2019 Annual Report


Grassroots and public advocacy

Habitat conservation and restoration

Education and community engagement

urged our legislators
to protect our water
on Water Action Day

sent by River Guardians
to decision-makers
regarding threats to the river

and riverfront plans
reviewed and influenced
by FMR staff and advocates







of land in our watershed permanently protected
for habitat and clean water

of prairie and woodland seeds spread to create
diverse habitat

of Greatest Conservation Need spotted at
our restoration sites








engaged in field work, cleanups, classroom lessons and more

spent by participants restoring and learning about the Mississippi

built and placed to save rain from overwhelming
our stormwater systems




rain barrels



Because thousands of you contribute in so many ways,
our collective impact goes far beyond the borders of our cities, our state, even our nation.

In honor of our silver year, we shined the spotlight on our beautiful river and dedicated supporters — FMR volunteers, partners, members and advocates like you — in this 25th-anniversary video.

Our work together

Photos: Tom Reiter, Tom Reiter, Rich Wahls, Ellen Rogers

People planting
Child and adult planting a tree
Person planting
Ronnie Brooks

Dear friends of the river,

This uncertain season underscores how connected we all are. While the COVID-19 crisis requires that we keep our distance from one another, we also heed the call to recognize our interdependence and to protect one another.

You know how to do this. You know how to come together to save something beyond yourself. The stories we have to tell from our work in 2019 celebrate this unity and generosity. Just as many waters unite to make our Mississippi mighty, it takes many communities joining together to protect our river.

Coming together for clean water and healthy habitat…

This year, FMR supported 20 organizations and our 2,000+ River Guardians to advocate for new laws to protect drinking water for every Minnesotan. We also formed the Forever Green Partnership with researchers, farmers, agribusinesses and others. This new coalition will support farmers by helping ‘clean-water crops’ take root, which will in turn protect our river from runoff pollution.

Through our collaborations with government, landowners and volunteers, we restored more than 2,000 acres of quality habitat this year. More than 20 at-risk species have made that habitat home.

Connecting communities through the river...

This was the first year of FMR’s Youth Empowerment Program giving metro teens who care about the environment a chance to build experience in the field. We also engaged hundreds of community members in local decision-making — at toxic Ford Area C, at the Upper Harbor Terminal and more.

We think there’s a reason our annual Earth Day cleanup overflowed with nearly 500 participants: The river inspires our belonging, and in turn our responsibility, to this place and to each other.

To all of you who gave time or resources this year to protect, restore and enhance the metro Mississippi, thank you. Like the river, we’re more powerful together.

Our sincerest gratitude,

Ronnie Brooks, Chair of FMR's Board of Directors



The Youth Empowerment Program pilot takes off


We can grow a strong, resilient movement for our land and waters only if everyone’s included.

A few years ago we invited Dr. Dorceta Taylor, one of our nation’s preeminent environmental justice scholars, to speak at our fall celebration and work with us and other green groups here in Minnesota. Dr. Taylor helped us ask what we, as environmental organizations, are doing to advance social justice. 

Our youth program meets thousands of Twin Cities students in classrooms and clubs. We teach about watersheds, we steward restorations, we lead field research and more. But noting the lack of effective career pathways for some in the environmental field, we wanted to create a longer-term, intensive followup to help bridge the gap between those that engage in our youth programs and those who have the opportunity to land an environmental job.

That’s how the idea for the Youth Empowerment Program was born.

Crafting the program

Last summer we launched a paid, 8-week program to bring together 11 high school students from around the metro area. Because our goal is empowerment, we kicked off the program by asking what these young people wanted to explore. Their input laid the course for our focus and approach.


Each Youth Empowerment Program participant took on their own independent project to deepen their understanding of an environmental issue, build research skills and impact their communities. Here's a sampling of their excellent work.

Participant pulls invasives
Participants in the field
Participants canoeing

The curriculum we created together

FMR staff members shared skills on everything from ecological restoration to personal finance. We visited a lab for a behind-the-scenes look at nitrogen testing in local waterways. We hosted an environmental justice discussion. And we got out in the field for pollinator and water quality research.

Next year

One participant called the program 'an amazing opportunity to grow life skills and knowledge.'

