Freshwater 50th Anniversary

Looking back, moving forward

A half century in, it’s time to celebrate Freshwater’s past progress and set our sights on next steps

Imagine two futures for Minnesota.

In one, pristine groundwater and sparkling blue streams feed lakes and rivers populated by healthy native species. Urban and rural residents alike enjoy abundant, clean drinking water. Industry, agriculture, individuals and ecosystems thrive.

In the other, chemicals pollute once-pristine waterways. Nonnative invasive aquatic species cost billions each year in control measures and lost revenue. Drinking water comes in bottles because aquifers are either too dirty or too depleted for communities to rely on. Riverbanks have become private property, and sediment-filled waterways carry the mess downstream, where they devastate fisheries and afflict neighbors.

Imagining two such futures is just what Twin Cities businessman Dick Gray did 50 years ago. Looking around him, he saw unsettling signs of harm to Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. But rather than accepting it as inevitable, he decided to do something. In 1968 Gray and a handful of friends formed the Freshwater Biological Research Foundation. Through science, education and advocacy, they aimed to bring attention to the value and vulnerability of Minnesota’s incredible water assets and harness science to protect them — with one overarching goal: Keep our water useable.

Thanks in part to our founders’ efforts and those of hundreds of others who have followed in their footsteps, freshwater today is a valued and valuable resource in our state. Many problems that loomed large 50 years ago have been avoided, reduced or resolved.

Still, as the world has evolved, so have our water woes. In fact, the past half century has been a bit like a game of whack-a-mole: Address one problem, another pops up. As a result, the need for vigilance, education, advocacy, and action is as strong today as it was 50 years ago.

Fortunately, so is Freshwater. Even as we celebrate our successes in meeting past challenges, we’re working hard to address those most needing attention today: aquifer depletion, water pollution, damaging increases in stream flows.

Our hope is that 50 years from now, those who look back at our work today will be able to raise a glass of fresh, clean water to us, as we do today to those who have gone before, and say: Job well done, thank you.

by Mary Hoff

Photos from the archives!

A short history of Freshwater.

Laying the Foundation
(1968–1974)
It started out, by all accounts, as a normal Sunday morning in February 1968. Twin Cities businessman Dick Gray pulled on his snow boots and coat, rounded up his two golden retrievers, and headed out on Lake Minnetonka. Read more.

Research, Then Outreach
(1975­–1980)
The foundation turned over the new 52,000-square-foot Freshwater Biological Institute (renamed the Gray Institute for Freshwater Biology in 1978 and the Gray Freshwater Center in 1995) to the University of Minnesota in 1976. Read more.

Full Speed Ahead
(1980–1990)
The 1980s were by and large good years for Freshwater, which now boasted a national reputation as a mover and shaker in the world of water resources. Read more.

Big Changes
(1991–2004)
In the early 1990s, the shift to more fully embrace groundwater as part of the picture continued. Freshwater developed The Great Lakes Groundwater Information System and convened a national groundwater conference. Read more.

A New Era
(2005­–2014)
By 2005, with finances improving, Freshwater was ripe for reinvigoration. The organization proclaimed the start of a new era as the organization moved into restructuring, reimagining its mission, and rededicating its energy and resources. Read more.

Moving Forward
(2015–Today)
Today our primary focus continues to be on increasing public awareness and engagement, and advocating for policies and practices, in two main areas: nonpoint pollution and groundwater. Read more.