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RSDP Happenings - Focus: Zumbro River Watershed

>Draft design for educational/recreational site at Riverside Park in Mantorville

Draft design for educational/recreational site at Riverside Park in Mantorville (image: UMN Center for Changing Landscapes)

January 2016

By Caryn Mohr

Canoeing or biking along the Zumbro River in Southeastern Minnesota, families may not connect how their activities today impact the region's long-term environmental health. Personal connections to the river and its watershed help community members understand their role in protecting their region's natural resources. Yet for much of its history, the Zumbro River Watershed has remained an underutilized resource, with 98 percent of its land privately owned.

The Zumbro River Watershed spans more than 900,000 acres, six counties, and the City of Rochester, offering a system of rivers, trout streams, and bike trails. Since 2012, the University of Minnesota Extension Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (SERSDP) has engaged community partners and University of Minnesota expertise in promoting water-protection strategies that support long-term environmental and community needs. A key focus of the work is the addition of educational enhancements to designated public sites in the watershed.

Over time, the project has attracted additional partners and leveraged significant outside resources, exemplifying how the Regional Partnerships' model fosters effective community collaboration in addressing sustainable development issues. In 2015, these efforts leveraged a $300,000 grant for site development from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). Funds were awarded through the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, a constitutionally dedicated fund generated by proceeds from the Minnesota State Lottery.

boy crouching down in a river

Educational/recreational sites

In collaboration with the University of Minnesota College of Design, six educational/recreational sites are now being developed on public parks and land throughout the watershed, with a planned completion of October 2017. The sites will span three ecological regions of the watershed and address a variety of resource issues and potential solutions. They will promote increased fishing, boating, picnicking, and other water-related recreational activities on the Zumbro River, and educate visitors about the watershed and water-management practices through educational kiosks, signs, and demonstration projects.

According to SERSDP Executive Director Erin Meier, "The plan is that in addition to having the sites be more attractive and accessible, we're also developing a larger understanding of the Zumbro Watershed as a whole. How do our activities affect the watershed? Where do you play a part?"

To identify the sites, a project team with staff from SERSDP, the College of Design's Center for Changing Landscapes (CCL), U of M Extension, and the Zumbro Watershed Partnership developed a site-selection matrix. Criteria addressed environmental impact, educational and recreational opportunities, community support, and ease of implementation. Zumbro Watershed Partnership and SERSDP then solicited site suggestions from their committees. Ten sites were evaluated and three were chosen for preliminary designs conducted by CCL and funded by SERSDP. Designs included educational and recreational enhancements intended to promote awareness of clean-water practices and educate citizens about groundwater protection, restored wetlands, and grassland buffers. With funding from LCCMR, CCL is now designing the six final sites.

Shared community vision

Sites will connect educational components with local landscapes and history. For example, a site selected in Mantorville rests in the historic city park, located on the site of an old flour mill and remaining dam. The site-selection process identified high interest in demonstrating urban storm water control features in the area. "The site design for the Mantorville park weaves in references to the former railway turntable that operated where the parking lot is currently," Meier said.

To engage community stakeholders throughout site development and ensure sites reflect local concerns and values, SERSDP is co-facilitating community outreach meetings across the region and will help to host a watershed-wide open house. According to Meier, an ancillary goal is to have community members begin to develop a vibrant vision for their town that goes beyond the particular site.

The work has engaged a broad group of community stakeholders. In addition to SERSDP, the Zumbro Watershed Partnership, the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), and the Conservations Corps, other key partners include staff from University of Minnesota Extension, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and cities and counties in the region who have contributed expertise throughout the site selection and design process.

Map of the Zumbro River Watershed

Zumbro River Watershed and preliminary sites studied for educational/recreational potential (image: UMN Center for Changing Landscapes)

Long-term partnership

The Zumbro River Watershed work exemplifies the long-term community vision and investment facilitated by RSDP's network of regional boards and work groups. These citizen-led groups root RSDP efforts in locally based needs, which may require dedicated attention over time, while facilitating connections to University research and outside resources.

"It has been a long process to acquire funding, and if it wasn't for the [early and] continuing SERSDP support, I doubt that the project would have made it to this point," said Lawrence Svien, Executive Director of the Zumbro Watershed Partnership. "We started the application for the project almost 4 years ago, and after twice not making the cut we were at the point of dropping the effort. SERSDP brought resources to the effort that allowed us to develop a working demonstration of what we wanted to do....I really do believe that it was instrumental in our being selected for funding by the Commission."

SERSDP has been an early and consistent supporter of efforts to inform residents of the ecological and recreational significance of the Zumbro River Watershed. "I'm extremely grateful to Erin Meier and the SERSDP board for their ongoing support of the [project]," Svien said.

RSDP connects communities with the resources of the University of Minnesota to drive sustainability in Greater Minnesota, and is part of University of Minnesota Extension.

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