River ‘friendship’ collaboration wins $25K

Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River below Red Wing is filling faster than normal these days, and few dispute that the sediment and the pollution is coming predominantly from farms upstream in the Minnesota River Valley.

Ask what to do about it and the finger-pointing begins.

But the non-profit group Clean Up the River Environment in Montevideo in western Minnesota is going to win $25,000 tonight from the Bush Foundation for suggesting another way. It hasn’t solved the problem, but it got some people talking who otherwise might do their communicating through lawyers and public relations reps and arguments before regulatory bodies.

Last August and September, the group’s leader, Patrick Moore, convinced some farmers along the Minnesota to pay a visit to Lake Pepin to see for themselves what the problem looks like. And then downstream environmentalists returned the favor by visiting farms in western Minnesota to see first hand the forces and incentives and complexities involved for the corn and soybean growers that dominate the region.

“The traditional model would be that those two groups would perhaps engage in dialogue but it was about somebody winning and there were sides,” says Wayne Formo, of the ag consortium Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coaltion. “This new model we’re trying to develop is really more about coming together and before we figure out what winning is we need to better understand one another so that in the end perhaps we both can win.”

The collaboration was the winner among more than 200 nominations in a Bush Foundation challenge aimed at highlighting collaboration efforts and helping launch a new networking site for Minnesotans called InCommons. Some 3,000 people voted online for one of three finalists to determine the winner.

Moore says his group was looking to develop a circle of trust before attempting a solution. If you check out the video prepared for the InCommons challenge, you get the sense that the “friendship tours” indeed resulted in some better understanding.

Michael McKay of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance puts it this way: “We took them out to the river . . . I think they appreciated that we cared for our land as much as they cared for theirs.

“They have convinced me they are good stewards of their land,” the environmentalist said. “I think the challenge is to extend that stewardship to a wider piece of property.”

The hope is that coalitions and collaborations like this one can lead to better land use policies.

MPR News is a partner with the Bush Foundation in InCommons.

  • Rebecca Pickens