New watershed district now all but sealed

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 29, 2003

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) board signaled that a new era in management of the Shell Rock River watershed is at hand Wednesday, voting 11-3 to direct its staff to proceed with establishment of a watershed district.

The district won’t become official until the board’s June 25 meeting, but Wednesday’s vote all but seals the deal. Before the next meeting, when final approval is expected, BWSR staff will select seven managers to run the district from a group of 14 candidates whose names were submitted with a petition asking the agency to create the district three years ago.

It’s a victory for the petitioners, led by Harley Miller of Albert Lea, who believe local governments haven’t shown enough commitment to stopping erosion and harmful runoff that make the waters of Albert Lea and Fountain lakes murky and green and continue downstream. County commissioners, on the other hand, see the decision as an inappropriate use of state power to usurp policy-making authority from elected officials.

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The district and its seven-member board of managers will have jurisdiction over watershed projects in the Shell Rock River watershed, and state statute gives it the authority to levy taxes to accomplish its goals.

In the end, the BWSR board appeared convinced that Freeborn County would not be willing or able to provide the funding needed to make a commitment to watershed cleanup, said Commissioner Dave Mullenbach, who attended the meeting Wednesday.

Mullenbach questioned that reasoning. &uot;Why would you raise money for a project you don’t even have in place yet?&uot; he said.

Repeating a suspicion aired by watershed-district opponents when a BWSR subcommittee met in Albert Lea earlier this month, Mullenbach said he had the impression that the board members had their minds made up before the meeting even started.

But Jim Haertel, a BWSR staffer, said the board carefully considered the issue.

&uot;It was largely debated,&uot; he said. &uot;There was quite a discussion on it. But the general feeling was that the county board was not making a big enough effort,&uot; Haertel said.

In defeat, commissioners said they’ll have to live with the decision and make the best of it.

&uot;They won the battle, so we’ll go forward,&uot; Mullenbach said. &uot;We’ll get the watershed cleaned up some way.&uot;

Commissioner Glen Mathiason, who last week wrote a letter of protest to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and local legislators about BWSR’s handling of the case, agreed.

&uot;We fought the fight and the outcome is what it is, and that’s the way it will be,&uot; he said. He added, however, that he will persist in asking for changes in the state statute governing watershed districts, which requires only 50 signatures on a petition to trigger consideration of a watershed district.

Miller, who initiated the petition and is one of the the nominees for the board of managers, said the new body will need to work closely with local governments to get its job done.

&uot;Regardless of the fact that we have a watershed district, this has to be a cooperative effort of all the governmental bodies involved, otherwise it will not be a success,&uot; he said.

Mullenbach said he will encourage the managers to use information already gathered through the county’s watershed program, which are likely to be discontinued in the face of budget cuts and the creation of the new district.

He said the county’s efforts over the last three years, including the creation of a lake management plan for Albert Lea Lake, have been worthwhile despite the outcome.

&uot;I don’t think it’s been a waste at all, because what we did had to be done either way,&uot; Mullenbach said.

Even with some of the leg work done by the county, Miller said the board of managers will face a long road ahead.

&uot;I know how much work we’re facing, and it’s a daunting task,&uot; Miller said. &uot;There’s so much work and so much stress that has gone into this, it’s kind of hard to feel elated about this.&uot;

The manager nominees submitted with the petition include: Miller, Ken Nelson, Tom Tubbs, Bruce Haugsdal, Matt Maras, Paul Overgaard, David Wick, Don Sorenson, Glen Ruble, Gary Pestorious, Lowell Ross, Roger C. Peterson and Tom Dahl. One of the 14 original nominees has since said he cannot serve on the board.

BWSR has already mailed questionnaires to the candidates and will conduct interviews with finalists in the coming weeks, Haertel said.