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Paddling for water quality: ‘Waterway Jay’ looks to raise awareness through the Paddle for Progress project

Sep 18, 2018 04:36AM ● By Editor

By Zach Stich of the Fergus Falls Journal on September 13, 2018

Jay Gustafson, or Waterway Jay, fell in love with Minnesota’s lakes and rivers when he was a child growing up in South Dakota. Now Gustafson has embarked on a journey to raise awareness for the water quality issues that Minnesota water resources face.

“The project is called Paddle for Progress, what it is, is me paddling the 34 water trails that the DNR maps, in total it’s roughly 4,300 miles,” Gustafson said. “What I am trying to do is raise awareness about our water quality crisis in Minnesota. I am trying to get out on these water trails and connect with anyone I can.”

Gustafson quit his job in July of 2017 on his 10th anniversary as a business analyst, to paddle all 34 water trails in Minnesota to raise awareness for the serious water-quality issues he believes the Minnesota state government needs to address. He paddled from July through Halloween of 2017 and started up again this April.

“I took a leave of absence from a job in the summer of 2016 and I paddled through the Mississippi River from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico,” Gustafson said. “When I came back from that in fall of 2016 and I grew pretty restless, pretty quickly. What I realized was I belong out doing something like this, I belong out on the water and trying to be the voice for our rivers and trying to advocate.”

Paddling his way down the Otter Tail River on Wednesday Sept. 12, Gustafson paddled his way through Fergus Falls and much of Otter Tail County. He noted that the Otter Tail River looks very clear, which is primarily because of zebra mussels, an invasive species. Most pollution and water quality issues cannot be seen by just looking at lakes and rivers.

“Try to not think about this as a river or a lake only issue,” Gustafson said. “Try to think of your connection to water and what even an hour or two a day would feel like without water. Every time you use the restroom and flush the toilet and then go to wash your hands, or how many times you run the sink to cook at night, or bathing your kids or taking a shower.”

Gustafson spends most nights camping at local campsites or even just on the side of the river. He also relies on the kindness of people along his route to pick him up at the end of the day and bring him to where he left his car that day, or for couches and spare rooms to crash in when weather gets bad.

At the forefront of Gustafson’s project is advocacy. He notes that Minnesotans should all vote this fall and there is a clear difference between how different candidate treat environmental and water-quality issues. According to Gustafson, 40 percent of rivers and lakes in Minnesota are unsuitable for aquatic life or recreation. He does have some specific ideas on how the Minnesota government should work to reverse and prevent water-quality problems.

“What I would like to see ultimately is some sort of water policy director who has authority over the different agencies that are involved with water in Minnesota,” Gustafson said. “You’ve got the DNR, you’ve got the Pollution Control Agency, and you’ve got the Board of Water and Soil Resources and at these agencies they do amazing work and in many cases there is some collaboration between agencies. I don’t see an overarching mission and objective and benchmarks that the state has.”

The Otter Tail River is the 27th of the 34 rivers Gustafson is paddling throughout his project. When asked what he would do when the project was over, Gustafson said he would continue to advocate for rivers and lakes in Minnesota.

“There’s no way for me to benchmark the impact that I’ve had,” Gustafson said. “I don’t want this to be the end of my advocacy for water in Minnesota. I’d like to continue working with the DNR to continue to update their map series to make sure people have adequate access to our water trails.”

If you are looking to follow Gustafson’s journey, check out his website

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