Water quality forum generates discussion among residents, lawmakers

The Mississippi River needs help, speakers said, with factors like pollution and shoreline erosion threatening the river and, in turn, the wildlife and people who depend upon it as a habitat and an economic driver.

Sen. Carrie Ruud and other lawmakers talk to an audience at a water quality forum Thursday, Dec. 5, at Central Lakes College. Also pictured are Stephanie Pinkalla, The Nature Conservancy, Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken, Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin, Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson and Crow Wing County Commissioner Steve Barrows. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Communication, relationships and the importance of funding ranked as the top priorities in the battle for clean water in the Brainerd lakes area and the state as a whole during a community forum Thursday, Dec. 5, at Central Lakes College.

The Our Mississippi Our Future forum brought about 80 residents, community members and lawmakers together to discuss concerns about dwindling water quality, especially in the Mississippi River, and what to do to remedy the problem.

Local officials and state lawmakers listened to not only concerns about water quality, but why water as a resource is so important to everyone individually.

“Here in the Brainerd lakes area, the river and the land and the waters surrounding it are vital,” said Deb Griffith, a volunteer with Our Mississippi Our Future, a coalition committed to engaging Minnesotans in keeping water clean.

“People flock to this part of the state to take advantage of the natural wonders that are part of our day-to-day lives,” she added as she welcomed the group. “...The river truly runs through us.”


But the Mississippi River also needs help, speakers said, with factors like pollution and shoreline erosion threatening the river and, in turn, the wildlife and people who depend upon it as a habitat and an economic driver.

The forum started off with a host of local speakers.

Li Boyd, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, spoke of the spirituality of not only the Mississippi, but all natural bodies of water.

“Many of us are here because we know that water is life. As anishinaabekwe — an Anishinaabe woman — I will say that water is not only life. Water has life,” Boyd said, noting water has a living spirit in Native American culture and should be respected.

Boyd spoke of the Anishinaabe language, which is largely composed of verbs rather than nouns. Verbs are the subjects of sentences and indicate whether the item mentioned is alive. The Anishinaabe word for river means “living water flows.” Rivers can be rapid or slow, she said. Rain can be stinging or gentle.

Living next to Mille Lacs Lake, Boyd said she can feel the waters ebb and swell, smell the changes. She spoke of the dire threats creeping through local watersheds and large companies creating more and more problems for the water without taking responsibility.

Boyd said she fears every day the waters of Mille Lacs Lake will cease to live.

“Nature has always provided for us. Always,” she said, adding people can’t afford not to prioritize nature in return.


“We need to commit, not only as individuals, but as communities, society and governing bodies to make necessary changes,” Boyd said “... Just keep the Ojibwe language in mind as you look at the world around you. Look at the stones and look at the trees and the water and really think: ‘Is this my relative?’ And consider how it might change the way that you view the world.”

Li Boyd, center, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, discusses the significance of water in her life with a small group at a water quality forum Thursday, Dec. 5, at Central Lakes College. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Brainerd High School senior Andrew Mendez then spoke of the dangerous effects of pollution, how contamination of the Mississippi River can impact wildlife, the economy and even mental health.

“It is something that we must protect,” Mendez said of the river, noting its vast diversity.

Polluted waters interrupt birds’ migratory patterns, he said. The tourism the Mississippi River draws to Brainerd and other areas of the state put money into the economy, he said. Psychological studies, like a 2008 study from the United State Library of Medicine, show spending time in nature can improve mental health.

“We must take every possible resource to save it. Because otherwise we are going to make our lives much, much harder in the future,” Mendez said.

Todd Holman of The Nature Conservancy spoke of the importance of partnerships — both local and statewide — to combat water quality issues, while volunteer Dean Borgeson stressed the need for funding — like bonding dollars — to effect change on a large scale.
“We don’t need to study the problems further,” Borgeson siad. “We need to take action.”


Tony Coffey, president of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association, built on Holman’s mention of partnerships and talked about the benefits of lake associations and their role in improving water quality. These groups, he said, have the ability to take on water quality projects, like One Watershed, One Plan, a statewide initiative to align local water planning on major watershed boundaries and enhance existing county water plans.

