REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. — The Minnesota River is flowing high and fast -- and as dark as chocolate milk -- boosted by rains, runoff and soil erosion.

It's been nearly 18 years since former Gov. Arne Carlson stood on the banks of the river -- long the most polluted in the state -- and vowed to make it clean enough to fish and swim in within 10 years.

That didn't happen -- call it a work in progress.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent for everything from new sewage treatment plants to wetland and grassland restorations.

Though it's hard to tell by looking at it, the river likely is a bit cleaner than it was when Carlson challenged the state to clean up what had become -- and some would say still is -- a giant drainage ditch.

They are catching fish in the Minnesota, including lunker walleyes and monster catfish. Prehistoric paddlefish are starting to show up, though it's unclear whether their presence is caused by improved water quality. People are paddling or boating on the river. Some are swimming in it (though others say "no thanks").

But even avid river supporters acknowledge that progress to clean the river has been limited and slow and that much more work -- and money -- is needed. Much of the river is on the state's list of "impaired" waters, and it has long been considered one of America's most endangered rivers.

Today, while attention is focused on the damage to the Gulf of Mexico by BP's oil spill, the Minnesota River continues to contribute to the "dead zone" there at the mouth of the Mississippi River, an oxygen-depleted region the size of New Jersey caused by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farm fields.

Nearly 50 Minnesotans who will help decide how hundreds of millions of dollars pegged for conservation -- including millions in Legacy Amendment dollars -- will be spent in coming years recently toured the Minnesota River and paddled a stretch of it near Redwood Falls on a sun-splashed summer day. They saw new wildlife areas planted to prairie grass but endless fields of corn and soybeans planted road-to-road. They saw reclaimed granite outcrops but drainage pipes still flowing directly into the river. And they were told why the intensively farmed Minnesota River Basin, where 90 percent of the landscape is farmed, still is hurting.

"It's gotten better but still needs a lot more help," Tom Kalahar said, guiding his canoe downriver. "There's no way we can fix this until we fix what we just drove through."

Kalahar, a fervent river advocate and conservation technician with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District in Olivia, Minn., led the tour.

Altered landscape

The visitors saw the landscape in the 37-county basin has been dramatically changed since settlers arrived: 90 percent of wetlands have been drained, and 99 percent of prairies are gone. Corn, soybeans and sugar beets fill virtually every field. Most ditches dug decades ago to drain wetlands have no buffer strips to catch soil and runoff. Cattle-filled pastures are long gone, converted to row crops.

Even road ditches are mowed and bailed. Wildlife habitat is slim.

"If you're a critter, it's pretty tough here," Kalahar said.

The result: Water, along with soil and farm chemicals, flows off fields and into those ditches and then into the Minnesota River. And drain tiles continue to be added to more fields.

Federal farm policy in the form of commodity payments encourages farmers to plant every square inch.

"We have a farm program that is creating this problem; if we want a clean river, we have to change the farm program," said Patrick Moore of Montevideo, executive director of Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the Upper Minnesota River. "We have to reward farmers for producing clean water and wildlife habitat, rather than the number of bushels of corn or soybeans they produce."

The size of the area makes the problem daunting. The river flows 335 miles from the western Minnesota border to the Twin Cities, where it joins the Mississippi River.

"It's a 10 million-acre watershed, and we've influenced a very, very small percentage of that," said Kevin Lines, conservation easement program administrator for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

His agency completed the largest conservation program in the river basin, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which permanently shifted 100,000 acres of cropland into prairie grasses and wetlands. "That's just 1 percent of the landscape," Lines noted.

The goal was to reduce sediment and pollution in the river, and Lines and others said it did that in some areas. The cost in state and federal dollars: $220 million.

Investing more money?

River advocates are hopeful that 2008's Legacy Amendment, which raised the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and dedicated two-thirds of it to fish, game, wildlife habitat and clean water, can have a big impact. The tax could raise $165 million yearly for habitat and water improvements. Members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and the Clean Water Council, both of which help determine how that money is spent, were on the recent Minnesota River tour.

But Minnesota has many conservation needs, and Kalahar is afraid those legacy dollars will be shotgunned around the state.

"My concern is we're not going to have a coordinated, well-thought-out, long-term plan on how to spend this money," he said. "We need something that will actually change the trend of where we are going with natural resources in Minnesota, which is down the drain."

The Lessard Council, which advises spending on fish and wildlife habitat, is working on a 25-year plan, scheduled to be completed this winter.

Fish are biting

Lee Sundmark, DNR area fisheries manager in Hutchinson, said anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts are missing the boat by not visiting the Minnesota River.

"I know people who can catch 100 walleyes a day in some pools," he said. "People are catching flathead catfish up to 40 pounds and channel cats up to 16 pounds. There's a growing interest in white bass.

"Some of the [lack of interest in fishing] is paranoia about how safe they are to eat. They are pretty safe to eat. If people knew that, there would be more fishing pressure."

Meanwhile, the beauty of the area is unmistakable. We paddled past granite rock outcrops, billions of years old, and later hiked atop similar rock formations overlooking the river. We watched bald eagles swoop from trees.

It's a tarnished gem that deserves to be restored, Kalahar and Moore said.

"This is the river that bears our state's name," Moore said. "It's an untapped recreational mecca, and one of the only wild remnants left in one of the most altered landscapes in the world. It's an important flyway and wildlife corridor."

He's not discouraged by the lack of success thus far.

"It took us over 100 years to get the river in this condition. It may take that long to get it back."

Doug Smith •