Morrison County will have two representatives on the Rum River One Watershed One Plan Joint Powers Board.
There are some tributaries of the Rum River — such as Tibbetts Brook — in southeast Morrison County that are part of the watershed. Tuesday, the County Board of Commissioners voted to have Mike Wilson, who represents the area on the Board, join Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Board representative Dale Scholl on the joint powers board.
SWCD Director Shannon Wettstein presented the resolution and plans for the Rum River One Watershed One Plan project to the Board, July 19, so it could discuss its level of participation on the joint powers board before it came to a vote. The joint powers board has authorities including approving an annual work plan and receiving grant funds from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) for programs within the district.
She said the planning process has been going on for about three years, much longer than similar watershed plans. This, she said, is likely because the watershed includes nine counties — Anoka, Aitkin, Benton, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison and Sherburne — and is “a big watershed.”
“There’s some very different landscapes and very different folks that have been involved,” Wettstein said.
She said it has been “an interesting process,” as some of the larger counties in the northwest metro have had different areas of focus and ways they wanted to set up the joint powers entity than some of the outstate counties. Ultimately, she said what they came up with has already been approved by the SWCD Board of Directors.
So far, she said about half of the entities involved have approved the resolution, or at least brought it forward for consideration.
“Is this an all or none?” asked Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski. “As an example, if Morrison County says, ‘We’re not going to sign this joint powers agreement,’ does that end the whole entire operation? Or, we sign it and Aitkin and Benton county say, ‘No. We’re not signing it.’ Is it done?”
Wettstein said the Board would be looking at two separate pieces. The resolution would be to adopt the plan as it has been presented. The other part would be agreeing to establish and participate in the joint powers board.
She said not everyone has to be on the joint powers board for the process to move forward. In fact, she said Mille Lacs County — in which a much larger portion of the watershed runs than Morrison County — were not likely to join the new board, nor was its soil and water conservation district.
“That doesn’t mean if something came up we wouldn’t be able to receive some money,” Wettstein said. “It just means that whoever elects not to sign it is not going to be a voting member on that board and would not have the authority to kind of persuade certain projects to get done.”
She added that, because the project is state-funded, whether or not Morrison County joins will not have any financial implications. The BWSR will allocate a certain dollar amount to the joint powers agreement every couple of years, and that entity will decide what projects will receive funding.
Wettstein said it is more likely the joint powers board will ask her if staff from Morrison County can help support a grant or outreach in the area, in terms of local involvement in getting projects done.
As such, there are no levy implications on the county in terms of having to offer matching funds or anything of the kind to help get a project completed. Wettstein said, as a private Board, it could eventually change that, but there have been no indications of that at this point.
Commissioner Mike Wilson asked, since the watershed district is more prominent in Mille Lacs County, why they were not getting involved in the joint powers board.
Wettstein clarified that, though Morrison County’s portion of the watershed is small, if landowners need help, they will not be ignored, regardless of whether the county joins the new board or not.
In terms of why Mille Lacs County is not getting more involved, she speculated that it may have to do with disagreements throughout the process, so far. Though, she admitted that she was a bit surprised.
“The reason this has taken so long is because the group was divided,” Wettstein said. “Half of them did not want to establish a board and it took them a long time to get to the point where it won over — that it would be a board moving forward. That may have been a part of the reason that they decided not to; because they never wanted to have a joint powers board and they weren’t willing to sign on.”
Wilson asked what the benefit of the watershed board will be to landowners in the area. Wettstein said funding allocated to the joint powers board is meant to be used for “what soil and water conservation districts have historically done.” That is to help fund projects on private lands.
As an example, she said if there was a landowner in Morrison County who had soil erosion in a field, they could ask to have a project to mitigate those issues included in the funding. It would then be up to the joint powers board to deem whether or not the project was worthy of funding; which would include how it was impacting the Rum River or its tributaries.
“Like I said, there are not a lot of landowners out there,” she said. “What we do have is a lot of county ditches. That was part of the interest in kind of staying alert to what was happening.”
Wettstein added that one thing the Board should take into consideration when deciding on how much involvement it would like to have in the joint powers board was who would be delegated to take on that appointment. She said there will likely be at least three meetings per year.
She said it had previously been discussed that Wilson would be a good choice for that role, since he represents landowners in the watershed area.
“It sends up somewhat of a red flag when there’s been this much division in this process formation,” said Board Chair Greg Blaine. “Which kind of tells me that maybe we should have someone there paying attention to what’s going on, and maybe a measure of discord could lend some leadership to that board in actually getting things done.”
Commissioner Randy Winscher, who represents the county on the SWCD Board, said the resolution states that the county could opt out of the joint powers agreement any time in the first year of its existence. It also could opt to join at a later time, if it so chose.
He said, from what he understood, there had been “a lot of animosity” between those working to put the resolution together. Winscher said one big hurdle has been in avoiding letting the counties in the metro area make all of the decisions for the rural areas. In all, there could potentially be as many as 19 voting members on the joint powers board.
“I kind of believe that we should be somewhat involved, because our two votes will make a big difference somewhere along the line,” Wilson said. “And it does affect us. I think most of our ditches run into the Rum River. I think we should be involved.”
Blaine asked Wettstein to come back, Tuesday, with a formal request to pass the resolution and the plan for the joint powers agreement.
Wettstein added that County Attorney Brian Middendorf has been “really supportive” throughout the process. She said he had signed off on the plan and on the resolution.
Jelinski said he agreed with Wilson that it would be a good idea to have someone from the County Board involved.
“If you’re not engaged and if you’re not involved in the project, in the system, then you’re uninvolved and disengaged,” Jelinski said. “I truly believe that this isn’t a levy issue, that this certainly is a joint powers board type of an action. I truly believe it only works with involvement, with participation, with engagement.”