MANKATO — For 20 years, a board representing 37 counties along the Minnesota River has worked to reduce pollution and improve the rivers.
But as the state has cut funding to the board and some counties have lost interest, there are calls for the group to reorganize or even fold.
Blue Earth County Commissioner Drew Campbell, who sits on the Minnesota River Board’s leadership group, bristles at criticism that the board should disband and said the group is seeking ideas and outside reviews to reorganize. And he places much of the blame for the stalled progress on the river at the feet of state lawmakers.
“If it’s so important to the state to clean up the river, why would you throw crumbs at the one organization that’s actually trying to do something,” Campbell said.
The board was created by the Legislature and was provided ongoing funding of $100,000. The board also collects dues from member counties. The state has cut its funding to $42,000 and some counties have dropped out — 22 of the 37 counties now are members — leaving less dues money.
Campbell said it’s wrong to criticize the board when it’s been left with less money and authority.
“The board is there to provide leadership, create partnerships and help improve the basin. We’re not the ones responsible for cleaning up the river.
“It’s a state statute to have the board, so why is the state cutting the funding then demanding the river be crystal clear and saying it’s our fault?”
The issue came to a head recently when Dakota County abruptly pulled out of the board, triggering fears more metro counties would follow.
Patrick Moore, head of the Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) group, believes the statute creating the board had flaws.
“In the organizational chart there was no place on it for citizens. It always works when there is citizen leadership involved,” Moore said.
He also faults the board for operating under an “old fashioned” meeting structure. “It’s people meeting during the day in rows of chairs, listening to someone up front. There’s not interaction, visiting or cross-sector relationships.”
But Moore said there is a need for a basin-wide organization with a joint powers agreement. “There’s a need for an entity, if it’s not the river board, then something else, to set the strategic direction and provide the leadership inspiration and enthusiasm. We didn’t see that from the river board.”
Moore says many of the counties and commissioners on the board — including Campbell — have worked hard in a frustrating situation. “Some counties have been out front and taken the lead and others just aren’t interested. I admire the leadership of the board, they’ve really tried hard.”
Campbell feels that while the challenges on the Minnesota River are immense and the state has long said it’s committed to improvements, powerful groups, self interests and political fighting have stalled progress.
“Many of the county commissioners are farmers and many of them are conservationists, too. But when push comes to shove on ag issues, they’re going to side with ag,” Campbell said.