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SWCD seeks funding for One Watershed, One Plan

The Hubbard County Board of Commissioners approved a memorandum of agreement last week to allow the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to apply for a planning grant from the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) in order to implement the One Watershed, One Plan within Hubbard County.

Up to $1.5 million in Clean Water Funds is now available for planning grants under the program. These grants are for partnerships of eligible local groups to use a systematic, science-based approach to watershed management to develop plans that provide environmental benefits to each watershed.

According to SWCD District Manager Julie Kingsley, the last official local water plan was drafted in 2009.

"Since then they've changed everything to watersheds," Kingsley explained that at that time, local water plans were a bit piecemeal and each individual county in the state had their own plan. "Everybody is switching to watersheds and that means that we don't look at political boundaries so much, we're talking about the entire watersheds."

There are 80 major watersheds in Minnesota, and Hubbard County resides within three of them - Mississippi Headwaters, Leech Lake watershed and the Crow Wing River.

In 2011, the Local Government Water Roundtable, a task force consisting of the Association of Minnesota Counties, Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts and Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts initiated One Watershed, One Plan after questioning the best way to approach water quality in the future.

It was recommended that local government entities that were responsible for water management organize and develop focused implementation plans on watershed boundaries. That recommendation was followed by legislation permitting the BWSR to adopt methods to allow local water management plans, or watershed management plans to serve as substitutes for one another; or to be replaced with one comprehensive watershed management plan, referred to as One Watershed, One Plan.

Further Legislation was passed in 2015, defining the purpose for the program.

There were five statewide pilot projects that went through the BWSR lawyers and the county attorneys involved in those five watersheds to work out all of the legal issues.

"It's meant to align local water planning on major watershed boundaries with state strategies," Kingsley said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) employs a watershed approach in order to restore and protect the rivers, lakes and wetlands within Minnesota.

Part of the plan is that water quality assessments will be conducted in each of these watersheds every 10 years. During the 10-year cycle, the MPCA and its partner organizations work on each of the state's 80 major watersheds to evaluate water conditions, establish priorities for improvement, and put plans into place in order to take action to restore or protect water quality.

On a local level, each plan may be modified to meet conditions based on factors such as landscape, geography and the watershed size.

According to Kingsley, the MPCA filed a Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) for the Leech Lake Watershed.

"They looked at all of the biology, all of the critters, all the water quality and land use. That was a two year study they did and they identified all of the problems," she said.

Kingsley said it was determined that within the Leech Lake Watershed the water quality was exceptional.

"Which means that we need to put extra protection on it because we need to keep it that pristine," she said.

Although the majority of the Leech Lake Watershed is within Cass County, the cities of Laporte, Akeley and several Hubbard County townships are within that watershed.

One problem that was identified by the WRAPS within Hubbard County was the sewage treatment within the City of Laporte. Kingsley added, Laporte may have already updated their sewage system since they started and finished the WRAPS, but she used it as an example of a potential issue that would be addressed in the process.

According to Kingsley, the One Watershed, One Plan is not an effort to change local governance. It is intended to utilize the existing structures of counties, SWCDs and watershed districts by increasing collaboration and cooperation across political boundaries.

A policy committee for the One Watershed, One plan was formed consisting of a commissioner from both Hubbard and Cass Counties, an SWCD supervisor and staff. Now that the commissioners have approved the MOA, they will need to come up with bylaws and a work plan.

"Because we've done all of the modeling and we've got all of the data and information we are planning on giving it over to a consultant to determine what rises to the top," Kingsley explained. "With the Leech Lake WRAPS we also added another component that a lot of the previous WRAPS didn't have and that was a DNR program. We ranked it as to how people feel about things as to what may or may not be more important."

The primary feature of the watershed approach is that it focuses on the conditions of the watersheds as the starting point for water quality assessment, planning, implementation and measurement of results.

According to Kingsley, after it is decided what the top priorities are at the local level, it will be about putting those projects into motion.