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Clean water watchdogs differ on process, agree on goals

As a new Legislative session begins, clean water activists are trying to decide which partnerships and causes will be the most productive to lobby for. Priorities are evolving as new climate change data becomes available, which is complicating the fight and dividing the pot of available funds even further. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

As the fight persists to keep Minnesota's waters clean, some of the watchdog associations are changing partnerships and priorities.

And it is causing disagreement on how monies should be spent, which partnerships are the most fruitful and what path to pursue. As the climate change picture points to larger issues, signs of fatigue and friction are emerging.

Hubbard County

Hubbard County's Coalition of Lake Associations was one of the earlier warriors in the clean waters battle and the envy of other lake associations.

Hubbard County has one of the strictest shoreland management ordinances in the state.

Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf is tapped by the state for his expertise on such ordinances, and septic system standards.

The county's standards, along with a thriving COLA, have positioned locals at the epicenter of change.

But it is also leading to some criticism about whether COLA members are more invested in perpetuating their own organization to the detriment of the big picture - keeping the county's waters pristine.

Some anglers are questioning COLA's way of trying to implement change, such as telling the public about plummeting property values and catastrophic drops in tourism.

Hubbard County was the first to hire watercraft inspectors and educators at public access sites.

Many out-of-state anglers said they weren't aware of the laws requiring propellers to be cleaned of debris before launch, or the emptying of bilge water from storage tanks going and coming from different lakes.

Thousands of anglers were approached in 2012, and COLA pronounced the program a success. Almost none were prosecuted, as the aim was to be Minnesota nice coupled with a primer on the new laws.

Anatomy of a split

At a time when lake activists are promoting the value of strength in numbers, Hubbard County COLA severed ties with the state organization.

President Dan Kittilson did not explain why the local group had split off, but downplayed the significance of it.

It was actually a two-pronged split.

Kittilson, president of the Hubbard County COLA, had also led the Minnesota COLA Collaborative until fall, when he resigned, citing burnout.

"He had too much to do," said fellow COLA member and past president Ken Grob. "They work so, so hard and it wasn't quite happening the way he wanted.

"The separate thing was a decision of the executive board of COLA as to whether we wanted to continue to participate" in the state collaborative, Grob said.

"It's not a big issue. It's not a big thing. We have certain levels of lobbying and connections at a state level and we have more than sufficient connections and there was a little bit of a disagreement as to the style," Grob added.

"There was a difference of opinion as to the approach and primarily from the approach with regards to how some of the people were treating the DNR so the executive board said we are not going to be a member," Grob said.

"At the present time, we are not a member of MN COLA," Kittilson e-mailed the Enterprise. "Hubbard COLA works with various partners throughout the state including the DNR, Conservation Minnesota/Minnesota Waters, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates on legislative issues.

"We will continue to be active at the State Capitol on issues such as Aquatic Invasive Species and the Shoreland Rules Update," he said.

"We have in the past and will continue to support MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates and Jeff Forester with their lobbying efforts at the Capitol."

"Minnesota COLA has two really important items on our legislative agenda," said Biz Clark, Minnesota COLA's new president. "One of them has to do with invasive species and the other one has to do with reauthorization of the DNR's ability to move forward on new shoreland standards. Those are our two main issues.

"I think that there may have been some disagreement between the former officer (Kittilson) of the organization and other members of the executive committee on how to approach both the DNR with their issues and with the Legislature," Clark said.

"And that disagreement was apparently strong enough to cause Hubbard to decide it didn't want to work through Minnesota COLA but maybe it's working through some of the other statewide organizations. I really don't know."

Forester said he wasn't sure why the groups split. But he is one of many who believe that clout will come with numbers.

"They're part of our organization and we're a statewide organization," said Forester, director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers.

"I expect we'll join back again if they continue to evolve and do certain things,"Grob said of the state COLA organization.

Different priorities

Forester said he's been told Aquatic Invasive Species is at the top of the legislative environmental priority list, so lawmakers have received the message smaller governmental units have been sending to the Capitol.

But at the time when the focus has been turned to AIS, the larger picture is looming.

"Scientists from agriculture to forestry, climate to demographics met this morning to talk about the impacts of climate change and what the future holds and how we should really be managing for resilience rather than trying to preserve certain species or forest types because they're all changing," Forester said Tuesday.

Forester said recent climate projections are causing environmentalists to re-think priorities and spending.

"Last year I sat in on a Lessard Sams meeting and they were spending tens of millions on shallow lake restoration, lakes that are less than 11 feet deep," he said.

Many of those lakes had attracted carp so projects involved draining the lakes, putting in culverts and gates and killing off the carp population.

"The invasive plants die and the carp die and then they let the water back in," he said. "The lakes come back and the shallow ponds are better for duck habitat. Projections are by the middle of the century those lakes are going to be gone. So we're spending a lot of money trying to preserve ecosystems or niches in our environment that may not be here."

Forester worries that boreal forests and pine forests could become obsolete.

"There's a pine beetle coming in from the west coast that's able to migrate over the Sierra Mountains because it's warmer," Forester said. The pine beetles, which devour pine trees, are migrating into Canada and south to the United States.

"So the pine forest component may be gone," he said.

Experts from a wide spectrum of environmental fields are being told to "manage change," so the fight against AIS may be competing with a multitude of other priorities.

"With the makeup of the legislature there's more discussions happening that we haven't had for a decade," he added. "I think it's going to be good."

"We continue to have a pro-active working relationship with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at both the local and state level and we will continue to partner with them working to protect our lakes from ongoing threats, especially Aquatic Invasive Species," Kittilson noted.

  "We all have disagreements over process, but over goals, I don't think there's any disagreement at all," Clark said. "My hope is that Hubbard will sometime join us again, sometime in the year or distant future and add numbers to our organization."

"Our vision has taken Hubbard COLA past the Hubbard County boundaries to be recognized statewide as an extremely effective organization and a leader in protecting our lakes and water resources throughout Minnesota," Kittilson said. "We will continue to be a leader throughout Minnesota working to protect our lakes for present and future generations."

Meanwhile, the watchdogs are hoping the state comes up with a comprehensive plan and the funds to keep Minnesota's 10,000 lakes clean.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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