Washington Conservation District named top district
By Heather Thorstensen
Agri News staff writer
STILLWATER, Minn. -- Minnesota's 2009 Conservation District of the Year award went to one that meets the needs of its diverse population and works to form successful partnerships.
The Washington Conservation District was selected as the leader of Minnesota's 91 soil and water conservation districts. The award was presented in December at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts' annual convention.
Jay Riggs, WCD manager, said in the last 15 years or so, two-thirds of the district's 423 square miles have become non-rural.
"It does have a dramatic effect on the focus of our programs and we've had to evolve to provide services to all residents of the county," Riggs said. "...We strive to make sure we provide conservation for both urban and rural portions of the county."
The district has also helped form a collaborative effort to address water quality issues in the St. Croix River Basin. The effort began in 2009 and teams up nine Minnesota SWCDs plus conservation groups from Wisconsin.
"They really are treading new ground in helping to coordinate new types of efforts across county and conservation district boundaries," said Sheila Vanney, assistant director of the MASWCD.
She added the district's other partnerships help it be successful.
"They partner very strongly with the other natural resource entities such as rural watershed districts within their county and their county parks department and other staff within the county," she said.
WCD's teamwork gets conservation projects on the ground. In addition to cost-share funds through farm bill programs and the state, they work with the district's seven watershed organizations.
"We have a substantial amount of cost-share available in Washington County. It's because of the partnerships available to us," said Riggs.
In 2009, they installed more than 80 projects and at least 80 more are pending.
"The number of practices that have been installed have been increasing the last few years," Riggs said.
He believes the district also excels because of it's diverse board, which has representatives from both urban and rural areas, and it's highly trained, 13-member staff.
"We have multiple areas of expertise and that, to me, is one of the strong points of the staff," he said.
WCD staff have been recognized for their expertise through invitations to speak at national and international conferences, Vanney said.
Riggs added it's been helpful to have many landowners willing to participate in conservation programs, which are voluntary.
"People care about the resources," he said.
The district focuses on water resource monitoring and assessment, education, wetland management and promoting best management practices. They keep a pulse on the health of their water systems by monitoring more than 40 streams and more than 70 lakes.
"We can identify problems, track the effects of land use changes. The science and the data is what's driving our conservation practices. It's really important to understand what's happening," Riggs said.
Gaining this type of data helps the district prioritize their conservation efforts.