Lake association members can also educate fellow members and the community as a whole, which will hopefully end up increasing property values and tax revenue, Coffey said.

After hearing from the speakers, attendees broke apart in small groups, sharing with one another what the water means to them, whether it was childhood experiences growing up on the river, spending time at a family cabin on the lake or becoming attached to the water later in life.

Nancy Palmer, a volunteer with Our Mississippi Our Future, told the crowd she found her home on the Mississippi in Baxter 20 years ago.

“This land talks to me, this water talks to me every day, and I listen,” she said, urging attendees to talk with each other and be responsible citizens for the good of the water.

Lawmaker perspective

Local and state lawmakers in attendance included Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson, Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin, Crow Wing County commissioners Bill Brekken and Steve Barrows and state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. Louis Crombie attended as a representative for U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Duluth.

Griffith said she also invited state Reps. Dale Lueck and Josh Heintzeman, who represent Districts 10A and 10B, but they were not able to attend and did not provide any comments for the forum.

When asked about the biggest challenges in terms of water quality, lawmakers noted funding. Nevin said the people of Crosslake have a lot of good ideas and have made great strides in correcting stormwater and sanitary sewer issues but still struggle with finances.


Olson also mentioned the high cost of both infrastructure and manpower.

Barrows said the county struggles with the idea of asking for forgiveness rather than permission when it comes to shoreline encroachment and suggested there needs to be strict penalties to deter those actions.

Lawmakers also shared conservation efforts they’re proud of in their areas and how the Legislature can help build on those victories.

Barrows mentioned the county’s comprehensive water plan developed several years ago that continues on as a living document. While the Legislature could help with funding, Barrows said he doesn’t want to put it all on the state and acknowledged Crow Wing County’s responsibility to do its part as well.

“It’s going to be a partnership between the state Legislature and us to fund the programs that keep our county a viable place for people to come,” Barrows said. “We’ve been gifted with an opportunity here, and we need to make sure that we take responsibility for that.”

Brekken said he is proud of the lines of communication opened up in the lakes area through events like Thursday’s forum and conversations with lake associations and lake improvement districts.

For Ruud, the biggest success is making sure voter-approved funds, like those from the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, go where voters wanted them to.


Lawmakers also talked about the importance of the Legislature’s upcoming 2020 bonding bill, which can provide funding for a variety of projects, including those related to water quality.


Ruud said bonding projects that get approved need to be regional in nature, which mean river projects are usually good candidates, as a problem on the river in somewhere like Crosslake can end up affecting water all the way down to the Twin Cities.

Brekken emphasized to attendees the importance of communicating with their local legislators, who are supposed to act as bridges to state officials. Nevin echoed his sentiment, telling the audience to “make some noise” if they want to get things done.

Barrows also encouraged those present to reach out to their state representatives.

“The state senator (Ruud) gets it, but the state representatives need to hear from each one of us,” Barrows said, pledging to personally trek to St. Paul or anywhere else to talk with the representatives and be a voice for the people of Crow Wing County.

Community members fill the cafeteria at Central Lakes College in Brainerd during a water quality forum with local officials and state lawmakers Thursday, Dec. 5. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

A call to action

Before dispersing, Mendez stepped back in front of the crowd and asked them to formally pledge to be a part of the solution. Volunteers handed around sheets asking those present to sign on as a supporter of Our Mississippi Our Future, recruit friends, talk with local and state officials or host their own meetings to engage others.

For more information on Our Mississippi Our Future and for a schedule of upcoming meetings throughout the state, visit .


At the end of the night, Nancy Palmer said she was happy with the forum’s turnout and hoped a big takeaway for those in attendance was relationships.

“I hope they got community and the feeling of support because we can sit at home and feel kind of isolated,” Palmer said. “And I think even some of the people who are working as elected officials can be isolated from each other, too, so that’s a really big thing, to be able to get together and communicate.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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