Following the money
WORTHINGTON -- At a time when cities and counties are tightening their purse strings and making do with less aid, watershed districts are finding creative ways to keep the money flowing to fund worthwhile projects that work to protect water and soil resources.
Nobles County is served by three watersheds -- the Kanaranzi-Little Rock (K-LR), Okabena-Ocheda (OOWD) and Heron Lake (HLWD). Each watershed has a five-member board of directors to oversee the district. The boards set the budget, approve permits and ensure the district is following its mission.
Like all watershed districts in the state, the K-LR, OOWD and HLWD have the authority to levy property tax dollars to operate. The levy funding they receive is based on the value of property within their districts. K-LR, which spans into portions of Rock County, hopes to collect $102,600 in levy dollars by the end of this year, while OOWD sought a levy of $130,000 and HLWD requested the maximum of $250,000.
How those dollars are spent varies between each of the districts. Recently, the HLWD released an accountability report showing that 83 percent of the funds it receives for its general operating levy are used for implementation and education, while the remaining 17 percent pays administrative costs -- salaries for three full-time staff members plus two summer interns, per diems for board members and general office expenses.
"We try to use our general operating levy to run the day to day things and pay our staff," said HLWD Administrator Jan Voit. "We use that to match grants to bring other money in."
In 2009, the HLWD received $231,209 of its requested $250,000 in levy dollars. The year before that, $232,357 was received. Everyone who owns property contributes to a watershed levy, and HLWD collects tax dollars from residents within the 472 square miles that make up the watershed. Those miles span portions of Murray, Cottonwood, Jackson and Nobles counties.
Nobles County contributes the highest share of the funds for HLWD at 49 percent, followed by 39 percent from Jackson County, 10 percent from Murray County and 2 percent from Cottonwood County.
Using a portion of its levy dollars to meet match requirements for grants, the HLWD was awarded nearly $300,000 in Clean Water Partnership (CWP) grant dollars from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2007 to implement Best Management Practices. It recently received a grant extension through June 2011, said Voit.
"We have done things like sediment basins, wind breaks, filter strips, grassed waterways, terraces, wetland restorations, rock inlets, shoreline restoration projects and conservation tillage," she said. "Our Clean Water Partnership grant is by far our largest."
In addition to funding projects with CWP dollars, $150,500 has been loaned out to watershed residents to replace failing septic systems and purchase conservation tillage equipment, she added.
"We want people to see that we bring money in, but we take as much as we can and put it back into the watershed in education and implementation," Voit said.
In 2011, Voit said the district will once again seek the maximum levy of $250,000 -- money she said is needed to, at the very least, maintain the projects HLWD oversees in the watershed.
"Our levy will probably always remain at the $250,000. We need a minimum of that just to keep people on board and do the things we do," she explained. "We use our staff time to match grants and do more on-the-ground projects."
K-LR reels in
Just as the HLWD has benefitted from grant dollars to do project implementation in the watershed, so too has the K-LR. The grant funding source for K-LR, however, has primarily been the federal government.
Since 1989, the K-LR has received nearly $2.9 million in PL-566 (watershed protection and flood prevention) funds to implement on-the-ground projects -- with more than $300,000 coming into the watershed district within the last two years through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. K-LR is one of just two watersheds in the state to receive PL-566 funds.
That money adds to a levy request of $102,600 the K-LR made to Nobles and Rock counties in 2010. Because the approximately 310-square-mile watershed is located predominantly in Nobles County, the largest portion of the levy dollars are generated from its residents -- an anticipated $96,045 in 2010, compared to $6,555 from Rock County. The district plans to levy the same amount in 2011.
The K-LR Watershed is managed by three part-time staff people. Bruce Heitkamp, Adrian City Administrator, is the watershed's executive secretary, while Nobles Soil and Water Conservation District employees Jane Steffl and Ed Lenz serve as K-LR's contracting officer and district manager, respectively.
In addition to the PL-566 grant dollars and ARRA funds, the K-LR also received a $178,000 Minnesota Clean Water Legacy grant for installation of terraces, waterways and sediment control basins.
