The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 20, 2013

Our View: Don't give up on river cleanup

Why it matters: Shutdown of the Minnesota River Board threatens river cleanup efforts.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Minnesota River Board may have collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy, but its demise shouldn’t be a reason for elected leaders or citizens to begin ignoring the significant environmental threats to the state’s namesake river.

In fact, now is the time for a renewed emphasis on river cleanup. Public energy needs a new spark. It’s up to citizens, the Minnesota Legislature, federal environmental officials and the agriculture community to pick up the charge of the river’s environmental health.

The River Board seems to have disintegrated for a number of reasons after a 17-year run. The board over the years lost representation from about 40 percent of the counties in the basin, going from representation of 37 at the beginning to 22 counties at the end.

The board attempted to encourage expanding the list of stakeholders from farmers to canoeists but apparently to no avail. “It wasn’t supposed to be a bunch of commissioners sitting around saying we don’t want to do much, which was the flavor of a lot of the commissioners,” said Blue Earth County Commissioner Drew Campbell, who was on the River Board executive committee.

Campbell makes a good point. Trying to get that many county commissioners to come to consensus on anything would be akin to herding cats in a dog pound. It’s tough enough for even seven county commissioners to come to agreement at times, much less 37.

The interests varied from county to county. More urban counties of the basin had much different interests than the rural, agricultural counties.

The makeup of the original basin board may have been a mistake from the beginning, given the diverse interests of those counties.

While building stakeholder coalitions can be a laudable goal, if it takes 17 years of trying without success, one has to question the model. It appears we are back to the drawing board.

The meeting agenda on Monday where the board voted to disband seemed to offer only two alternatives: Keeping an ineffective board in place or creating a somewhat more nimble basin authority with the ability to levy fees or taxes.

The idea was similar to how the Red River basin group works. The plan would have called for one elected representative and one appointed person from each of the 13 basins along the Minnesota River.

Still, under that plan, there would have been 26 people on the new board, which again, is problematic. Taxing authority seemed to be another roadblock. In the end, the board voted 11-6 to disband, but also agreed to recommend the Legislature look into the idea of a basin wide board.

Farmer and drainage contractor Kent Bosch told The Free Press he was opposed to a new taxing authority or bureaucracy and that plenty of groups have been working on projects to clean up the river.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in cleaning the water up with voluntary and cooperative efforts. We have a lot going on now that’s working,” he told The Free Press.

But many of those projects while important were small and had little impact on the overall health of the river. The large issues have not been addressed by the board or for that matter counties along the river.

An in-depth report on the river by The Free Press in 2011 showed that only five counties in the state have taken actions to enforce state environmental laws requiring buffer strips on agriculture land next to streams, rivers and lakes.

The bigger issue, of course, is farm drainage. Counties, state, nor the federal government seem eager to wade into that politically charged issue.

Few have suggested regulating tiling of farmland, but study after study shows those drainage tiles have a significant and detrimental environmental impact on the river.

The demise of the Minnesota River Board shouldn’t be interpreted as an indicator river cleanup is somehow complete or successful. Not even close. The demise of the board should be an alarm the public’s enthusiasm for cleaning up the river may be waning at a time when the threats are gaining.

The Legislature should not only take the problem seriously, but also decide the most effective way to attack it and put that plan in place soon.