Poet. Biologist. Organizer. Advocate. Water quality steward. Blogger. Beginner. Meet Cole Williams, Mississippi River neighbor and fan.

Understanding river water quality

For Williams, a move to the river’s edge in Newport just south of South St. Paul several years ago both shocked and awakened the river-lover within. Since then, her 150 feet of riverfront has been her water quality teacher.

The sheer amount of plastic that landed in her front yard after her first winter inspired her to ask “What is the water system?” Once she learned that all of the city’s storm drains go directly into the river, she was inspired to take on this “big world problem.” She began painting storm drains, avoiding single-use plastics, becoming a drop-off site for hard plastics, dedicating part of her lawn to pervious surfaces, while continuing to collect leaves, grass-clippings and dog waste.

Williams collects hard plastics, part of the national American Rivers program.
Williams is a drop-off site for hard plastics — one of the chief contributors to poor water quality — from her neighborhood in Newport, Minn.

“It was a profound extrapolation for me,” she said — so eye-opening, in fact, that she decided to commit one year (2015-2016) to getting to know the river as well as possible. She spent as much time as she could interacting with it, writing poetry inspired by its environs (captured in her award-winning book Hear the River Dammed: Poems from the Edge of the Mississippi, Beaver’s Pond Press, 2017).

Deepening a commitment to water quality stewardship

Since her initial steps painting “Please don’t litter, drains to river,” on storm drains, she has become a whirling dervish of river protection commitment. Not only is she a Friend of the Mississippi River, but she also partners with Hastings Environmental Protectors, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, H2O for Life, Friends of Pool 2, Living Lands and Waters, Great River Greening, the Mississippi River Network, even the Pearl River Cleaners in Louisiana — on a host of cleanup projects, arts initiatives, and readings.

She is surprised that people consider her an “expert witness for river-related water issues” in part because she has embraced her “beginner” status, while encouraging others to do the same. (Though her recent enrollment in a Master Water Steward program may officially end that status.) Still, “Small things matter,” she insists.

“Sometimes it takes a person in a neighborhood to set an example, increase awareness, and begin to change a culture,” she says. “The amount of power a homeowner has can have a great effect on water quality.”

Williams holds fabric bins awaiting pick up from a national recycling program, part of a water quality improvement plan to clean up American rivers.
Williams collects fabric bins of hard plastics, part of a national water quality improvement plan to clean up American Rivers.

So, “Go outside and meet your neighbors!” says Williams, while getting to know (and love) that 72-mile national park that bisects the Twin Cities.

For more tips on how you can help protect lakes and rivers, check out these nine tips from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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