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Lower St. Croix: River at risk?

The Lower St. Croix River's scenic beauty is in danger if adjoining communities don't start planning development responsibly. Staff photo by Amber Kispert

With spring in full bloom, communities lining the Lower St. Croix River -- Afton in particular -- are awaiting an expected surge in tourism that is approaching.

These same communities, however, are also anticipating some problems looming on the horizon for the scenic waterway.

The Lower St. Croix River has been placed on the "American Rivers' 2009 Most Endangered" list, a designation due to recent developments in the river communities.

"The idea is when you're out on the river, you should be able to look at the land and as little as possible see development," Dan McGuiness, executive director of the St. Croix River Association, said. "We've seen kind of a creeping of more and more structures visible from the river -- we need to reduce the tide of that."

The Lower St. Croix River was designated a "wild and scenic river" in 1972, but since that time little by little development has been occurring closer and closer to the shoreline, thus taking away that scenic beauty, McGuiness said.

"It's not one big thing, it's a lot of little by little changes over time," McGuiness said. "It just sort of changes the character of the valley."

It is because of this increase in development that the river was added to the top 10 endangered rivers at number 10 in hopes of making these communities realize that their developments are taking away from the scenic beauty of the river and the wildlife habitats of many species.

"The rules haven't changed but maybe people are more aware of why we're trying to enforce these rules and there might be a little more sympathy among the general population in protecting the river way," McGuiness said. "I hope it has some impact on how development occurs along the river."

Afton has always been a very development-conscious city, but the river's designation on the endangered list could possibly have some bearing on the proposed Afton Center project, which is currently in litigation with the city.

"Afton recognizes that the St. Croix River is a fragile and valuable resource that we must protect," Afton mayor, Pat Snyder said. "We are committed to do whatever we can to preserve its natural, biological and ecological integrity."

The Afton Center project proposes to build a condo complex overlooking the river, but similar projects in Lakeland and Denmark Township were cited in the report as reasons for the river being listed as endangered.

"It's just not one city's river," McGuiness said. "It's everybody's river."

McGuiness said helping to remove the Lower St. Croix River from the endangered list will not be a quick process, it is going to take time and effort from a lot of people.

"Hopefully this designation of endangered will help raise public awareness that we all need to work together on this one," McGuiness said. "It may take quite a while, but I'm optimistic that we can do it."

To help preserve the river, McGuiness said it's a threepart process that needs to occur.

First, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has to receive adequate funding from the federal government so that they are better equipped to oversee local development and zoning and regulate it.

Secondly, local government officials and planning commissions should attend training sessions about development and zoning issues. McGuiness said they are currently trying to organize a session on the river so that everyone can see what they are talking about.

"So many of their decisions they make from standing on the shore looking at the river," he said. "But if they can see it from the river , they can see what we're trying to do."

Thirdly, it comes to homeowners being aware of the additions or developments they are adding onto their properties.

Additionally, cities and landowners should become more aware of the chemicals they are using and the run off into the river to help protect the water quality.

"Water quality is going to be an ongoing concern because it's such a hard problem to fix," McGuiness said.

Some of the things that cities and home homers can do to help preserve the water quality is using less fertilizer and chemicals on their properties as well as installing rain gardens or catching roof runoff in buckets for watering their gardens.

McGuiness hopes that the Lower St. Croix River can someday reclaim the beauty and appeal that has attracted so many to it.

"The St. Croix really is special -- it's a nice mix of natural beauty and some really nice historic cultural features," he said. "It's more than just natural beauty, it's cultural diversity and there's a lot of things to do, it's hard to compete with a riverfront."

The entire list of America's Most Endangered Rivers and additional information can be found at

The St. Croix River Association will also be having their spring meeting on May 14 at 6 p.m. at the Grand Banquet Center located at 301 Second Street in Stillwater. During the meeting multiple topics will be discussed, including maintaining the river.

Reservations for the event should be made by May 7. The cost is $22 per person.

For more information and reservations, call Dan McGuiness at (651) 260-6260 or visit

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

(651) 702-0976