Conflict contributing to river pollution

Dakota County pulls out of Minnesota River Board

Pollution in the Minnesota River upstream from Dakota County is so appalling that the county is pulling out of the organization charged with cleaning it up.

The action is meant to send a message to legislators that the Minnesota River Board is so dysfunctional it is unable to fulfill its mission to clean the river.

Despite Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan’s pleas to reconsider, commissioners voted 5-2 to leave the Minnesota River Board joint powers organization.

Egan is the county’s current representative on the board and next year’s River Board chair.

Most commissioners have served on the River Board and experienced the early-morning meetings – filled with finger-pointing, disagreements and controversy  – which are held hundreds of miles from Dakota County in inconvenient corners of the state.

Minnesota River Board members argue about the board’s governance structure, where resources are directed, fees each entity pays and who is to blame for the river’s high pollution levels.

“Some say the problem is soil erosion caused by development,” said Egan. “Others say it’s the industrial development that is occurring in southwest Minnesota, others say it’s farming or best management practices. Nobody can agree on anything.”

The river flows through 15,000 miles of south-central Minnesota through 38 counties, but only 23 of them are dues-paying members of the joint powers agreement to oversee the river’s environmental health.

Only a northwest portion of Dakota County is included in the basin, but based on the county’s population annual dues are $2,500.

Money was not the primary concern from commissioners who said they want meetings to result in action for cleaning the river.

Instead, Egan said he leaves meetings frustrated because “nothing but conflict occurred.”

The arguments are similar to ones that occurred a decade or so ago in Dakota County with the Vermillion River Watershed, said Dakota County Commissioner Joe Harris.

After years of controversy stalling action, Dakota County took over governance of the Vermillion River Watershed and conflicts were resolved.

A governance structure was established, a fee structure was set and river clean-up activities have been accomplished.

Similar action is needed by the state to clean up the Minnesota River, Harris said.

Commissioners Paul Krause, Nancy Schouweiler, Will Branning and Kathleen Gaylord agreed.

Commissioner Liz Workman agreed with Egan, who argued against pulling out, because the River Board is going to hire a neutral facilitator to bring the parties together and devise a new governance structure and establish financing parameters.

Workman voted to stay in the organization because she feared further destruction of the river without Dakota County’s involvement.

Harris said he was “absolutely appalled” to see the Minnesota River’s polluted condition between Mankato and LeSueur during a recent trip.

Gaylord said the Minnesota River is polluting the Mississippi River as well, calling it “crucial” to get the river cleaned up.

“It’s important to do it,” Gaylord said. “This organization isn’t getting it done.”

Other entities have also pulled out, and it is expected under its current structure that the River Board will run out of funding for staffing and expenditures within its next fiscal year.

“It’s probably time to get out,” Krause said. “Make it fail, and maybe the state will get on board and do something to make those counties out there abide by the rules and the laws and not pollute that river,”

Schouweiler agreed.

“There’s a great saying,” she said. “When the horse is dead, dismount.”