We thought it was pretty amazing too. We’re already looking forward to next summer’s meeting of minds.

Nora combined her interest in environmental education with her vast collection of monarch eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies. She brought her booth to local parks and talked to children at the Shriner's Hospital. With a handmade clay model of a monarch's life cycle and an online survey for booth visitors to give her feedback, Nora set up a sophisticated educational tool that we hope to see at more parks next summer!

Nora's butterfly booth

Nora with monarch on her nose, child, and butterfly booth

Drawn to wildlife, Jay rescued a baby painted turtle with injuries and eye damage. Determined to protect the turtle from further harm, she researched its needs, cared for it, and learned about the habitat destruction and challenges facing turtles.

Jay made a video of the turtle to kickstart an online awareness campaign about those challenges.

Jay's turtle awareness project


Naomi's article: Nutrient pollution as a global issue

Curious about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Naomi looked into the detrimental effects of excess nutrients in our water and wrote a quality article on the topic: 'While nutrients are important to maintain healthy ecosystems, nutrients in excess fuels the growth of large algal blooms.'



A groundswell protects our groundwater and wells


We believe everyone deserves clean, safe drinking water.

You’d think that would be an easy goal for a state known for its lakes and rivers. But passing measures that protect and restore our waters requires strong legislative and administrative advocacy efforts.

Every year, we convene a coalition of water-related groups from across the state to identify shared water priorities and coordinate our legislative efforts. FMR leads the charge to hammer out a strategy for change.

Together we shaped vital water legislation and state rules in 2019.

Legislature: Increased funding for safe drinking water

As our population grows, the state needs more resources to keep up with keeping our water safe.

This year, we helped boost funding for water testing, treatment plant review, training for operators,  inspections and more by boosting the state’s Safe Drinking Water Fee, which hadn’t been increased since 2005.

Glass of water
Children with a sign that reads "Protect Us We are Water"

Rulemaking: The Groundwater Protection Rule

Coined the “rural Flint” crisis, water polluted by fertilizer now burdens more than 150,000 Minnesotans. And that number is rising.

While corporations may use dollars to lobby, we’ve got people power.

The voices of our 2,000+ River Guardians helped pass a groundbreaking rule in 2019. The Groundwater Protection Rule creates common-sense limits on when and where farmers can deploy nitrogen fertilizer. Those changes will help protect drinking water for rural Minnesotans.

Photo: Anna Botz 

Local singer, speaker, TV reporter and radio talk show host

Jearlyn Steele


'Here’s why I support Friends of the Mississippi River.

Every morning, I lift a glass of water that the Mississippi has offered to me. It went through all of its iterations and had to come out clean for me to be able to consume it. But the genesis was the Mississippi River.

I hold that glass up and I say, 'Thank you for life, health and strength.' The river brings us life. And FMR protects the river.'


The Forever Green Partnership takes root


Clean-water crops (right) are good for water for the same reason prairies are: year-round deep roots. They hold soil in place, which reduces erosion. And they don’t leak crucial nutrients as much as conventional crops (left). (Illustration: Kimberly Boustead and Emily Sauer)

Crops on left leak particles into murky water. Crops on right hold particles in soil, and nearby waters show fish.

In Minnesota, farming is part of our identity and our heritage.

But as more and more acres turn into industrial row-crop farmland and subdivisions, the land which used to act as a natural sponge now acts more like a sieve.

Increasing rain and snowmelt rush sediment and fertilizers into our river, causing major problems for humans and wildlife not only in Minnesota, but all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

If our croplands are the root of the river’s major pollution problem, they are also the solution.
We envision a transition to emerging cropping systems that produce food, fiber and fuel for our economy while also protecting and restoring our waters.

Photos: Anna Botz, Forever Green Initiative, Walton Family Foundation & Practical Farmers of Iowa, FMR

FMR and Forever Green staff smile
Person walking in field

The Forever Green Partnership

We’re building alliances by creating the Forever Green Partnership. Farmers, scientists, economists, agribusinesses and more are coming together to help shift the heartland to clean-water crops, and protect our water and our communities.

