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Funding cut forces Minn. River Board to entertain reorganizing

MONTEVIDEO -- Threatened with the loss of its state financial support, the Minnesota River Board agreed Monday to explore different reorganization strategies in hopes of continuing its multi-county approach to cleaning up the Minnesota River.

Richard Larson, who represents Kandiyohi County, authored the motion at the board's meeting Monday in Montevideo. It calls on executive director Shannon Fisher to present a variety of reorganizational models for the joint powers group to consider at the next meeting.

The Minnesota River Board represents the 37 counties that are part of the Minnesota River basin. Currently, 26 counties in the basin are dues-paying members.

Membership on the board is limited to the members of the elected boards of commissioners for each member county.

The state provides $84,000 a year toward the organization. Gov. Mark Dayton's budget does not continue state funding for the organization, according to Fisher.

He told board members that John Jaschke, director of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, is not optimistic for continued state funding. He encouraged the board to find a way to be self-sustaining.

Board members do not believe the organization can remain self-sustaining without some state support. Membership dues provided $41,499 for operations in this year's budget.

The Minnesota River Board was created in 1995 and was initially criticized for limiting membership to the elected county commissioners from the counties. Many argued that Soil and Water Conservation Districts and grassroots organizations working for a clean Minnesota River should be at the table as well.

In discussions during Monday's meeting, board members indicated a willingness to consider a broader membership. They noted that concerns about the size of the board and a preference for limiting membership to elected office holders were factors that led to the current structure. They also acknowledged that limiting board membership to county commissioners served to guard against what many thought were overly aggressive strategies for cleaning up the river.

The leaders of environmental groups in the basin told the board they would support its effort for continued state funding. Scott Sparlin, representing the New Ulm-based Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, and Patrick Moore, of the Montevideo based Clean Up the River Environment, told board members that having a united block of counties working together has helped.

The Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the basin are interested in being part of the Minnesota River Board decision-making process. Lou Ann Nagel, director of the Yellow Medicine County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, pointed out that the Soil and Water Conservation Districts are also overseen by elected supervisors.

Along with a possible reorganization, River Board members noted that Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, is expected to once again introduce his legislation that would create basin-wide watershed districts with taxing authority. A similar model currently operates in the Red River basin.

The Minnesota River Board next meets on May 16 in Olivia. Jaschke is expected to be present. He had intended to make Monday's meeting in Montevideo, said Fisher, but remained in St. Paul to attend a meeting on a proposal to reduce the Board of Water and Soil Resources budget more than had been anticipated.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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