By Kristi Achor Pursell
A dominant narrative in media today tells us that American society is full of juxtaposition and conflict: rural v. urban, rich v. poor, black v. white, conservative v. liberal. We might get the impression that we must stick to our own in-group in order to feel safe and heard. And yet, there is an issue central to life as a Minnesotan regardless of how you identify or with whom you spend your time. That issue—clean water— is a necessity for life and good health. Through my time working for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP), I have come to believe, as Maya Angelou wrote in her poem, “Human Family,” that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike” and that, perhaps, water can be the thing that shows us that truth.
CRWP is a small, but mighty nonprofit membership organization with a focus on clean water. Our geographic focus is the land that drains to the Cannon and Straight Rivers, which means the map of our area is unlike that of any you may be used to seeing. We consider six counties that make up the majority of the watershed—Dakota, Goodhue, LeSueur, Rice, Steele, and Waseca—along with their Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), to be our primary partners in local government. We regularly work with these entities, as well as with city and township governing bodies, to accomplish work in our area. We also partner with state agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Wildlife Management Area projects, the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) to convene groups of people whose wastewater treatment processes need an upgrade, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for water monitoring and a qualitative data-gathering project talking to residents in particular sub-watersheds to hear their histories. However, we partner with more groups than just our government entities. CRWP was founded by a group of concerned citizens who wanted an entity to collectively look upstream and down to improve the waters and natural areas that drain into the Cannon, then the Mississippi. As an organization, we feel an obligation on behalf of the citizens in the watershed to partner with interested and affected communities in order to get the results we seek.
Because we work with farmers, youth, town-dwellers, lakeshore property owners, and elected officials, I have come to believe that, although we may have heard there is much to disagree on, water is a place where we can and do collectively come together. We all care deeply about the quality of the water we drink and share with our children and grandchildren. We want to leave our part of the world a little better than when we found it. These are universal truths no matter what your age, walk of life, or profession.
There are many families in our area who have worked the land for generations in order to grow crops and sustain a large sector of the economy in Minnesota. The farmers we work with are willing to try things their parents or grandparents didn’t teach them about, like Kernza, a new perennial grain we are testing with the University of Minnesota both for grazing and grain-harvesting. These are growers and grazers who care deeply about our land and water for the future of farming; you may first meet them over a microbrew before you learn how they make their living.
Similarly, we work with residents in small communities and towns in rural Minnesota. Some of the very best advocates for clean water and some of the best examples of partnering happen in these smaller localities and townships. The decades-old relationships that neighbors or lake association members have with one another have shown me that, although it can be challenging to get the right people into the room, when trust already exists, there is no limit to what these committed groups of people can accomplish. Together they might raise money to remove invasive species, partner with upstream farmers to improve soil health practices, or create a lake improvement district.
Our rural communities are becoming more and more diverse and, although this can be a point of friction for a community of any size, water by its very nature creates spaces where we can all gather and unite. For example, on one Saturday morning each September, CRWP hosts a Watershed-Wide Clean Up at around a dozen locations simultaneously. This is a time when young and old come out to help pull trash from our rivers, lakes, and streams. The health of water affects us all, and it affects the places we love and where we live. Working together to find solutions that produce clean water benefits every one of us. The Cannon River Watershed Partnership seeks to bring people together to achieve this lofty goal in our lifetimes.
Pursell, Kristi Achor. 2018. “Water Unifies Us All.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 11. https://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/water-unifies-us-all/.
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