After nearly 20 years of struggling to clean up the Minnesota River, the Minnesota River Board hopes to get better results by reorganizing, but Dakota County has urged it to face facts and disband.

The River Board, a coalition of 37 rural and metro counties, including Hennepin, Carver and Scott, through which the Minnesota flows, was created in 1995 by Gov. Arne Carlson and charged with making the river clean enough for swimming and fishing within 10 years.

Seventeen years later, the river, which starts in South Dakota and cuts across the middle of Minnesota, is still heavy with pollutants, as shown in aerial photos of the river's brown plume as it joins the cleaner Mississippi River.

"They were given the charge of cleaning up the Minnesota River. They have been unable to do that," Dakota County Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said. "It's an organization that doesn't really work."

In a move that could start an unraveling of the River Board if other counties follow suit, Dakota this month withdrew its participation and its $2,500 a year in dues and advised the River Board to disband rather than spend time and money reorganizing. With little funding and efforts overlapping those of several other agencies, some question why it's necessary.

The board in September voted to have an independent consultant and stakeholders recommend a new structure that includes local conservation groups by January. The board's role has been to educate and advocate for water-quality improvements and help finance them.

Impact debated

Officials disagree on whether water-quality efforts would be set back if the board were to disband.

Shannon Fisher, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who serves as the executive director of the River Board, believes the board's dissolving would be a blow to the river.

He concedes that "the original intent of the board was never realized," but says that's largely because it has not had the needed authority or money. Last year, its state allocation was $42,000.

But, Fisher said, board efforts have at least kept the river from getting worse in the face of increasing pressures.

Board conferences and forums on land practices and water-improvement strategies drew more than 10,000 participants over the past 12 years, and the board has played a critical role in bringing conservation groups and agriculture communities closer together, Fisher said.

Among other things, the board helped finance the conversion of more than 100,000 acres of farmland to natural vegetation that filters out pollution in rain before it reaches the river, he said.

Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan, who has been the county's representative to the River Board for the past eight years, pleaded with the County Board not to withdraw. He said the river would have been and will be in worse shape without the River Board.

"In the state of Minnesota there are few environmental problems more pressing than cleaning up the Minnesota River," he said. "I am afraid that Scott and maybe Carver counties may decide, 'Well, if that is what Dakota County is doing, we don't need to remain on it either.'"

So far Dakota is the largest county to drop out, but 13 rural counties also have withdrawn.

Too many cooks?

Because the River Board is not the only organization working to clean the river, John Jaschke, executive director of the state's Board of Soil and Water Resources, said it might go unnoticed if the River Board folds. In fact, Jaschke told the River Board that if it does not reorganize for better results he would not recommend that legislators continue its funding.

Other entities championing the river include the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the state Board of Soil and Water Resources, the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District and many local governments, conservation groups and watershed districts.

Cleaning up the river will require retiring more land from agriculture in critical locations and in other places planting buffer strips of native vegetation between farm fields and the river, Jaschke said. Because 97 percent of the land lining the river and tributaries is privately owned, protecting the river is a "very local thing and people want to have a local agent" -- as opposed to a River Board based in Mankato -- "help them understand what they can do," he said.

Bob Finley, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's manager of the watershed division in Mankato, credits the River Board with elevating interest in the river and helping people understand its plight.

The river remains polluted by the runoff from farms and other pollution sources that are hard to regulate, Finley said.

As a result, the Minnesota River carries three-fourths of the sediment and suspended solids into the Mississippi River filling in Lake Pepin to the south of the confluence of the two rivers, Finley said. On this problem, the board has not made much headway, Finley said. "From what we are seeing, the progress has been awfully slow over the years."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287