Projects still reap benefits of E.O. Olson Trust Fund
WORTHINGTON -- Standing along a berm just a mile or so north of Worthington, one can hear the tall grasses blowing in the breeze, water flowing over a dam, a pair of geese squawking about their new guests and, in the distance, a pheasant rooster cackling as he forages for food.
It's a scene local conservationists want to see more of, and one you might say was the vision of Eric (E.O.) Olson nearly 50 years ago when he established a trust fund for a 12-mile radius around Worthington to protect and improve water quality.
Once a creamery owner in town, Olson sold his business to Swanson Foods, which later became Campbell Soup Co., a chicken processing plant. Campbell Soup remained in operation just up the hill from Lake Okabena until the late 1990s.
With a strong belief that Worthington needed to protect and preserve its water supply for business and population growth, Olson took some of the proceeds from the creamery sale and invested it for future projects in the community.
In August 1964, he deposited $322,980.80 in the First National Bank of Minneapolis as a trust fund, and established the E.O. Olson Trust Board in Worthington. Of the total, two-thirds was to benefit water projects, with the remaining one-third gifted to the local community college for scholarships.
While the scholarship money has long since been spent, the E.O. Olson Trust Board has remained frugal -- spending only the interest earnings from the trust. Robert Demuth, the longest-serving member on the board, estimates more than half a million dollars generated from the trust has been spent on water quality projects since 1964.
In just the last 24 years, the E.O. Olson Trust has contributed more than $280,600 to projects that help protect the city's water source at Lake Bella, the southern-most lake in the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District (OOWD). Lake Bella, named after Olson's wife, Bella, was constructed in 1964 and is the well field for the city of Worthington.
The Lake Bella dam project, completed in 1971, was funded by Olson and federal PL-566 dollars.
While a considerable share of E.O. Olson money has been spent in Bigelow Township, trust dollars have combined with contributions from other partners to benefit water quality all throughout the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed. One example is the sediment removal dam just north of Worthington's Prairie View Golf Links.
Named after its location in Section 9, Worthington Township, the W-9 sediment removal dam was constructed in 2002 at a cost of $300,000. The E.O. Olson Trust chipped in more than $26,000 for the project, with the city of Worthington footing the majority of the bill. The OOWD also contributed to the project.
The dam stores water flowing in from a nearly 18-square-mile area of the watershed's northern and eastern-most boundaries.
"The dam is supposed to remove 66 percent of the sediment and about one-third of the phosphorus that's in the water," said OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl. The dam structure has also helped to reduce flooding.
"After this project, we've had some real good water clarity in Lake Okabena," Livdahl said. "A good portion of the watershed is being treated before it gets into Lake Okabena."
The site in Section 9, Worthington Township, was selected as a good prospect for the sediment removal dam in 1990, but it took another decade to get the site permitted and for the city to set aside the funds.
The design of the dam actually dates back to 1964, said Livdahl. Whether it was one of Olson's visions, since the trust was established that year, is unknown -- Livdahl laughed and said he was only five years old.
Today, as it was when the board was established, the E.O. Olson Trust Fund Board consists of Worthington's Mayor (Alan Oberloh); Worthington Public Utilities board president (Robert Demuth); two county commissioners (Robert Demuth Jr. and Vern Leistico); and a member-at-large (Jack Sliver).
Demuth became an E.O. Olson Trust Fund Board member in 1967, serving until 1971 in conjunction with his role as Worthington Mayor. Then, from 1973 to 1977, he was appointed to the board again as a Nobles County Commissioner. In 1986, he returned to the board as Worthington Mayor, serving until 2002. When he was named president of Worthington Public Utilities in 2010, he returned to the Trust Board.
In those years, Demuth has helped decide where Olson Trust dollars were spent, whether it was for the water and sewer project at Olson Park in the early 1990s, for riprap improvements on both Lake Okabena and Lake Bella, or to collaborate on land acquisitions in the Lake Bella Wellhead Protection Area.
"I think the Trust has done a remarkable job of preserving the money that was available and of giving benefits to those that are in need," said Demuth.
The current balance of the trust is more than $325,500, and that's after two recent actions by the board -- to give $25,000 to Nobles County Pheasants Forever to help in a land acquisition in Bigelow Township, and to set aside $20,000 for Minnesota West Community and Technical College for creation of a storm water retention pond on the Worthington campus.
The E.O. Olson Trust Fund's recent contribution to Pheasants Forever was used to help purchase more than 45 acres of marginal land in Section 22, Bigelow Township, which will be transformed into a Wildlife Management Area by the Department of Natural Resources.
Nobles County Pheasants Forever President Scott Rall said partnerships like those with the Olson Trust, Worthington Public Utilities, Build a Wildlife Area and Minnesota Habitat Fund, have allowed the chapter to not only establish wildlife habitat but help protect Worthington's water source.
"All of the contributions we've gotten from E.O. Olson have been in the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed," said Rall. "For us to be able to access E.O. Olson Trust Fund dollars dramatically multiplies the amount of water quality improvements and habitat acquisitions we complete.
"Pheasants Forever is very, very appreciative of the partnership we have with the E.O. Olson Trust Fund," he added.
While Worthington Public Utilities has never received direct funding from the E.O. Olson Trust Fund, general manager Scott Hain said the WPU has certainly benefited from the trust money spent on local projects.
"Anything that the trust has done and can do in the future, as far as improving water quality within the watershed, has effects on improving our drinking water supply," said Hain. "I think it was a remarkable thing for Mr. Olson to have done. He certainly was aware of the limited water supply in this part of the state."
Hain said Olson Trust dollars, in collaboration with other funding sources, have helped establish a wellhead protection area that is the envy of other water systems in the state.
"(Other communities) don't have those well-established partnerships," he said. "We can all do more together than each of us can do on our own. For us to collaborate ... has just been a great benefit."
A new set of bylaws was recently written for the E.O. Olson Trust Fund, calling for the board to conduct an annual meeting to address requests for funding. The bylaws also lay out plans to elect a chair, vice chair and secretary -- roles Demuth said will be filled in the near future -- and sets a 3-year term limit on the at-large board position, with the option of the member being reappointed.
Still, the mission of the Olson Trust Fund has not changed.
"We have one water supply (at Lake Bella)," said Demuth. With the Lewis and Clark water project on hold once again because of a lack of federal funding, the 19 million gallons of water Worthington was to receive is "probably not going to get here," he added.
"E.O. Olson had so much insight that he could look in the future and say, 'Let's preserve one of this community's greatest assets,'" Demuth said. "I don't think E.O. Olson even had the foresight to know how important this trust is."
While much has been accomplished with financial assistance from the E.O. Olson Trust Fund, much is yet to be done. Minnesota West's plans to create a storm water retention pond with $20,000 in trust dollars is among them.
"We have some storm water issues west of town that need to be addressed," said Livdahl, referring to flooding issues along Lucy Drive and water quality concerns near Olson Park. Additional storm water ponds and the possible dam replacement on Lake Okabena could be benefactors of the Olson Trust Fund in the future.
"The Olson Trust is a really good example of perpetually putting aside money for an ongoing need," Livdahl said. "It's a great model he set up, thinking about future generations and their needs."