HERON LAKE — Heron Lake Watershed District Administrator Jan Voit was honored as Outstanding Watershed Administrator during the Minnesota Association of Watershed District’s annual conference, conducted virtually Dec. 1-4.

The award is given each year in recognition of a watershed administrator for their leadership in water resources management.

“I was surprised,” Voit said of the honor. “There were six people that were nominated. I’m just very honored, and I’m very humbled.”

Voit has worked for the HLWD for 38 years, hired in 1982 to take minutes for the watershed’s board of managers. She had just graduated from Heron Lake-Okabena High School, and was taking classes at the vo-tech in Jackson for court reporting.

“I started working here in November and I grew into the job,” shared Voit. “It changed from one board meeting a month and now I could work 50 to 60 hours a week if I cared to — (the job has) changed a lot.”

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She earned her legal secretary degree, got married, moved nine miles outside of Heron Lake and grew into the job at the HLWD, eventually becoming its administrator.

Her interest in watershed work was sparked by Sunday dinner conversations with her grandfather, who at the time served on the HLWD board.

“When I first started, a lot of what they did was tile permits,” Voit shared. “It wasn’t a lot of focus on water quality and flood control. We’ve changed that focus a lot over the years.”

In her tenure as administrator, she wrote the third- and fourth-generation management plans for the district, and is now starting work on the next one. She’s also written a multitude of grant applications — and been successful at securing grants that ultimately reduce costs to landowners and get conservation practices implemented on the ground.

The latest major grant — $4.493 million awarded to the Heron Lake Area Conservation Partnership, which includes Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Land Trust, North Heron Lake Game Producers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota DNR and the HLWD — was received earlier this year to protect more than 400 acres of prairie and wetlands within the Heron Lake watershed.

The project will include conservation easements and land acquisitions to protect and restore high-value wetland and prairie lands.

“To me, it’s just an amazing accomplishment for a watershed to get that kind of funding — and to have that partnership with groups that are such experts in the field,” Voit said. The timeframe for completing the work extends through 2027.

In recent years, the HLWD has done a lot of work as the drainage authority for several improvement projects. Voit said working through the statutory process is something she finds fascinating.

“We’ve been able to find outside funding for landowners — (Clean Water Act Section) 319 grants and multiple other grants,” she said, adding that she also secured a $1 million small watersheds focus grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for work in the South Heron Lake subwatershed.

In addition to her work within the watershed, Voit has also been active on the state level, serving on “just about every committee, work group and task force that has existed,” according to MAWD leaders. Voit said she’s been on the education committee since it formed, seeing it as a way for watershed administrators, board members and staff to learn not only from professionals, but from each other.

“For me, education is key and I don’t think you can ever have too much,” she said. “When I first started going to the conventions, there wasn’t a lot of educational opportunities.

“The association of administrators is also a great place to learn,” she added. “We can share ideas, and it’s also a support network. Sometimes when you feel you’re out here in the middle of nowhere by yourself, it’s nice to have that sounding board.”

Today, Voit is the longest-standing watershed manager in Minnesota, and she’s eager to continue her mission with the district.

“I for sure want to see the Heron Lake Area Conservation Partnership projects through,” Voit shared. “One of the greatest joys of this job is the landowners you get to work with and putting those projects on the ground.

“That’s the most exciting part — to get them funding and help them in their farming operations and help our watershed as a whole."