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Minnesota River Board seeking outside review to help decide its future

Minnesota River Board director Shannon Fisher

WILLMAR -- An independent task force will be charged with recommending whether or not there is a future for the Minnesota River Board.

Members of the joint powers group representing the 37 counties in the Minnesota River basin agreed during a meeting Monday in Willmar to allocate up to $9,000 for a task force.

Board members said they want an independent review and will look outside of the board to agencies such as Soil and Water Conservation Districts, farm and conservation groups, and watershed groups for its members.

The task force will recommend whether a basin-wide, Minnesota River Board should continue, and if so, what it should look like, according to John Schueller, chairman of the board from Redwood County.

"It's hard for me to stand up here and do this because I am quite sure a year from now I won't be standing here,'' said Shannon Fisher, its director. He believes the process will lead to the elimination of the board as it currently exists. If a new board is formed, it would seek a new director for a fresh start, he explained.

The joint powers group was formed in 1995. It membership is limited to the county boards of commissioners of the member counties. There are currently 23 dues-paying counties in the 37 counties within the basin. Of that number, only a dozen are active and attending meetings, according to Fisher.

The decision to create a task force to recommend what course to take came after an Aug. 29 meeting with legislators supportive of the board, including Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, and John Jaschke, director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

The meeting made clear that the Minnesota River Board would not continue to see legislative funding support, said Fisher. An annual $42,000 grant provided through the Board of Water and Soil Resources is its main funding source.

Legislators raised concerns about the lack of local support for the Minnesota River Board from within the basin. They also raised concerns that the board duplicates services already provided by governmental agencies within the basin.

There has also been criticism that agencies and farm, conservation and watershed groups in the basin should also have a voice at the table, but do not now.

Yet the biggest problem has been a perception that the board has not accomplished what it sought to do in guiding the cleanup of the Minnesota River.

Harlen Madsen, of Kandiyohi County, said there has been progress, but it has come slowly and has not always been acknowledged.

But he and others agreed that limited funding throughout the history of the board has kept it from reaching many goals.

Fisher noted that he is limited to 1.6 days of work per week as its director during the school year. His position -- and the board's administrative operations -- are aided by support from the Water Resource Center at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

The inability to make the impact desired led legislators to ask board members at the earlier meeting: "If the board ceased to exist, who would notice?''

Tom Cherveny

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

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