"That was a piggyback to ARRA funds," said Steffl.
In the future, the K-LR may have to consider increasing its levy request to complete projects in the watershed, but until the federal funds run out, it doesn't see the need.
"The Heron Lake Watershed District has been good at using levy dollars to find matching grants," said Lenz. "K-LR hasn't had to do that because of federal dollars coming in."
Funds levied by K-LR are used for technical assistance on projects funded by the federal grant dollars, and Heitkamp estimated one-third of the budget is spent on on-the-ground projects. In the last two years, K-LR has provided $150,000 in Environmental Quality Incentive Payments to landowners for implementation of conservation projects.
Steffl said the K-LR's biggest success, however, has been the PL-566 program.
"The number of projects on the ground is pretty amazing," she said.
OOWD focus is
Unlike the Heron Lake and K-LR watershed districts, which concentrate efforts on implementation of conservation practices, the OOWD has identified wellhead protection as its main mission. OOWD is the smallest of the three watersheds at 76 square miles, and is the only one to be located solely within Nobles County.
In the last four years, the OOWD and partners, including the city of Worthington, Worthington Public Utilities, Nobles County Pheasants Forever and the Department of Natural Resources, has spent $938,000 on land purchases in the Lake Bella wellhead protection area. Most of the money comes from Nobles County PF and the DNR, while OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl contributes staff time toward the acquisition process.
"What we (the OOWD and the city of Worthington) get out of it is wellhead protection ... and wildlife organizations get wildlife habitat," he said. "Some day we're supposed to have Lewis & Clark, some day we may have rural water, but most of the water that Worthington needs for industry and domestic use is going to come from those wells south of Worthington. We feel it's important to protect them."
The work of the OOWD doesn't come without a cost, and each year for the past three years, Livdahl and his board have requested a $130,000 levy -- a little more than half of the $250,000 maximum they are eligible for in general administration dollars.
"The reason we're levying less is the managers are, in their words, trying to be good stewards of the public's money," said Livdahl. "Our mission is to protect and manage the water resources in the watershed district and we're looking at both ground water and the water in our lakes and streams. The watershed has to decide how much the local taxpayers are willing to pay for that. Could we spend more on good projects? Probably, but you fall into that catch-22, do you find the projects before you get the money, or get the money and then find the projects?"
Livdahl said approximately $11,000 of the levy funds OOWD receives is used for cost-share projects, with additional dollars funding filter strip and easement incentives.
In addition to the levy, the OOWD receives rental payments on roughly 30 acres of a 65-acre parcel it purchased in 2002 near Buss Field on Worthington's south side. Some wetlands have been restored on the parcel, and the OOWD is now in the process of selling 15.4 acres to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion project.
Though the watershed has never received the full amount of levy dollars requested, Livdahl said the OOWD has the money to do projects they believe are worthwhile. In recent years, the district has received smaller grants to fund projects like water sampling on Lake Ocheda and Lake Bella in 2008 and 2009. This year, the OOWD obtained a $36,500 grant from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to do a prairie grassland seeding project at Lake Bella. The funds will likely come into the district in 2011, when the seed is actually purchased.
In addition, Livdahl said the OOWD collaborated with the Nobles SWCD on a $160,000 grant application for Minnesota Clean Water Legacy funds from the Board of Water and Soil Resources. If the grant is received -- the money would be used for a lakeshore stabilization project on Lake Ocheda -- the OOWD will contribute $5,000 in matching funds for the project.
"You don't apply for a grant unless there's something you need to do in your watershed to achieve your watershed goals," said Livdahl. The OOWD has discussed applying for grant dollars to fix a shoreline erosion problem on the west bank of Lake Bella, but approximately $180,000 is needed. With the match dollars required, he said the OOWD would have to come up with $40,000.
"At every board meeting we discuss projects that could be done, and one of the first questions is, do we have enough money to do it," he added. "The state gave us the tool to levy money if we needed to do something to protect the resources in the watershed district. We could levy more money if we thought the public would benefit from it. We're trying to balance the resource needs with the public's willingness to pay for programs."
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