Growing to meet the challenge

We expanded our staff capacity this year, hiring a new agricultural policy manager to lead our work with the Forever Green Partnership.

Look for more details on this exciting launch later this year.

Legislative gains

In 2019, we advocated for and won a $4.3 million state investment in the University of Minnesota's research and development of clean-water crops and systems.

Agroecology professor at the University of Minnesota
and co-director of the Forever Green Initiative

Don Wyse


'FMR has played a vital, sustained and highly creative role in developing the Forever Green Partnership, a dynamic public-private partnership pursuing a unique, market-driven pathway to clean water and ecosystem health in agricultural watersheds.

FMR has been essential in forging alliances and moving this work forward.'


A 20-year partnership creates habitat

for the rusty patched bumblebee


Funding for the Pine Bend Bluffs restoration was provided by Flint Hills Resources.

Rusty patched bumble bee

Pollinator decline spells trouble for the whole food web.

Wildflowers produce seeds — food for songbirds and other animals — only if bees and other pollinators visit their blooms. Unfortunately, like many other pollinators, the population of Minnesota’s state bee — the rusty patched bumblebee — has plummeted nearly 90 percent in the past 20 years, largely due to loss of habitat.

But this year our prairie restoration at Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Bluffs land in Rosemount made quite the buzz: The federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee has made this restored habitat home.

We were already celebrating the 20th anniversary of working on this land.

Finding the rusty patched bumblebee at our restoration
shows our collaborative efforts to improve habitat are coming to fruition.

Funding for the William H. Houlton Conservation Area restoration was provided from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature.

Photos: Karen Schik, USFWS, FMR, Dakota County wildlife camera, Chris Smith 


Yellow bumblebee in bug box
Monarch butterfly on blazing star
Fisher in snow


Fishers are more common in Minnesota's north woods than our metro forests. But Dakota County spotted a fisher recently at Spring Lake Park Reserve near areas where we've restored prairie and woods. We've got a few pictures to share, thanks to our tracking and their wildlife camera.

More bumblebees

In only its second year, our restoration at the William H. Houlton Conservation Area in Elk River is yielding impressive wildlife gains: from four bumblee species in the first year to nine now, and from 16 individual bees to 575 — including the yellow bumblebee pictured here.

Monarch butterflies

At our prairie restoration in Flint Hills Resources' Pine Bend Bluffs, we've seen increases in the number of monarch eggs and caterpillars. And last fall, we caught video of hundreds of monarch butterflies flitting through the blooming blazing star, collecting nectar fuel for the long journey to Mexico.


Teamwork makes a haven for paddlers and plants
at Settler's Island in the Grey Cloud slough




Removal of buckthorn allows a more diverse plant community to thrive. And that means more habitat for river wildlife.

Green understory and trees
Bare soil and shrubs

We're planning and leading the restoration on the island.

But we're teaming up with many organizations and volunteers to make it happen.

When we asked Phuong what her biggest takeaway was from her fall semester with us, she said 'The value of partnerships.'

Buckthorn used to shade out most other plants, leaving the island vulnerable to intense erosion.

In September, our conservation intern Phuong Nguyen canoed with a fleet of volunteers to a small island in the Grey Cloud slough near Cottage Grove. We’ve worked there since 2017 to transform the buckthorn-infested floodplain forest into a more welcoming hub for paddlers and wildlife.

And now we’re seeing results.

Funding for the restoration was provided from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature.

Photos: Alex Roth, Alex Roth, Alex Roth, Mississippi Park Connection, Mississippi Park Connection, FMR

Volunteers circle up on the island
People canoeing to island
Kayaks pulled up next to a sign

The City of Cottage Grove owns the island. They had the vision to offer residents and recreators another stop on their water trail, and partnered with us to make it happen.

And of course our members and volunteers came together to restore habitat.

Look for this new stop on the water trail later this summer! 

In our collaboration with Mississippi Park Connection and the National Park Service, we grew saplings, combined volunteers and borrowed a flotilla.

FMR conservation intern and Macalester College senior


Phuong Nguyen

'I was struck by the large and diverse group of enthusiastic participants at Settler’s Island, from partners to volunteers, and what we could do together.

