by Dennis Dalman
If people in the central Minnesota area foul up the Mississippi River, we have no one to blame but ourselves and we cannot go pointing the finger of blame northwards, according to Sartell Mayor Joe Perske.
“That’s because we are at the very top of the Mississippi watershed,” Perske noted. “If we take good care of the river, we can be good stewards and set examples for those further down along the river.”
Perske was one of about 20 mayors from riverside cities who attended a three-day conference June 26-28 at the St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center. It was the second annual gathering of mayors in the ongoing “Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative,” a way for mayors to connect, share research and brainstorm about ways to protect and to enhance the mighty river as a great natural resource and a lifeblood of economic prosperity. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also a partner in the Initiative, and the mayors and the Corps. signed an agreement called the “Memo of Common Purpose.”
Although only about 20 mayors attended the conference, there are at least 55 mayors in river cities all along the river who are actively involved in the Initiative. Next year, the conference will be held in Natchez, Miss. The Initiative ties in well to the work of several local groups that have been meeting for years on ways to preserve river quality and to use the river wisely for recreational and economic development, such as hiking-biking trails, riverside parks, commercial projects and river excursions.
Area mayors who attended the conference, besides Perske, included St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who hosted the event; and the mayors of Sauk Rapids, Little Falls, Baxter and Bemidji. Out-of-state mayors hailed from Prescott, Wis.; Clinton, Davenport, Dubuque (Iowa cities); Grafton, Ill.; Clarksville, Cape Girardeau, St. Louis (Missouri cities); Memphis, Tenn.; Hickman, Ken.; Natchez; and Vidalia, La.
“I was moved at the number of mayors who came together to discuss topics of concern about this wonderful resource we have here,” Perske said. “Those topics included quality of water, recreation, transportation, development. The river is a vital part of commerce. For example, the amount of goods that can be transported by barge is just tremendous and very cost-effective.”
As Perske and other Sartell residents well know, the Mississippi River was vital in the founding of the city. A paper mill on the edge of the river began a year before the city was even founded or named. That mill was one of the economic bedrocks of Sartell and the wider area for more than 100 years until last year when an explosion and fire caused the permanent closing of the mill.
The river has always figured prominently into Sartell city business. One recent example is the rain gardens planted in yards to absorb excess rain water before it reaches storm sewers and, ultimately, the river. Rain gardens and the city’s many man-made ponds are ways for water runoff and nutrients (such as herbicides and pesticides) to settle and drain on pervious surfaces rather than into the river.
One recent example of river-resource management, Perske noted, is the city’s work on a shoreland management ordinance that would help protect the river through various methods: leaving riverside vegetation undisturbed, maintaining vegetative buffer zones along the edges of rivers and a score of other things residents can do to prevent toxic runoff from reaching the river.
There are 10 states that border the Mississippi River from its source in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota all the way down to the delta at New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Perske noted there are 18 million people in the Mississippi watershed who depend upon the river for drinking water, including St. Cloud, which is the first city on the river’s course to get its drinking water from the river. Sartell relies upon well water for its drinking water.
According to Initiative statistics, the Mississippi River activity translates into $105-billion worth of Gross Domestic Product, and it’s a means of transport for 64 percent of the nation’s agricultural products. It directly provides one million jobs and many more millions indirectly.
“In Sartell, we have to work with the river, and a lot of our residents understand that,” Perske said. “It all starts right here in Minnesota.”