Backro Woman learns subtleties of river, one bucket at a time

OSTRANDER -- Carol Kohn dropped her white bucket from the Fillmore County Road 1 bridge, expertly missing a wire below the span, and watched the bucket make a big splash in the South Branch Root River.

In her own way, Kohn has made a splash with that bucket.

She is a citizen stream monitor, one of only four in the state who were in the first group who volunteered in 1998 and are still monitoring. Her job is to check the clarity and temperature of the water and decide how good it is for recreational contact and aesthetics. In a way, she’s like a doctor (she’s actually a nurse). She uses the water to diagnose the land’s ills.

"The river is like the blood flow of the earth," she said.

Her work helps the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency learn about the river where she swam and fished while growing up, and watched deteriorate over time.


With help from monitors, the agency is now beginning work to clean soil, animal waste, human waste and other pollutants from the Root.

Kohn would like to see that.

Just look at it, she said from that bridge. The river is much more shallow now, probably because many of the springs that once fed into it dried up after more farmers tiled their land.

The river , which feeds into Forestville State Park and Mystery Cave, is also dirtier. When she gets water from the bucket, she pours it into a special tube with a black-and-white pattern at the bottom and lets out water until she sees the pattern. At times, water is less than an inch deep before she sees the pattern.

How Kohn has seen the river change is part of her story.

How the river has changed her is the other part.

When you check the river once a week (more during storms) you get to know it better. You can begin to see things, wonder about what’s happening, wish you could learn more.

"I guess I never realized how dirty the water is until I started doing this," she said.


She began noticing things she didn’t see as a youth. The river is more intimate.

Information led her to begin teaching others about water quality. She sees the need for grass waterways in fields to hold back soil and chemicals. "I tried to talk to some guys about putting (grass) waterways in," she said. They said no, "it’s too much of a hassle."

When people stop and ask her if she’s fishing, she says "no, just catching water." And then she explains what she’s doing and what she’s finding about pollution. "They say ‘Oh, interesting,’ and drive on," Kohn said.

What hasn’t changed in those 10 years, however, is her love for the river.

Yes, it’s shallower and dirtier. But it’s still the Root, still her river.

"I still go down there and wade into the water. It cools your feet in summer time," she said. "I wish it was back to the way it was."

Staff writer John Weiss travels the region’s back roads looking for people, places and things of interest for this column. If you have ideas, call him at (507) 285-7749.

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