At the end of our volunteer day, our group of 30 managed to plant 350 trees — on an island! This really shows how much people love and want to protect and restore habitat in the Twin Cities. 

As an intern, I was happy to see the results of FMR's longer-term work, from building relationships and writing management plans to engaging community members in such a great event.'


Persistent citizen advocacy influences
the cleanup of the toxic Ford Area C waste dump


Photos: Tom Reiter, Minnesota Historical Society 1925, Margie O'Loughlin, Margie O'Loughlin

Hidden Falls Park
People talking to FMR staff at a park
Historical photo of cars loading onto a barge

As Ford Motor Company assembled cars on the St. Paul river bluff, they buried and dumped waste on the floodplain until the 1960s.

Thanks to an anonymous tipoff, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) found out about these practices. They’re now in charge of assessing the damage and ordering a cleanup.

Teaming up with Capitol Region Watershed District, we hired engineers to conduct an independent study. They identified significant gaps in the groundwater monitoring at Ford Area C — gaps that make us doubt that anyone knows what exactly leaks into the river or how climate change-intensified flooding might worsen conditions.

It’s hard to know how to clean up a toxic waste site if you don’t know what’s there. Together, we called on the MPCA to require Ford to expand their testing, monitor through flood cycles, and test for PFAS — forever chemicals unsafe for human health. And we asked for a public meeting, because we believe the community deserves a chance to know the truth before anyone crafts a cleanup plan.

Because we were able to collaborate with other government entities and galvanize more than a hundred concerned community members, we’re proud to say that the MPCA agreed to each of our requests. And together, we’ll continue to shape the future of Ford Area C for as long as it takes to deal responsibly with its past.

FMR board member and project implementation director for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation


Paul Bauknight

'As we’ve been on this journey together about equity, we’re thinking about what’s the fair and just inclusion of people in our society — which is not a passive sport.

How do we make development along the river for communities what it needs to be, what it should be, what it hasn’t been? How do we make that change? How do we stand up to people when they say, 'Let’s take the easier route?'

In my experience as I’ve worked with FMR at the Upper Harbor Terminal, they’ve been willing to take that stand and say when things are unjust.'


Proactive advocacy prevents erosion
that building too close to the bluff would cause


2019 was Minnesota’s wettest year on record. As the climate changes and we endure more intense rain and snowmelt, erosion has become an even bigger problem for our river. Our choices around blufftop development can exacerbate the issue and put life, property and the integrity of the river bluffs at greater risk.

Three major landslides have happened in the last decade in Lilydale alone. So when a developer proposed a five-story senior living facility there, just 18 feet from the bluff’s edge, we wanted to get in on the ground floor of the planning process.

Through dialogue with city officials and meetings with the developers, we were able to convey our concerns around the height of the building and the bluff’s vulnerability.

We also reached out to local residents. They understood the serious ecological, scenic and even safety issues with the proposal, and raised these concerns. Within a few months of our efforts, the developer revised their plans, doubling the setback from the bluff’s edge.

This is the kind of proactive dialogue and organizing we believe can protect the river. Before any building begins, we can change the foundation.

Eroding hillside
Bluff and erosion near building edge


Volunteers stem out-of-hand invasive plants


We're restoring habitat in more than 30 places in the metro river corridor.

At each, we uproot invasive plants so that a more diverse community of flora and fauna can flourish.

Forests, prairies and savannas all work best when they're shared between species. But invasive plants bump out others: plants that help hold soil in place, plants where birds nest, plants that make up vibrant, interconnected habitat.

The threat invasive species pose to our habitats is no joke,
but we’re having fun raising awareness and reducing the impact of invasives.

Karen explaining how to pull invasives to volunteers
Garlic mustard collector’s card
Artists with plant prints

At the Bite Back Potluck, we collaborated with local artists to raise awareness about invasives over a supper featuring edible weeds.

Participants also got to work on art projects to celebrate plants that make habitat rather than break it down.

It’s not enough to know about a threat. That’s why, in addition to educating about invasives, we engaged more than 3,000 people to get their hands dirty and act on this issue. Because we came together, we’ve made quality habitat, slowed down the spread of plant diseases, and cut down on erosion of soil into our waterways.

