Dealing with our lakes
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 23, 2002
Without Harley Miller, the county’s undertaking on lake management might never have begun.
The energetic 78-year-old retired businessman initiated the petition for establishing the Shell Rock River Watershed District, which forced the county to come up with the comprehensive water management plan.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of meetings. But, nothing happened,” Miller said. “So, I opened my mouth in the first meeting at the Chamber I attended.”
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Since that meeting in 1999, Miller led a volunteer group to assist farmers to apply the filter strip program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Starting with seven miles, the county now has over 300 miles of filter strips.
Around the same time, the Chamber of Commerce started giving public information sessions to present its reports about Albert Lea Lake. In these sessions they focused on seven different scenarios for water improvement.
However, the county board showed little interest in the proposals, which prompted Miller to file the petition for establishing the Watershed District to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) in March 2000.
Miller thought an independent taxing authority that covers the whole watershed would bring a ultimate solution by bypassing the county government’s reluctance and bureaucracy, and the problematic inter-governmental cooperation between the county and city required for the lake management.
“The authority ends at the city limits. And the city council authority ends at the limits also. So, it
takes unprecedented amount of cooperation between the city and county to do this,” Miller said. “The history of the county-city cooperation is poor. It’s been a disaster. They can’t even get along about the d–n law enforcement center.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that the BWSR coming into the picture prompted the county board to open up a discussion,” Ken Nelson, who worked with Miller in forming the Watershed District, said.
“The Chamber was the catalyst that brought us together to come up with the plan. But, we had to have a viable means of applying pressure on the county board. And that was done through the BWSR,” he said.
Miller and Nelson’s group collected 755 signatures, though only 50 are required by the state, to get enough public support a watershed district. The overwhelming support for the new government body was a signal to the county that a governing body would be made with or without their approval. The BWSR and county agreed to hold the petition in agreement that the county would began implementing lake improvement measures by the February for the following year.
Miller and Nelson sat together on the Albert Lea Lake management committee formed under the county board as a part of the agreement with BWSR. The committee’s recommendation, which consists of nine goals including the replacement of dam, partial dredging and periodic artificial water level control, was adopted by the county board in July.
The county has also added a staff specialized in the water quality to its Environmental Services, and increased the annual budget for lake management from $150,000 to $275,000
Nelson, who is regarded as a lake historian in the county, is glad to see the lake issue is finally moving after numerous unsuccessful attempts to draw the government involvement in the past decades.
“This management plan is the evidence of how well the county has done,” Nelson said. “The efforts that have been shown by the county to this point are to be commended. I’m really pleased with the direction they are going.”
“They (the county) would not be doing that damn thing without the threat of
the Watershed District being formed hanging over their head. That’s the only reason they got on board,” Miller said, agreeing with the Nelson’s perspective.
But, he is still uncertain if the county can manage the lake issue better than the Watershed District. He believes that that county needs to separate the lake management branch from the Environmental Services branch by making a new department with more staff and resources.
Still, the cooperation with the city government remains as a big hurdle.
The City of Albert Lea accounted $30,000, which Miller calls “a joke”, for lake management in their 2003 budget proposal. County Commissioner Chair Dave Mullenbach used his leadership to open up a dialogue with the city, and the county is planning to discuss the lake project as one of their main concerns in the next joint meeting scheduled on November 4. But, what kind of contribution the project will get from the city is very unclear at this point.
“This will add the quality of life to this community in an unprecedented degree,” Miller said. “There has never been anything done in this community that would add as much the quality of life as this lake project, if it’s completed. Even if it costs $10 million, $15 million, $20 million or whatever, the economic benefits over time will far exceed that.”