Citizen involvement makes Otter Tail River watershed a better place

By Karen Terry, UMN Extension Water Team

There are a lot of cool things happening in the Otter Tail River Watershed: state and local entities are in the early stages of the developing the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS), the Otter Tail River Watershed Civic Engagement Cohort is wrapping up, and the inaugural Aqua Chautauqua will take place this summer.

The East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District is serving as the project manager for this WRAPS, a 10-year process that is happening all over the state. It begins with intensive biological surveying and data collection throughout the watershed, including fish, invertebrates, and water quality.  These data are analyzed, along with information about physical conditions such as soil types, land use, land slopes, stream channel stability, impervious surface, hydrology and climate. Models are then developed to help land managers identify the sources of water quality degradation in the watershed. Citizens are asked to contribute ideas, share their values, and make suggestions, and their input is melded with the collected data and modeling results to generate a plan to address the problem areas. In addition, the plan identifies areas that are in pristine or near-pristine condition and protects them. The plan will be implemented, results will be evaluated, and then – 10 years later – the process begins again.

The Otter Tail River Watershed Civic Engagement cohort began last June and will wrap up in May. This yearlong training is designed to equip participants with the skills and knowledge to effectively draw watershed residents

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Extension Educator Karen Terry demonstrates stream processes and function with attendees at the Governor's Water Summit at Morris in January 2017.

into the process of addressing water resources issues. Led by the University of Minnesota’s Leadership and Civic Engagement team, the 17 participants have learned and practiced skills ranging from stakeholder mapping to the art of asking strong, impactful questions to making sure that everyone feels welcome and included. Cohort participants come from diverse backgrounds: natural resource staff from the local, state and federal levels, farmers, lake association leaders, and local elected officials. They are currently working on the ‘action phase’, during which they select a project and practice their new-found skills.

The Aqua Chautauqua is a water festival that will take place August 12 along the Otter Tail River in Fergus Falls. The concept harkens back to the chautauquas of days gone by: bringing education, entertainment, and culture to small-town America. Popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s and often characterized by the large tents they set up, chautauquas typically included music, theater, speakers, demonstrations, religious services, and political ‘stumping.’ Theodore Roosevelt once claimed that chautauquas were “the most American thing in America.” The Aqua Chautauqua will be a series of educational speakers, hands-on demonstrations, interactive stations such as storytelling, music, theatrical presentations, art displays, recreation, and food, interspersed along the river through downtown. Unlike old-time chautauquas, which were for adult audiences, the Aqua Chautauqua will be ideal for families.

What do these three things (WRAPS, Civic Engagement cohort, and Aqua Chautauqua) have in common? They all have the goal of making the watershed a better place by involving citizens. When citizens have a greater understanding of the watershed in which they live and are included in the management of the resources that they all share, they will become empowered to act in ways that lead to a healthier, more sustainable environment for all.