by CHRIS ROGERS
It was another split vote on an environmental issue for the Winona County Board, but not the usual kind. Winona-based county commissioner Greg Olson and rural commissioners Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward have been at odds over frac sand mining and feedlots, but last week Olson joined Jacob and Ward in voting to dissolve the Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board (SEMWRB).
A collective of 10 Southeast Minnesota counties, the SEMWRB administered various grant-funded, water-quality improvement projects: testing private wells for nitrate pollution, fixing feedlots’ runoff problems, and helping small communities replace leaky septic tanks. However, the organization’s own board says the SEMWRB is becoming irrelevant as state agencies spur counties toward a different style of regional collaboration — One Watershed One Plan boards, which unite all counties within a given watershed — and competition for grants increases among local organizations doing similar work.
Each member county has a representative on the SEMWRB, and earlier this spring, that regional board voted to dissolve itself. However, because of some legal uncertainty as to whether the SEMWRB has the authority to disband itself, the group sought the approval of each member county’s County Board.
The SEMWRB has already handed all of its grant programs off to other agencies, so all of the work the SEMWRB was doing will continue. Olmsted County, for instance, will take over the SEMWRB’s long-running nitrate-monitoring network.
The Winona County Board voted 3-2 in support of dissolution last week, bringing the total of member counties in favor of disbanding up to seven, according to SEMWRB Chair Duane Bakke. Bakke reported that he has not yet heard from the other three counties, but under the organization’s bylaws, the seven-county supermajority is enough to approve the dissolution.
Jacob and Ward described the decision as eliminating redundant bureaucracy, while urban Winona County Commissioners Marie Kovecsi and Chris Meyer said they believe the SEMWRB might still be useful. Work to improve local water quality will continue without the SEMWRB, Olson said.
One of the biggest frustrations for rural residents is that too much money goes into administration and planning and not into water-quality projects on the ground, Ward said.
At the same time, many water-quality organizations struggle to find enough funding to support their staff, and the SEMWRB was in the same position. After grants the SEMWRB had won for years went to other organizations this year, Bakke and Jacob reported that SEMWRB member counties’ annual dues were slated to increase from $5,000 to $10,000 in order to support the organization’s overhead. Some member counties said they would unilaterally withdraw from the organization because of the fee hikes, according to Jacob, Winona County’s representative on the SEMWRB.
The salary and benefits for the SEMWRB’s lone staff member cost nearly $100,000, Ward stated. “We can’t all afford that,” she said.
Soil and Water Conservation Districts are doing the same work more efficiently, Jacob argued. He added of disbanding the SEMWRB, “This is an opportunity to save taxpayer dollars [and] continue all of the programs that are happening.”
Asked by Meyer if the SEMWRB’s dissolution would prevent Winona County from winning regional-scale grants in the future, Winona County Water Planner Sheila Harmes explained it would not. Counties and SWCDs can still partner together on regional projects, though it might require a little more paperwork without the existence of a regional organization like the SEMWRB, Harmes told the County Board.
Can Winona County staff work on applying for regional grants with other counties on top of their normal jobs? Kovecsi asked. “I’m personally concerned about the grant processes and staff’s capability to manage grants in addition to what they’re already managing,” she stated.
Meyer said she wanted to keep the SEMWRB around — perhaps with no staff or budget of its own, if possible — in order to maintain the framework for any regional grant opportunities that come up in the future. Having that organization in place and ready to go could help the region win grants someday, Meyer argued. Bakke has suggested that perhaps a different regional organization will succeed the SEMWRB eventually — one made up of One Water One Plan groups instead of counties.
Kovecsi and Meyer voted against dissolving the SEMWRB, while Olson cast the swing vote in support of dissolution. “I’m going to support the motion reluctantly, but I do believe the mission will carry on,” Olson said.