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County backs out of watershed protection plan

The Leech Lake River and Mississippi River Headwaters watersheds are two of 27 throughout Minnesota participating in the One Watershed, One Plan program. (Map by Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources)1 / 2
A portion of Hubbard County, including Laporte and Akeley, sits in the Leech Lake River Watershed. (Map by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)2 / 2

On Tuesday, the Hubbard County Board terminated its memorandum of agreement to develop a Leech Lake River One Watershed, One Plan.

Since September 2017, the county has partnered with Cass County, Cass County Soil and Water Conservation District as well as the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to develop a 10-year comprehensive management plan for the shared watershed. According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), the goal of the One Watershed, One Plan (1W1P) program is for local governments to combine information from their existing water plans, data and information from state water agencies, and input from federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and citizen stakeholders.

The board's Dec. 18 resolution states "the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners has determined that further participation in the agreement is not in the best interests of the county or its residents."

County commissioner Char Christenson said, based upon county attorney Jonathan Frieden's advice at a Dec. 11 county board work session, "if we do not terminate this, we are automatically then committed."

"That's somewhat different than what it was originally," added county commissioner Ed Smith.

County commissioner Vern Massie said he has opposed the project from the beginning "because I said it was going to be a money pit and that's what it turned out to be."

"We're all finding that out, and this is just to kind of clean it up," said board chair Cal Johannsen, adding "if the new board wants to do something different, they can."

Massie and Smith lost their bid for re-election to David De La Hunt and Tom Krueger, respectively. Ted Van Kempen replaces Johannsen, who is retiring.

"It's just a bureaucracy. It's like the blob, just moving down the street," Massie said.

The motion passed unanimously.

Termination of the agreement was news to Hubbard SWCD Manager Julie Kingsley and SWCD Board of Supervisors Chair Lynn Goodrich. They have been part of the planning process since 2017. Neither was invited to the work session or Tuesday's board meeting, they said.

A 'major concern'

"The Hubbard County Board termination of the Leech Lake River Comprehensive Water Management Plan memorandum of agreement should be a major concern to the residents of Hubbard County," says Kingsley. "How does the county hope to maintain the water quality we now have if priorities aren't set and strategies and actions aren't taken to at least maintain and protect the main economic drivers in Hubbard County — our lakes, rivers, streams, forests and groundwater?"

The Leech Lake River watershed is unique in both its pristine nature as well as the potential level of development, which can diminish water quality. The watershed has 854,659 forested acres, 277 river miles, and over 750 lakes.

Major threats to the watershed include the loss of shoreline and aquatic habitat, population growth of up to 60 percent by 2030, increased pollution, and loss of biodiversity due to the expansion of invasive species. Sixty-one priority lakes were identified for protection, along with the Necktie River, Bungashing Creek, and the Kabekona River.

The One Watershed, One Plan planning process has been entirely voluntary, Kingsley added. "This is a plan. Neither county has any financial obligations in any way toward the planning process."

Last week, a draft of the 355-page Leech Lake River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan was made available for public review at www.co.cass.mn.us/LLR1W1P. Comments may be sent to Kelly Condiff at 218-547-7246 or kelly.condiff@co.cass.mn.us by Jan. 14, 2019.

A public hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 15 at the Cass County board room in Walker. The BWSR Northern Region Committee will then review all comments. In March, the BSWR Board is expected to approve the plan, then there is a 120-day window for local counties to adopt the plan.

Goodrich noted that Smith has represented Hubbard County at two recent meetings, "where he failed to voice any concerns about the plan that the commissioners might have discussed. We, along with BSWR representatives, have volunteered throughout this process to come to their meetings and answer any of their questions about the plan and process. The planning process has involved a great number of people representing various groups, agencies, local units of government, Native Americans — each giving freely of their time and talent to ensure the Leech Lake River 1W1P was well thought out and comprehensive," he said.

All representatives were involved in the budgeting process and all budgeted items were covered by a BSWR grant, Kingsley noted. "Hubbard County had no financial obligations for this part of the plan."

"I must say I am sadly disappointed in the Hubbard County Board decision and resolution to withdraw from the Leech Lake River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan at this stage of the game," she continued. "It is foolish and a waste of time, talent and goodwill for Hubbard County to withdraw at this time and not see this portion of the plan completed."

Implementation phase

If Cass or Hubbard counties adopt the Leech Lake River 1W1P by Sept. 27, 2019, "that does not mean that they are locked into the implementation phase," Kingsley said. While it is a BSWR program, "counties have the final say on decisions."

Goodrich explained, "It is our plan only if and when we choose to adopt it. We control it."

If the county decided to move to the next phase, a new memorandum of agreement between the partners would be written, Kingsley explained.

She emphasized that implementation of the Leech Lake River 1W1P is a protection plan, unlike other watersheds, like in southern Minnesota, where expensive, site-specific restoration is needed. The Leech Lake River 1W1P is a protection strategy, she said.

Goodrich agreed. "Implementation is a very different thing here in the Up North country, as we have possibly the best waters in Minnesota and we are merely try to ensure they continue to be. We are exporters of water to the rest of the state."

There are larger implications for the County if they do not complete the Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan, Kingsley added. "The county would then have to revert back to the Local Water Management Plan, which covers just Hubbard County and does not take the broader view of the three major watersheds in the county."

The local plan will be due for its five-year review in 2020.

"If the county does not update the local water management plan, then funding from BWSR's Natural Resources Block Grant would be defunded. This funds the county's septic systems treatment upgrade program and shoreland ordinance," she said.

Mississippi headwaters watershed

In August, BWSR approved a planning grant for the Mississippi River Headwaters One Watershed, One Plan. This watershed includes parts of Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, and Itasca counties.

To date, the Hubbard County Board has only given a verbal agreement to participate in this watershed plan.

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