Southeast water quality leaders make pitch
Pawlenty says region could get substantial funding
By John Weiss
People who are trying to get a big part of a potential $166.8 million in federal and state money to improve water quality think Gov. Tim Pawlenty found their pitch interesting last week.
"The governor seemed to be very supportive," said Bev Nordby, head of the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District.
The governor's comments backed her optimism.
"I feel really good about this proposal," Pawlenty said.
Now they have to wait to see just how much the governor's office will decide this region should get in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The federal share of the program provides about 80 percent of funding for projects, such as paying to have grass waterways planted along rivers, restoring wetlands and protecting areas that recharge drinking-water supplies.
The money is available, but the state also has to come up with about 20 percent that Pawlenty will try to get in bonding from next year's Legislature.
Pawlenty also insists that local groups help as partners instead of having the government do it all. His remarks at the end of the meeting indicated he liked what he heard.
"Clearly, you have assembled that kind of coalition and partnership in southeastern Minnesota," he said.
In all, Minnesota is eligible for money to work on about 100,000 acres, but the three regions would like to work on about 230,000 acres. That is why Pawlenty said he wanted to go throughout the state to hear who wants to do what and which region is ready for using the money.
At the meeting, Nordby, who is heading the local coalition for the program, said water-quality problems are perhaps greater in the southeast than other regions because of the geology. The area is mostly karst, meaning it often doesn't have much topsoil over porous rocks where the region gets its drinking water. Also, the rough topography in the eastern part of the state means topsoil is more prone to erosion.
Those representing governments, private conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, and farm groups such as the state Soybean Association applauded the attempt to get the conservation reserve money. They said it will help fish and wildlife and will give landowners money for taking some of their land out of production.
The only questions were details, such as how long the contracts should extend for taking land out of production.
Another reason for problems that the groups cited was the same federal farm bill that provides CREP. They said the bill encourages more row crops, such as corn and soybeans, but not dairy or livestock. Row crops tend to let topsoil and chemicals run off faster than when land is used as pasture. When presentations were done, the governor asked detailed questions about how the local program would be run, such as whether grasslands in the program should be grazed, if it received CREP money.
After the meeting, Pawlenty repeated that this region could get substantial funding.
"Southeastern Minnesota really is a leading candidate because of the need and the organization," he said.