Watershed board proponents hold out hope for district

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 8, 2003

While the county has determined it will try to keep its authority on the Shell Rock River watershed, watershed district backers are getting ready to persuade the state to recognize the necessity of establishing the independent governmental body.

“It seems to me the county is more interested in protecting their authority than seeing something get done in the conservation programs that we need for the watershed,” Harley Miller, who initiated the petition to form the watershed district, said. “If we don’t form the watershed district, the whole lake project is going to die. That’s obvious.”

A petition of 755 signatures, far beyond the 50 that the law requires, submitted three years ago to the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) prompted the county to promote the conservation projects. BWSR decided to give the county some time to prove its commitment. No, the deadline has passed and the meeting next Tuesday will be the final stage for the agency to make a decision on the petition.

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Though the county maintains it did everything required by BWSR, Don Sorensen, chairman of the chamber’s lake committee and one of the petitioners, has doubts they did so.

Sorensen, who sat on Albert Lea Lake Committee under the county board to assemble the lake management plan wanted by BWSR, thinks the county has been too slow in taking action.

“We had a lot of meetings. We’ve done a lot of paper work. But except for a little bit of work on water testing, we really have not moved forward yet,” he said. “The county may have done things within the terms of its agreement with BWSR, and they’ve come relatively close to meeting the requirements. But I don’t see the long-term support that needs to be there to make this work.”

The budget woes that may take away the whole $275,000 the county appropriated for the Shell Rock River watershed this year has been worsening the situation, Sorensen said.

For Sorensen and other watershed district proponents, the county’s capability to raise enough funding, either from its own budget or from outside grants, is too unreliable and slow.

Though the watershed district has an ability to tax, Sorensen considers it the last option.

“I do not want to see property taxes raised. I think it will cause more problems than it will solve. It’s just going to be too controversial,” he said.

What he counts on as the primary funding source is the proposed one-half percent city sales tax. It would generate $15 million, which Sorenson thinks will easily cover the necessary projects over 10 to 15 years.

Noting that nothing is for sure, Sorensen said he is confident that BWSR will allow the watershed district. If not, the group is ready to start another petition campaign immediately, he said.