Becker County reverses itself, votes to join new Otter Tail River Watershed
“It’s like the old saying, if you aren’t at the table, you're probably on the menu,” one commissioner said.
After Commissioner Richard Vareberg reconsidered an earlier vote, the Becker County Board voted 3-2 on Tuesday, June 1, to join the “One Watershed, One Plan” governing board for the Otter Tail River.
Vareberg joined commissioners John Okeson and Barry Nelson in approving the move, while commissioners Larry Knutson and Ben Grimsley voted in opposition.
The seven member governing board will now have four people from Becker County and three from Otter Tail County, noted Vareberg prior to the vote. “We are losing a place at the table now (by not participating). “It’s like biting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.
Becker County Commissioner Larry Knutson considers One Watershed, One Plan (or 1W1P for short) to be state government overreach, and continues to oppose it on general principle. He also feels lied to by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. “BOWSER flatly stated they would not allow it to go forward without Becker County,” he said. “Now we have a gun to our head,” Knutson said before the vote, since the county won’t have a seat at the table if it doesn’t join.
Grimsley also voted against it on principle. “I don’t support it, because I don’t support the concept,” he said.
Commissioner John Okeson has been an advocate for the county joining the Otter Tail River Watershed. At an earlier meeting, he said it’s important to have a representative on the new board. “It’s like the old saying, if you aren’t at the table, you're probably on the menu,” he said, noting that the Pelican River Watershed and the Cormorant Lakes Watershed (both are inside the larger Otter Tail River Watershed) and the Becker Soil and Water District have all joined the new Otter Tail River Watershed.
The way it works is that each government entity gets a vote on the new Otter Tail River Watershed governing board. And with Becker County itself now joining, that gives Becker County representatives a 4-3 advantage over Otter Tail County on the new board.
The Otter Tail County entities are the county itself and its two soil and water conservation districts, which are split into east and west in Otter Tail County.
The Otter Tail River Watershed covers the entire river drainage basin, including the Pelican River and Cormorant lakes area, among more than 1,300 lakes and more than 2,800 miles of streams.
The 1W1P board will set water projects for the entire Otter Tail River basin, but before the vote Grimsley said he didn’t think that a Becker County majority would have an oversized impact, since board members would work together to set priorities, with or without a Becker County representative on the new board.
Until now, funding for water projects came from competitive grants written by soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts, lake improvement districts and others.
Now, state funding will flow steady into One Watershed, One Plan districts. The Buffalo-Red 1W1P district will receive $1.5 million every two years, for example.
A similar amount is expected to go to the Otter Tail River Watershed 1W1P district, said Becker Soil and Water Conservation District Administrator Bryan Malone.
Partners in the Otter Tail River Watershed were awarded a One Watershed, One Plan planning grant in 2020 and will begin the planning process this year, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
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