Watershed partnership brings more dollars to area
Landowners can apply for grants to fund projects that target clean water in the Missouri River Watershed.
REGIONAL — Nearly a year after the state approved the Missouri River Watershed Partnership (MRWP) and its 10-year water plan, 27 contracts — totaling $522,000 in cost-share grants — have been signed with landowners to implement conservation projects in five counties of far southwest Minnesota.
The grants comprise nearly half of the $1,320,445 MRWP received from the state’s Clean Water Fund last June. The Clean Water Fund dollars are meant to cover projects during a two-year period.
As the fiscal administrator for the partnership, the Nobles Soil and Water Conservation District authorizes the cost-share funding for everything from water and sediment control basins to grassed waterways, filter strips, stream bank stabilization projects, cover crops, tillage and nutrient management, alternative tile intakes, wetland restorations and several other practices.
John Shea, Nobles SWCD manager, said the scoresheet developed by the 14 partner agencies — Rock, Nobles, Jackson, Pipestone, Murray and Lincoln counties and their SWCDs, as well as the Kanaranzi-Little Rock and Okabena-Ocheda watershed districts — prioritizes areas within the watershed and is as fair as the entities could make it. The more points a potential project receives, the greater the chance it will get funding.
“The priority is to target the water,” Shea said. “If it’s a priority for the watershed, then it’s where the funds will be spent. We’re relying a lot on the science in the plan.”
The science — data collection from years of tracking pollution, soil loss and nitrate loss — is far superior than the eyeball test used in the past, he added.
In addition to focusing on projects that lead to the greatest reduction in pollution within the Missouri River Watershed, Shea said the partnership puts counties on an even keel.
“We are not competing with neighboring counties anymore,” he said. “It makes it better for the landowners — they’re not relying on me and my ability to write a grant.”
Among the 27 contracts awarded in the last year, 20 are for projects in Rock County, three are in Pipestone County, two are in Nobles County, and there’s one project each in Jackson and Murray counties. Thus far, seven projects have been completed, Shea said, including four waterways and three sediment basins.
If it weren’t for the Clean Water Fund dollars coming to the partnership, Shea said individual counties would be limited on the projects that could be implemented. Nobles County gets just $17,000 in state cost share.
“A lot of these projects are well above that dollar amount. We’d be able to do one project a year,” Shea said. “It’s a struggle to find federal (money), and without these Clean Water funds, it would be near impossible.”
Projects located within a high or medium-high priority area within the watershed can get up to 90% cost-share, and 75% if outside of those two zones.
“With these funds, we’re targeting structural practices — waterways and sediment basins — stuff we can build,” She said. “We’ve applied for some federal funds that will target more soil health and groundwater projects.
“We thought as an entity we should responsibly spend state dollars on something that will last — be on the ground for 10 or more years — and target areas that lead to the best reductions.”
While state funding is spread out over two years, and the water plan is a 10-year plan, Shea said the partnership will reevaluate at the five-year mark.
“We’ll look at what’s working and what needs to be changed,” he said. The focus will be on whether some of the higher priorities of the plan were met.
Though Nobles County SWCD authorizes the funds, Shea said every county SWCD is still heavily involved in the process. SWCD staff work with landowners in their own county to complete score sheets on potential projects, file all of the necessary paperwork with Nobles County and, if funding is received, do the implementation.
“In Nobles County, our technician has been out doing some survey and design work,” said Shea, noting that landowners are also being encouraged to apply for funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to get “the most bang for the buck.”
“If we can partner, we can spread the state dollars out further,” Shea said. “We can get the land repaired where it needs to be and not cost the landowner a lot of money.”
Minnesota now has 19 regional water plans across the state. The Missouri River Watershed Partnership was one of the first to be completed outside the initial pilot program, and Shea said he likes the new regional approach.
The Des Moines River Watershed is currently in the process of forming its own partnership.
Shea said if landowners have any erosion or concerns on their property that they’d like the SWCD to look at, they should contact the local office.
“We are in the office and we can meet on site,” Shea said. While the office is technically closed to walk-ins due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, staff can be reached via phone or email.