Becker County gives thumbs down to Otter Tail River watershed plan

With Becker County opting out, there will be one fewer vote on the new governing policy board.

This culvert replaced a bridge that used to cross the Otter Tail River on 335th Avenue. (Nathan Bowe / Tribune)

Becker County splashed cold water on the One Watershed, One Plan initiative for the Otter Tail River on Tuesday, when commissioners voted 3-2 not to participate.

It was a reversal from the Feb. 16 Becker County Board meeting, when commissioners voted 3-2 to join two separate One Watershed, One Plan initiatives -- one for the Buffalo-Red River and one for the Wild Rice River.

That meeting, in turn, was a reversal from the county board’s Feb. 2 meeting, when it voted 3-2 not to participate in the Buffalo-Red plan.

The swing vote in each case was cast by Commissioner Ben Grimsley, and he came out firing against the Otter Tail River initiative on Tuesday.

“I don’t support it,” Grimsley said before the vote. “And I don’t think the Pelican River Watershed District or the Becker Soil & Water Conservation District should support it, either.”


The Otter Tail River watershed area. (Submitted photo March 2021)

One Watershed, One Plan is designed to plan and pay for water projects -- things like erosion control, wetland restoration, aquifer replenishing, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, keeping phosphorus out of lakes, and many other projects -- based on the geographic boundaries of river watersheds.

Deciding which projects get priority will be a committee made up of one representative from each of the local units of government -- counties, watershed districts and soil and water conservation districts -- within that river watershed.

On Tuesday, Grimsley was joined in opposition by commissioners Larry Knutson and Richard Vareberg. Commissioners Barry Nelson and John Okeson voted unsuccessfully to participate in the Otter Tail River initiative.

Knutson opposes the One Watershed, One Plan initiative on general principles, saying it creates greater state control and adds another layer of bureaucracy.

Vareberg opposed the One Watershed, One Plan initiative because Becker County’s 10-year water management plan would be replaced by an overall Otter Tail River water management plan. “It would not be our plan,” he said. “It would not be Becker County’s plan.”

Nelson argued that the water management plan will be created through the same process, whether it's just for Becker County or for the whole Otter Tail River watershed, and the same people will likely be involved. “It’s just changing the boundaries,” he said.


Okeson pointed out that the Cormorant Lakes Watershed District unanimously voted to join the Otter Tail One Watershed, One Plan initiative, and he noted that if it joined and changed its mind later, Becker County could withdraw from the agreement at any time.

The Pelican River Watershed District also supports joining the Otter Tail River initiative, but it has serious concerns, and has amended the standard agreement to include language ensuring that the new system does not override individual local land use, planning, and zoning authority, but only acts as a framework “to provide increased opportunities for cooperation and consistency on a watershed basis.”

Pelican River also wants to act as fiscal agent for the Otter Tail River initiative, but so does the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District.

Those details have not yet been determined, said Pete Waller, a conservationist with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, also known as BOWSER, in Detroit Lakes, who attended the meeting Tuesday via video. Before the vote, he said that the Otter Tail River initiative could continue even without Becker County’s participation.

“If any of these planning entities (counties, watershed districts, and soil and water conservation districts) choose not to participate, BOWSER can assess the impact and decide whether the rest of the group can carry forward … my assessment would be for this planning effort to move forward,” he said.

The Becker County Soil & Water Conservation District is expected to participate in the Otter Tail River initiative, and it has essentially the same boundaries as Becker County.

But with Becker County opting out, there will be one fewer vote on the governing policy board.

At any rate, Waller strongly encourages other participants to keep Becker County in the loop, so commissioners “know what’s going on.”


The Board of Water and Soil Resources will continue to consider grant applications for water projects put forth by any entity with a water management plan, such as Becker County, which will have to keep doing its own plan, Waller said.

But One Watershed, One Plan special implementation money will only go towards the new initiative. The new Buffalo-Red Watershed, for example, will receive $1.2 million in state funds every two years to implement water projects in its One Watershed, One Plan, with about $300,000 of that earmarked for Becker County water projects.

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