River congress

NEW ULM — For more than two years the Minnesota River Congress has been recruiting members, developing a mission statement, setting up teams and creating organizational guidelines. Now, the group that aims to improve the entire Minnesota River Basin is ready to settle on action plans.

Ted Suss, a member of the action management team, uses a baseball analogy to describe the new organization's evolution.

"We've been in spring training mode and now we're at opening day — to move to action steps, to decide what do we want to do."

Over the summer the Congress will hold at least six meetings across the basin to solicit existing policy ideas from organizations already working in the basin. From their they will develop five or six action plans that will be presented during a River Congress meeting in November.

"We want a general public policy statement," said Suss, a former school administrator who lives in Redwood County.

"Not just what we believe but what we want to accomplish. The first step in that is to go to any group in the basin who's done that and tell us what could be included in a basin wide public policy statement. It could be things like erosion control in ravines or gullies, things that could be easily used basin wide," he said.

Scott Sparlin, of New Ulm, has been the driving force behind the group and said he thinks they've done well in paying attention to properly structuring a large organization that has an interest in a basin 14 million acres in size that includes 700,000 people and stretches from the South Dakota border to the Twin Cities.

"There are nearly 200 team members now and there will be a lot more going forward," he said.

"We have team leaders, liaisons to our newly formed board. Now we're starting the action part, but the organization part is never going to end."

Suss said that beyond setting a plan to help spur on-the-ground projects, the group's biggest challenge will be getting the financial support needed to be viable.

"The biggest thing when creating something from scratch and there isn't any direct financial benefit anyone can derive from it, is to find the funds to operate.

"I think there is broad level of support and a broad support philosophically for (the Congress)."

He said the group hopes that support will equate to some level of financial support from from counties and cities along the river in the basin, from watershed districts and from other groups with a stake in the river. Other funding, he said, will come from foundation grants.

Sparlin and Suss said the founding principle of the River Congress has been to be inclusive and solicit members with a wide-range of often differing opinions.

"One of our guiding principles was we wanted everybody not only at the table but feeling welcome at the table. Whether you're in agriculture, manufacturing, a local official or state agency employee or manager, or an environmentalist," Suss said.

"That automatically sets up conflict. If you have two people on diametrically opposed sides it's more difficult. But our feeling was that if we're going to accomplish something meaningful over time we have to have everyone at the table. That doesn't mean we're all going to agree on everything but we will have the input from everyone."

Follow Tim Krohn on Twitter @TimKrohn

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