MANKATO — The Minnesota River watershed could become one of the first in the nation to be designated a National Blueways System under an new program aimed at focusing federal, state and private resources on entire river systems without additional regulation.
“I think it would be great. It’s always good to be one of the first,” said Patrick Moore, head of Clean Up the River Environment, based in Montevideo.
“To me it’s like being on the National Register of Historic Places — it might not mean a lot of money directly, but it gives you legitimacy when you’re asking others for money.”
Cathi Fouchi, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regional planner based in New Ulm, said the designation would be a big boost in giving the river national recognition.
“They’re looking at rivers important regionally or nationally that need some help. Rivers where some work has been done but maybe need a boost,” Fouchi said.
Scott Sparlin, a New Ulm conservationist involved with the Friends of the Minnesota Valley, said the potential designation is confirmation of work that’s been done.
“It’s like a reward for the past 23 years that we’ve been banging away at this. A national recognition like that will bring a lot of resources to the Minnesota River for the next five years,” said Sparlin, referring to the five-year length of the designation.
“You’re going to have attention from Fish & Wildlife and a lot of other federal agencies.”
Rebecca Wodder, senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, concludes a two-day tour of the Minnesota River Valley today. Wodder, a longtime environmental advocate and former director of American Rivers, is meeting with various groups along the river and answering questions about the process.
Designated rivers will be given priority for conservation and restoration programs the Interior Department administers, such as funding for fisheries restoration or water conservation.
Blueways are part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, an attempt by the Obama administration to set up “a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century.”
Earlier this year, Salazar designated the first Blueways — the 410-mile-long Connecticut River that flows through Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Minnesota and a few other rivers in the nation are beginning the nomination process to gain designation.
The prospects for the future of the Blueways program was in doubt prior to the election as there were questions whether it would continue to exist under a Romney administration.
The DNR’s Fouchi said there is funding for the program included in the 2014 Interior Department budget.
The nomination for designation must come form a nonprofit group rather than a government agency, Fouchi said. While the DNR and other state and federal agencies are helping in gathering data for the nomination, the nomination is being applied for by the Minnesota River Watershed Alliance.
The alliance, created by Moore and others, is a loose-knit organization open to anyone with a stake in the river. The goal of the group is to build relationships between government agencies, environmentalists, farmers, local officials and others.
“The Watershed Alliance is re-energized,” Moore said. “It’s an organization that knows how to make decisions by consensus. There’s interaction between agencies and citizens — there’s been a void in that before.”
The group is working with a federal liaison — Charlie Blair of the Fish and Wildlife office in Bloomington — as it puts the nomination together.
“The nomination process is quite rigorous,” Moore said. “There’s been federal state, local, nonprofit and citizens groups uniting to work on the nomination process, which is good.”
The hope is to get the nomination information complete this year with a possible designation coming next spring.