Becker County has rejected, at least for now, an ambitious state plan to fund water projects based on the geographic boundaries of river watersheds.

Take the happy little Otter Tail River, for example. It starts with a trickle in southwestern Clearwater County and ends with a torrent where it joins the Bois de Sioux to launch the Red River in Breckenridge.

Most of the Otter Tail’s watershed (basically the river’s drainage area) is in Becker and Otter Tail counties, stretching from the Cormorant lakes to Otter Tail Lake and beyond, and including the Pelican River.

Replacing a hit or miss system

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Until now, water projects -- things like erosion control, wetland restoration, aquifer replenishing, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, keeping phosphorus out of lakes, and the like -- have been handled largely by soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts, and counties, each with their own state-approved water plan.

But it’s been kind of a hit or miss system: Entities like the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District, that excel at grant writing and have a good reputation with state water-regulatory agencies, have done pretty well at landing state funding for their projects. Others, not so well.

The idea behind One Watershed, One Plan is to provide a reliable flow of funding (from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council) distributed fairly to river watersheds across the state.

But it also turns the existing system on its head. Now, Becker County commissioners, for example, have five new watershed areas to help administer, since the county has five river basins within its boundaries: The Otter Tail in the south-central, the Buffalo-Red in the west-central, the Wild Rice-Marsh in the north-central, the Crow Wing in the east and a little bit of the Redeye in the southeast corner.

The same is true for board members on the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District, since conservation districts pretty much follow county lines, except in a few big counties like Otter Tail, which has an east and a west SWCD.

Locals will still be in charge

Who will run these newly-designated watershed entities? A policy committee made up of county commissioners, watershed district board members, and soil and water conservation district board members from local government units within that river watershed.

Who will provide administrative support to those elected and appointed officials? A separate committee made up of staff members from those same counties, soil and water conservation districts, and watershed districts.

One might think that existing watershed districts would fit the new river watershed areas perfectly, but no.

The Buffalo-Red and Wild Rice watershed districts do seem to be a good fit with their new river watershed areas, but a lot of rivers in Minnesota don’t even have watershed districts.

There is no existing overall Otter Tail River Watershed District, for example. But there are two smaller watershed districts inside it: The Pelican River and the Cormorant Lakes, each concerned with its smaller piece of the pie.

Here’s where we’re at

The One Watershed, One Plan watersheds are in different stages of organization. In this area, the Buffalo-Red, Wild Rice-Marsh, and Redeye river watersheds have finalized their new water plans and are now in the adoption phase by local government units.

The Otter Tail River watershed, on the other hand, is just getting started on the planning process, which can take several years.

It could be a more complicated process, since there are two watershed districts (Pelican River and Cormorant lakes) in the Otter Tail River Watershed.

“We just did our 10-year water management plan, it’s good until 2030,” said Pelican River Watershed District Administrator Tera Guetter. “We updated it in such a way that it followed the One Watershed, One Plan model,” with 10 years worth of potential water projects included, she added.

She likes that One Watershed, One Plan is designed to include feedback from lake associations, farm groups, environmental groups, businesses and other entities.

‘We will lose our seat at the table’

It makes sense that county commissioners would take a special interest in watersheds in their commissioner districts. That’s why Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson has spent the past several years involved in the planning process for the new Buffalo-Red River watershed entity, and now wants to stay on its governing policy committee.

“If Becker County doesn’t join (the Buffalo-Red Watershed), we will lose our seat at the table, same with the Wild Rice (Watershed),” Nelson said.

He is pragmatic about One Watershed, One Plan: He wants to be involved because it's the best way to help people in his district. That’s where state dollars will flow in both noncompetitive and competitive grants, and through his involvement over the last few years, Nelson said he has come to know a lot of local and state water officials: Water politics, like regular politics, is often about relationships, he said.

The Becker County Board, however, voted 3-2 at its last meeting not to adopt the One Watershed, One Plan for the new Buffalo-Red River Watershed.

Nelson was on the losing side of that vote because Commissioners Larry Knutson and Richard Vareberg decided to take a stand against what they consider state overreach, and the creation of another layer of bureaucracy. There is also concern that the new entities will end up with taxing authority.

“I will not be supporting this plan,” Knutson said at the Feb. 2 board meeting. “I will be consistent because I will not be supporting the Otter Tail Watershed plan.”

Vareberg said he was opposed because “I will not support the state of Minnesota having any more control over Becker County than they already do. My values are not the same as the people of Minneapolis. They let them burn that city. I’m a Christian. I will not support any power of the state of Minnesota over Becker County.”

Commissioner Ben Grimsley joined them because he said he didn't have enough information to vote otherwise.

One county opting out doesn’t stop the process

That was the first One Watershed, One Plan adoption vote taken by the Becker County Board, and Knutson made a point of saying that he also planned to oppose adopting other watershed entities in Becker County, including the Otter Tail River Watershed when it finishes its planning process and comes up for a vote in several years.

Becker County doesn’t have to participate. Other local government units, including the Becker SWCD, are involved in One Watershed, One Plan, so it will go on without Becker County.

But the county loses its voice on the governing committee, and will have to work through the Becker SWCD to get highway and other water projects done.

“All of us would like Becker County at the table,” said Becker SWCD Administrator Bryan Malone, who added that participation is still flexible. “The county could ask to join later on, or it could opt out later if it joined now ... it’s kind of a shame to spend three-plus years in the planning end of it, (like Nelson did) to not have the county adopt it.”

The new Buffalo-Red Watershed will receive $1.2 million in state funds every two years to implement One Watershed, One Plan, with about $300,000 of that earmarked for Becker County water projects, Malone said.

In contrast, Otter Tail County commissioners are on board with the eight river watershed entities in the county created by One Watershed, One Plan. The Otter Tail and the Red Eye river watersheds are by far the largest in Otter Tail County.

Water doesn’t follow political boundaries

The new system is a way to eliminate duplication of effort, and improve communication among all the local government units in a watershed, said Pete Waller, a conservationist with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources in Detroit Lakes.

“Water doesn’t really give a rat’s patoot about political boundaries,” he said.

For example, since the 1930s, soil and water conservation districts in Minnesota have been required by state statute to develop and implement a water management plan. Since the 1950s, a different state statute has required watershed districts to have a water plan, and since the 1980s, yet another state statute requires counties to have a water plan.

“They all have separate planning processes and separate requirements, separated by decades of legislation that created them,” he said.

With One Watershed, One Plan, there will be one water management plan for the entire river watershed. “For water planning purposes and management of resources, it makes more sense to work on a watershed basis,” Waller said.

He disagreed that the new system means more bureaucracy.

“We’re not asking for another layer of government,” he said. “The (governing) policy committee is one representative from each of the local units of government -- counties, watershed districts and soil and water conservation districts.”