The Minnesota River — one of the state's most polluted waterways — has been subject to clean-up efforts for decades. But there's still a long way to go.
Runoff from some of the most productive farmland in the world drains into the river, and the Minnesota pays a price. So much soil and chemical pollution reach the waters that the Minnesota is a thick, cloudy brown where it joins the much clearer Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.
"The river, she doesn't do anything, except flow," said Ojibwe elder Sharon Day. "And it's we humans that pollute her. So we're the only ones that can clean it up."
To highlight the problems, Day is leading a group of activists that is walking the length of the river this week, hoping to add a spiritual motivation to improve the waterway.
The Minnesota River walk is the most recent for Day. A few years back she walked the length of the Mississippi River.
On each trip the group carries a bucket of water dipped at the source of the river. When the bucket is emptied into the more polluted river at the end of the journey, Day says the act sends a message.
"To tell her, this is how you started out, and this is how we wish for you to be again."
The Minnesota is blamed for sediment filling Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River, and it contributes to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
The 300-mile walk's primary message to Minnesotans, Day says, is "don't take water for granted."
Their trek started Friday in Ortonville, Minn., near Big Stone Lake, the river's source. The walk ends Friday near Fort Snelling, at the Minnesota-Mississippi confluence.
During most of the walk, the group won't be able to see the river. But they can see some of the sources of its pollution.
Day said the walkers and their support team see few fields planted in cover crops to hold the soil in place and prevent it from washing into the river.
However, they do see lots of drainage pipes that remove water and chemical pollutants from cropland. The drainage makes the land more productive, but also delivers sediment and farm chemicals into the river.
Scott Sparlin, executive director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, applauds Day and the others.
He's not participating in the walk, but says the spiritual link that Day advocates may be the most important part of the river cleanup effort.
Somewhere in the sacred writings of all religions, there is text about the importance of water, Sparlin said. And he says he'd like to see houses of worship emphasize the importance of water quality.
"I think really they could turn the corner for us and really help us to understand that this was given to us to watch, and to look over and to manage and to use," Sparlin said. "And turn it over to the next generations. And hopefully in a better state than it has been."