for a five-year fix – a goal that would require everyone to work together.

Under the umbrella of the UMRI, the chapter now has a positive relationship with the county board and formed an ad hoc committee with the county public works department. Other steps the UMRI has taken include hiring an intern to upgrade septic compliance records, having the county tie septic records to property tax records, seeking sources of funding to help rural homeowners pay for septic upgrades, and partnering with the local soil and water conservation district to increase public awareness of the E. coli contamination problem.

“The goal is fishable and swimmable water,” says Austin Chapter leader Larry Dolphin. “Mower County could be the clean water model for the rest of Minnesota. We have to say, ‘yes we can,’ and we have to believe it. Let this be the beginning of clean water.”

Working Together for Conservation

The Upper Mississippi River Initiative is about local solutions to local problems, working collaboratively with all involved. This is different from past efforts in which polluters were viewed as adversaries and conservation groups perceived themselves as warriors running polluters into the ground. The Austin Chapter’s efforts occupy one cog in a many-toothed wheel of projects now underway under the auspices of the UMRI.

UMRI leaders hope that the League’s neighbor-to-neighbor approach will help rural communities find solutions to pollution problems throughout the Upper Mississippi River watershed. Although it may look like a daunting undertaking, failed septic systems and poorly managed fields and feedlots happen one at a time. Using a local approach, UMRI leaders believe they can fix these pollution sources one at a time.

“When people see a problem, they frequently say ‘someone should do something’,” says Zentner. “Well, that someone needs to be all of us.”

For more information on the UMRI and ways you can get involved, visit UMRI.org.

Learn more about our work on the Upper Mississippi

Main image: Owatonna Ikes chapter President Tim Mittelstadt (standing) presided over a farmer/landowner-focused program in late January. Co-sponsors with the UMRI included the League of Women Votes/Upper Mississippi River Region, University of Minnesota Extension, Cannon River Watershed Partnership, and Land Stewardship Project.