This year, we handed out invasive species collector's cards as a guide (and a thank you) to our intrepid, invasive-busting volunteers. 

If you’d like to learn how to help eradicate invasives and what to plant instead, you can collect all the cards here.

Photos: Rich Wahls, Paul Raymaker, Ellen Rogers, Paul Raymaker


The Gorge Earth Day cleanup overflows with river friends


In 2019, close to 500 people came to our Annual Earth Day cleanup at the Minneapolis River Gorge, our biggest cleanup yet.

That day kicked off a volunteer season of more cleanups, plantings, seed collections and habitat restoration events. You volunteered more than 4,000 hours (often while wet) — more hours than there are miles of the Mississippi River!

Just as important as taking care of the Mississippi’s banks and waters is the connection participants make to each other and to their river.

Neighbors feel a little more at home as they engage in these events.

—Kelsey King, pictured here with Ashantty Zuniga and Laura Guerrero

Three women with trash bags

'I just moved here, and I’m impressed with Minnesota’s parks and trails.

They’re so accessible from the neighborhoods.'

—Ellen Palmer, Longfellow resident who came with her partner Scott Alsleben and kids, Lilly and Walter

Palmer family

'The River Gorge is part of our community, and we want to clean up the places we spend time in.'

—Shawn Willy, FMR supporter for 10 years

Shawn Willy with trash bag

'My daughter and I come to Earth Day together. We enjoy it. We feel like we’re making a difference and it’s a nice way to spend a Saturday morning.'

Through caring and advocating for the river
— its waters, wildlife and communities —
we strengthen our common bond:

A shared responsibility for the place we love,
no matter who we are.



Together we are realizing

our vision

of a thriving Mississippi River

for future generations.

Statement of Financial Activities

Calendar year 2019 total of unrestricted amounts (audited)

2019 Expenses: $2,508,864

2019 Revenues: $2,514,903

Photos: Tom Reiter, Steve Cronin, Tom Reiter

High Bridge and birds at dusk
Volunteers at Ole Olson
Great blue heron

Join us in 2020

Sign up as a River Guardian

Steward our land and waters

Become a member

FMR board and staff in canoe
FMR board and staff full group
FMR board and staff in canoe

Advisory Board

Paul Aasen

Shirley Hunt Alexander

Michelle Beeman

Charles K. Dayton

David Durenberger

Ron Kroese

George Latimer

Lynn Moratzka

Dr. Michael Osterholm

Phil Riveness

Sen. Tina Smith

John Linc Stine

Dr. Deborah Swackhamer

Liz Wielinski

Our Team

Ronnie Brooks, Chair

Chad Dayton, Vice Chair

Perry McGowan, Treasurer

Peter Gove, Secretary

Jeff Aguy

Marcia Avner

Paul Bauknight

Stewart Crosby

George Dunn

Forrest Flint

Diane Herman

Chris Higgins

Julia Kaemmer

Ryan Mallery

Hokan Miller

Julia Olmstead

Susan Vento

Deanna Wiener

Nou Yang

Dr. John Anfinson (Liaison, nonvoting)

Board of Directors


Whitney Clark, Executive Director 

Kate Clayton, Youth Coordinator

John Czyscon, Development Associate

Betsy Daub, Conservation Director

Sara DeKok, Associate Director-Development Director

Sophie Downey, Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator

Tessa Enroth, Individual Gifts Officer

Adam Flett, Stewardship & Education Program Director

Sheila Gothmann, Finance Director

Jennifer Schuetz Hadley, Database Coordinator

Barb Heintz, Accountant

Peter LaFontaine, Agricultural Policy Manager

Ashley O'Neill Prado, Administrative & Programs Assistant

sue rich, Communications Director

Ellen Rogers, Communications Associate

Alex Roth, Ecologist

Trevor Russell, Water Program Director

Karen Schik, Senior Ecologist

Colleen O'Connor Toberman, River Corridor Director

Our mission:
Friends of the Mississippi River
engages people to protect, restore and enhance
the Mississippi River and its watershed
in the Twin Cities region.

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101 E. 5th St.

Ste. 2000

Saint Paul, MN 55101