Like a Watershed: Looking Forward by Reflecting on Clean River Partners’ Past

As we welcome our Executive Director Jennifer Tonko, we are met with an opportune time to express gratitude for our history and all those who have contributed to Clean River Partner’s growth. In celebration of this time of transition and growth, Clean River Partners student worker Anna Klein spoke with several of our past Executive Directors and shares their reflections with us here. 

Clean River Partners (CRP) has always been about building community, following the model of a watershed. A watershed is an ever changing web with a clear sense of direction, though it may meander along its course. It is expansive–spreading to and including an entire region, bounding an area of people. The ethic of a watershed has flowed steadily through our organization over the years as CRP has accommodated change and adapted to find its place. 

Molly Woehrlin, who founded the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (our name until 2021) in 1990 while she served as a Rice County Commissioner, embodied the broad inclusivity of a watershed. In her lifetime she advocated for civil rights, better mental health services, LGBTQ acceptance, women in government, and environmental conservation. The stated purpose of the non-profit was to 

“. . . protect and improve the surface and groundwater resources and the natural systems of the Cannon River Watershed; to coordinate existing local and state government and citizen resources in the implementation of local water plans and instill a sense of ‘watershed pride’” through education, information and special events, and to generally provide for cooperative management and protection of the Cannon River Watershed.” 

Map of the Cannon River Watershed.

Since Molly started CRWP, the organization has been flexible, adapting to changing policies, directors, and climates. However, pride, community, and bridges are themes that persist through the organization today. 

A $40,000 from the Nature Conservancy got the organization started from Molly’s vision of a healthy watershed and a robust, resilient network. Roger Wilkowske served as CRWP’s first Executive Director from December 1991 to August of 1992. 

Roger grew up on a dairy farm south of Morristown, Minnesota, wading in Dixon creek, a tributary of the Cannon. He recalls spearing fish that swam up the creek, leaving with leeches between his toes. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and became an extension educator in southern Minnesota counties, where he began working in water quality education. 

As Executive Director, Roger worked on awareness, regularly meeting with county commissioners in the watershed. He knew many of them from his previous work and experience in three different SE MN counties. He launched a storm drain stenciling program and started a newsletter. He tried to encourage people to ask themselves, Who am I in the watershed? How can I improve water quality? He wrote grants and fundraised, started collecting membership fees and connecting to businesses. He engaged with educators to get test kits to high school biology students so they could participate in science and water studies. He started river cleanups, which we still do today. Mostly, he focused on education, connecting people to regulations and organizations that exist to protect water. He saw that CRP’s role was as a supporter, not an enforcer. 

People come to the organization by chance, by relationship, by drive. The community on the Cannon River is a unique one, but is emblematic of places all over Minnesota, the Midwest, and the country. There are many communities within the watershed that overlap with CRP–the commodity farming community, the small-scale, specialty crop, and organic agriculture communities, townships, small towns, larger towns,and  bodies of water. 

Like any community, watersheds are magnifying systems. Singular relationships we have with each other feed into community as we form connections and grow larger in number and geographical extent. We can draw a line around a watershed to define community, a group of people impacted by decisions made in a region, but ultimately that line dissolves into the larger watersheds we are nested within, and all share.

Today, Clean River Partners facilitates land stewardship to foster connections and strengthen community. The future is bright–there are opportunities for us to focus our efforts on where our community needs us, as we have with agricultural land use initiatives. A large proportion of the Cannon River Watershed is farmland, so it makes sense that we have over time become an organization that serves farmers to help them serve the watershed and their communities. Although it was not a part of the original mission, agriculture has always been present because of its presence in the area. 

Cleaning up the river to preserve our ability to paddle and engage in other forms of recreation is another important element of community building, but there are also more pressing issues. To be a prosperous community we have to ensure that our friends, family, and neighbors are able to meet their basic needs. In the early 2000’s CRP was associated with the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative, which helped unsewered communities manage their wastewater. The projects lasted three to nine years and involved assessments, grant and bonding applications, studies, and community surveys among other things. 

David Legvold took on the role of chair for the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative when he became Executive Director with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership in 2006. Navigating the bureaucracy was painstaking, and whenever a community was able to succeed, those who had become experts never had to interact with the process again. This initiative was able to create experts that reused and passed on their knowledge, and get people sewage treatment who needed it and were not in the position to pay for or manage the process on their own. As with all sorts of water pollutants, untreated sewage is everyone’s problem–everything ends up in our same river, or stored in our soils where we may pump it out to drink. 

The Cannon River Watershed watershed still has communities that urgently need better water management, Clean River Partners has the potential to assist. It is in everyone’s best interest to protect water and to ensure people have access to the things they need and deserve. 

— Anna Klein

Stay tuned for another blog post in the coming weeks to hear more reflections from more of our past Executive Directors.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly stated that Allene Moesler served as CRWP’s first Executive Director. Roger Wilkowske served as CRWP’s first Executive Director from 1991-1992, and Allene Moesler served as Executive Director from 1992 to 2001.

Published by Felicia Hokenstad

Communications Coordinator

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