The Minnesota River-Lake Pepin Friendship Tours is just such an idea: brilliantly simple in conception, complicated to pull off, and carrying enormous ramifications for the way we all live with our rivers.
Background: Lake Pepin is a distinctive, wide reach of the Mississippi stretching roughly from Lake City Minnesota on the north to Wabasha Minnesota downstream. For years, if not decades, scientists have studied the lake as an "early indicator" for some of the ecological and hydrological trends affecting the Upper Mississippi as a whole.
What they've found is not good. In fact, according to some, at present rates of sedimentation, Lake Pepin could fill in and become a marsh in a matter of a couple of hundred years. The State of Minnesota and numerous other agencies are hard at work on this problem.
Much of the sediment, as well as the nutrients and other pollutants in Lake Pepin come from the Minnesota River Valley. In fact, some estimate that as much as 7 per cent of the excess nutrients that create the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia or "Dead Zone" come from the Minnesota River watershed.
So we can identify the problem, right? Some would (and have) jumped to the conclusion that it's all those farmers who don't care about water quality.
Not so fast. The Minnesota River-Lake Pepin Friendship Tour brought farmers from upstream, in the Minnesota River watershed, together with farmers downstream, along Lake Pepin, in an exchange program that included farm visits, talks, and tours of their respective neighborhoods. And they found out that they all care about the quality of water in their regions, both for the sake of people downstream and for future generations.
I think this program, which was jointly put together by Clean Up the River Environment, the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, and a group that is "Working Together for the Minnesota River" is not just another "farmers are the best conservationists" greenwashing. The tour had actual farmers talking to actual farmers, perhaps not mediated by farm chemical groups or the commodity associations who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Others were impressed as well. The Bush Foundation's Incommons Collaboration Challenge recently announced that the Friendship Tour won the $25,000 first prize among 233 entries that recognize innovative local collaborations that solve community problems.
Local collaboration. Problem solving. People talking to people about the places (and rivers) they know and care about. A developed sense of "commons" that holds us together rather than drives us apart. What's not to like.
As the poet Gary Snyder says at the end of "Axe Handles," "...craft of culture/How we go on."
Happy holidays everyone!