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– Geese paddling its surface, rapids riffling its length, the South Fork of the Zumbro River passes through the heart of downtown Rochester, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Yet thanks to an engineering project meant to tame the flood-prone waters, it’s difficult to think of this city as a river town.

High concrete barriers wall off large sections of the Zumbro to prevent flooding. At the bottom of those walls, the river meanders far below the sidewalks and street life above. Few of the buildings that sit along the river acknowledge its existence with decks or large windows that would afford a better view.

That could be changing, slowly, now that the city is engaged in a major economic redevelopment project known as Destination Medical Center (DMC), meant to secure the Mayo Clinic’s place as a global leader in medicine, health care and research.

At least among river fans, there’s hope that the billions of dollars invested in Rochester over the lifetime of the 20-year DMC project will amplify their calls for restoring the river’s water quality and opening up new recreational uses for it.

Their hopes have been buoyed by projects that embrace the riverfront: A $200 million residential and retail tower proposed along one block would bring a water wall, a wading pool and possibly a canoe or kayak launch, according to its Abu Dhabi-based developer Bloom Holding.

A four-story, 29-unit residential project across the river from Mayo Park is under construction, with marketing materials trumpeting its views of the Zumbro. And the 12-year-old Rochester Art Center cantilevers over the river with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the water.

That’s a change from the past, said Kevin Strauss, education coordinator for the Zumbro Watershed Partnership, a local nonprofit.

History of flooding

“For years the Zumbro was feared by the community,” he said. Major floods in 1908 and 1942 put townspeople on notice that their city was flood-prone.

Today the flood risk is worse, in part because rivers and streams in southeastern Minnesota are “pressurized” because of stormwater management practices that have farmland drain tiles pushing water off cropland, Strauss said. Photos of the river from the early 1900s showed rocky bottoms and foliage down to the water, but erosion, mostly from farming practices in the first half of the 20th century, changed the river.

The Zumbro has seen four major floods since 2000 in a pattern of more frequent, powerful flooding, said Strauss.

And yet even as the floods continue, the word “Zumbro” pops up 173 times in the 694-page Destination Medical Center Development plan, in some cases referring to hopes that the river could be used as a recreational amenity.

Patrick Seeb, of the DMC’s Economic Development Agency, spent years thinking about the Mississippi River corridor through St. Paul as executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation. The Zumbro has advantages over the Mississippi, he said. It isn’t crowded with industrial uses along the downtown riverfront, nor does it have a large rail network alongside it.

“There is access to the riverfront in a way that wasn’t true in St. Paul 20-plus years ago,” said Seeb. Miles of paved bike trails run through Rochester along the South Fork of the Zumbro and two large creeks that feed into it.

Nice Ride Minnesota will soon offer bike rentals here, in hopes that some of the city’s 2 million annual visitors will explore the waterfront by bike.

Seeb doesn’t see the DMC project changing the flood-control walls that direct the Zumbro through much of downtown, but he said there’s room for incremental changes that would make the river more accessible.

Across much of downtown Rochester — from the spot where the Zumbro passes under Broadway to Silver Lake — there are just six spots where it’s possible to walk to the river’s edge. Half of those are plain-looking ramps that seem like an afterthought.

Seeb cautioned that building a flight of steps or some other approach to the river from the top of the flood-control walls would come with a big price tag, so it’s unclear whether that will happen.

The idea of building toward the river wasn’t popular in Rochester just 30 years ago, Seeb said, and that was true in other riverfront cities as well.

“You can date developments based on their relationship to the river,” Seeb said. “It’s a pattern that cities sort of turned their backs to the river, especially post-flood situations where the river was this enemy of the city.”

Paddling the river

A U.S. Board on Geographic Names file from 1908 appears to show an executive committee choosing the name Zumbro over the French name Embarras, which meant floating piles or drift, a reference to the debris and obstacles in the water that made navigation difficult. The word Zumbro was the local usage of an Indian name for the river, Zambre, the file notes.

It’s possible to paddle the South Fork of the Zumbro from Silver Lake to Broadway, a section that covers all of the riverfront area included in the DMC plan. Strauss and a few other water quality specialists from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Zumbro Watershed Partnership paddled it recently, finding it passable all the way to a small dam near Broadway.

Geese by the hundreds dwell on the Zumbro’s shoreline where it widens into Silver Lake, and while they’re a scenic addition, their droppings cloud the water. But their contribution to water pollution is minor compared to other sources upstream, said Brett Ostby, chairman of the Zumbro Watershed Partnership’s citizens board.

Although the river is seeing less phosphorus and sediment dumped into it than in years past, the water has more salt and nitrates, he said.

An outdoor classroom

The Zumbro Watershed Partnership has been busy talking to city officials about managing the upriver sources of this pollution.

“Just getting the city to think we could be working upstream to make this a better resource for everyone,” said Ostby.

The river could soon see more people canoeing its length through the city.

Greg Lais, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, said his organization plans to put kids in canoes on the Zumbro this fall. He was recently in Rochester to talk over some of the details with a couple of local school principals. His program has 24-foot canoes that can hold 10 people and are more stable than traditional canoes.

An elementary school just blocks from the Zumbro wants to use the river as an outdoor classroom, said Lais.

“That’s what these principals are so psyched about,” he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747