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Water quality advocates announce community gathering in Cass County

While lakes area communities are deeply intertwined with waterways and natural ecosystems that depend on them, they don't have a unified voice to speak for their interests--at least for now.

A conference, dubbed “Water Connects Us All,” runs 4-6:30 p.m. Monday, June 17 and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. It's intended to be a gathering pertaining to the health of lakes, rivers and watersheds in central Minnesota. File photo
A conference, dubbed “Water Connects Us All,” runs 4-6:30 p.m. Monday, June 17 and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. It's intended to be a gathering pertaining to the health of lakes, rivers and watersheds in central Minnesota. File photo

While lakes area communities are deeply intertwined with waterways and natural ecosystems that depend on them, they don't have a unified voice to speak for their interests-at least for now.

That is, unless Jeff Forester and nonprofit Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates can band together a viable constituency. As executive director, Forester stopped by the Dispatch to announce a gathering June 17 and 18 of lake leaders and public officials from across Minnesota-including Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen, as well as state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point and state Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji-hosted in Cass County.

"Water is tricky to deal with," Forester said. "A lot is changing. It's a very dynamic change, so it's good for people to be engaged with the issues."

The conference, dubbed "Water Connects Us All," runs 4-6:30 p.m. and beyond Monday, June 17, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and beyond Tuesday, June 18, at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. Featuring involvement from the DNR, Cass County and Association of Cass County Lakes, the event also marks the 25th anniversary of Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates.

Forester characterized Water Connects Us All as an opportunity to bond as a community and take a look at the current state of local waterways in Cass County. Attendees are invited to purchase $30 tickets for two days of meals, social mingling, events and presentations pertaining to pollution, changing water temperature and hydrology, fisheries issues and the threat of aquatic invasive species for a region with a rare diversity of natural ecosystems and natural resources that bring in $12 billion annually for Minnesota.

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While many cabin owners, lakeside proprietors and others of the lakes area are well aware of the history, value and fragile state of Minnesota's waterways, they rarely band together to speak out on these issues, Forester said. He noted watersheds, or groundwater, typically don't have the necessary attention more visible lakes and rivers garner.

Often, central Minnesotans only provide input in a reactive sense, Forester said, weighing in at the 11th hour, "speak now or forever hold your peace" stage in any given process-whether that's mining up by the Boundary Waters, fisheries of Mille Lacs Lake or pollution along the Mississippi River. Instead, these people find themselves playing second fiddle to non-natives hailing from the Twin Cities, Duluth or Washington, D.C. This approach is inefficient and ineffective, he said, and instead, lakes area property owners should look to be proactive.

"A city council or county government meeting is the worst place to discuss and make progress on these issues," Forester said.

In many regards, this lack of local input may be unfair to property owners along waterways in Minnesota, a state that features some of the highest numbers of cabin owners in the nation and, of which, nearly 10% have owned these cabins for more than a century in the same family. Bodies of water, he noted, are notoriously intricate, subject to change and can be very different from each other, even neighbors just yards apart.

"We can restore a prairie. We can restore a forest. A lake? A lake is really difficult," Forester said. "You can't really fix a lake. They're too dynamic. Every lake is different."

Who else, Forester said, is better qualified to weigh in on the health of each individual lake and river than the people who live by them?

And there are pressing issues, he said, pointing to rising temperatures across the watershed-which can have a significant impact on sensitive biosystems-as well as local resort economies upended by Airbnb, pollution, plummeting fisheries and ecological diversity, shifting forest patterns, wildfires and the growing threat of invasive species.

The answer, he said, is to take what lake associations have and to build on that, banding together populations of property owners across Minnesota in a unified coalition-much like, say, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities designed to give smaller rural cities a voice to counterbalance the Twin Cities metro in government negotiations.

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If you go

The Water Connects Us All gathering is planned for 4-6:30 p.m., Monday, June 17, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday, June 18, at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. For a $30 two-day ticket, attendees can take part in the following events pertaining to water quality in the lakes area.

Monday

• Cash bar and music at 4 p.m.

• Welcome at 4:45 p.m.

• Legislative update and walleye dinner at 5 p.m.

• An address by state Sen. Carrie Ruud at 6 p.m.

• An address by state Rep. John Persell at 6:15 p.m.

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• A presentation titled "Changing Weather Patterns and the Impacts for our Lakes and Rivers" by Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist Paul Huttner at 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday

• Continental breakfast at 8 a.m.

• Showcase: Presentations of projects lake folks are doing across Minnesota at 8-11:30 a.m.

• For Minnesota Lakes & Rivers members only, the nonprofit will host a business meeting 9:30-10:30 a.m.

• For Minnesota Coalition of Lake Association members only, the association will host it annual business meeting 10-11 a.m.

• The resort ambassador program-a collaboration between the Cass, Itasca and Lake Vermillion lake associations-between 11:30 a.m. and noon.

• Buffet lunch and plenary with DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen at noon.

• Showcase presentation from the Association of Cass County Lakes at 1 p.m.

• Between 2 and 4 p.m., attendees can take part in field trips including a master water steward trip on Leech Lake, kayaking and canoeing trips with fishery specialists and more.

Jeff Forester
Jeff Forester

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