John Hensel, who oversees all of the metro area's watersheds for the state of Minnesota, had brought a camera along to remember this by. On the riverbank he peered down into the flashing current and said, "It looks spring-fed!"

Apparently it didn't look quite that clear a few years ago. The Credit River in Scott County for years has been listed as one of Minnesota's thousands of polluted bodies of water.

But now, it is one of a handful to be removed from that list -- to be credited, so to speak, as unimpaired.

There are more theories than absolute surefire answers as to why it's in so much better shape, experts say.

But what is known for sure is that people all along its length -- often just stray citizens -- worked in a host of ways to counteract what could have been causing the problem.

Just a stone's throw from where Hensel was standing, 90 people from Target showed up one day to build a rain garden to capture and filter the oily runoff from the parking lot in Savage's Hidden Valley Park.

There's a lot of praise for the city of Savage, which, as Mayor Janet Williams put it, "bit the bullet and spent the money to do what is right."

"Just what we did with Utica ravine was an incredible project," said Jon Allen, the city's natural resources chief. "We'd had washouts 80 to 90 feet deep and residents were complaining. We revegetated the slopes."

That work alone reduced sediment in the river by 50 tons a year, Scott County experts say.

The end of the development boom in Scott County likely played a role. New construction often leads to erosion into streams, as dirt is exposed and it rains.

The conversion of open-dirt farmland into large-acreage lots, often condemned by sprawl haters, may have helped, as well, by holding the soil in place. The river had been deemed impaired on account of its "turbidity," meaning a lack of clarity that's often caused by sediment.

Smaller gestures have made a difference, too. Patty Gorman, who lives nearby and helps take care of Hidden Valley Park as a volunteer, notices seniors and others who walk the park will carry trash bags and pick things up along the river.

Success story

Brooke Asleson, who was project manager for the cleanup for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), has been all up and down the river in waders.

"It could have taken 50 years for the river to get the way it was," she said, when it tested out as impaired as recently as 2002. "So it's impressive to bring it back this quickly. Just even stabilizing a situation like this is hard, much less improving it.

"What's key is that we feel enough solid steps have been taken to keep it clean, because we don't want to un-list and then relist every few years."

Everyone involved agrees it's important to spread the word about success stories in water cleanup, because it's such a glacial and often-frustrating process. It can last decades and yield only subtle improvements.

Rebecca Flood, assistant MPCA commissioner for water quality, addressed a small group of officials active in the cleanup in recent years on a sunny late afternoon last week. She called the delisting an "exciting moment, based on outstanding work."

The MPCA's Hensel said the cleanup of the Credit River is the kind of thing that water quality efforts these days are all about.

As he nears retirement, he said, he's reflecting back on how the days of the "government as cop," ordering things like new treatment plants, is receding. The days of voluntary partnerships of this kind -- involving among others a golf course, the Legends, which played a role -- are upon us, he said, because these players aren't regulated in the same way. "It's a very different world from when we started."

There needs to be some public spirit about it, he added. "If you're going to have a wedding here in this park, isn't it great to have clean water flowing through?"

John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, made the trip to the peaceful park in Savage that same afternoon, and told the group beneath the picnic shelter:

"It's a beautiful piece of the world you've got here. I hope you take care of it for a long time."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285