Anoka Conservation District Watershed Projects Manager Jamie Schurbon goes kayaking with his son. (Photo submitted )

This is part of a series of monthly columns by local water experts. These columns on local rivers and land use are a collaboration between the League of Women Voters Upper Mississippi River Region and other environmental groups in Anoka County. To learn more about the League of Women Voters, go to lwvumrr.org.

While paddling, my youngest son asked, “Who owns the river?” As he has come to understand the world, everything is owned by someone. And that someone gets to say who else can enjoy it. And they may defend that thing from others. So who owns the water?

I emphatically replied, “You do!” And followed with the clarification, “not just you, but everyone. Can you believe all of this is partly yours?”

A lot of questions followed including, “So I can go anywhere I want on the river?” Yes, pretty much. “What about lakes?” Yes, you are part owner of lakes too. You are completely welcome to enjoy them. “Can I do anything I want on the river?”

That last question is a little trickier, or perhaps a trick hoping I’ll keep rolling with “yes” answers. The answer involves the word youngsters dread most: Sharing. Our waters are a shared resource. We care for them together. While we do have agencies that manage natural resources, they are in some large part trying guiding the rest of us “owners.” Managing water is tricky because the water body can’t be managed on its own. Lands drain to and affect the water.

It would seem that shoreline owners are the most important stewards of lakes and rivers based on proximity. Their actions can indeed make the shared resource better for all, or consume or degrade it. It’s easy to find examples. We paddled past a shoreline full of trees and wildflowers along the bank — an owner that used what could have been manicured yard to add to the wildness and quietness of river.

I’m also reminded of another kid question, “Where does the water go after it enters the gutter at the side of the street?” Sometimes it goes to a stormwater pond or other place designed to at least partially clean it up, and then on to a river, stream or wetland. Or, sometimes it just goes straight to the water body. There are rural equivalents where water that starts far away reaches a lake or stream.

It turns out, we’ll all shoreline owners in a sense. No matter where we live, water runs off to rivers, lakes and groundwater. Responsible use of chemicals and fertilizers, preventing erosion, and improving habitat all add to, or detract from, our waters. Collectively, small actions make a big difference.

Many towns closely identify as being proudly in proximity to a water body. City of Forest Lake. Linwood Township (which contains Linwood Lake). Sunrise (on the Sunrise River). North Branch (on the North Branch of the Sunrise River). Cambridge (welcome signage says “City on the Rum River”). Taylors Falls. St. Croix Falls. You get the idea.

We identify with our waters. The quality and cleanliness of a water body is a mirror of our lands that drain to it. Seemingly accepting the lesson faster than most of us adults, during a brief stop on our paddling trip the youngest member of our group tossed some trash he found into his kayak. “If this is my river, I’d rather it be clean.”

Jamie Schurbon is the Watershed Projects Manager for the Anoka Conservation District. In this role, Jamie works with the Upper Rum River Watershed Organization and other watershed groups in Anoka County. The Conservation District’s website, is at anokaswcd.org

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