Watershed District is seeing upstream progress

Guest Column by Brent Behnke

Brett Behnke is the administrator of the Shell Rock River Watershed District.

There is so much going on at the Shell Rock River Watershed District this season. In an attempt to keep the citizens of our watershed informed, we have partnered with the Albert Lea Tribune to bring you a monthly column.

In this inaugural column, I’d like to share the history of the watershed.

The SRRWD was formally established in 2003, but there was a long history before the formation of our district. For several years prior to 2003 members of our community met to discuss and solve the water quality issues of our lakes. Representatives from Freeborn County, the city of Albert Lea, the Lakes Foundation, the agricultural community, lakeshore owners and other concerned citizens held monthly meetings regarding the impaired quality of our lakes.

Approximately seven years into the endeavor, after exhausting their options as a non-governing entity in the eyes of the state, the group solicited the help of citizens within Freeborn County to petition the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources for the establishment of a formal watershed district to tackle our water quality issues. Over 700 citizens signed a petition and wrote letters voicing their concern for water quality in our area.

BWSR recognized that our watershed was unique in that the district spanned area beyond political borders. We have bodies of water, channels, ditches and waterways within the county and within the city’s limits. It made sense to establish a formal watershed district to tackle the issues of our area as all of our lakes were deemed impaired by the state’s standards yet no existing entity was able to tackle the entire watershed area.

There are over 45 watershed districts in Minnesota. Most of these watersheds receive funding through property tax levies and/or bonds. Our district is unique in that we are funded by a property tax levy for administrative needs for the district and supplemented by a local option sales tax — which is leveraged to obtain matching grant funds from several federal, state and regional organizations — for our project fund. In 2015, our funding consisted of approximately $250,000 for our administrative fund and $1.4 million from the local option sales tax, which was leveraged to receive an additional $2.3 million in grant funds, for our projects fund.

I’m proud to say that the SRRWD is making a difference in the quality of water throughout our watershed. We are very close to getting our first lake off the impaired waters list, Pickerel Lake. As this lake is at the top of our watershed geographically, this shows progress has been made and continues to be made along the watershed typography (remember, we start at the top of the watershed and work our way down to the bottom by elevation — starting at Pickerel Lake and ending at Albert Lea Lake). This upstream progress has allowed us the opportunity to further our efforts in the Fountain Lake restoration project with dredging expected to begin in 2017.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss SRRWD issues with the public via this column and am open to your input regarding content. Let us know what you want to hear and follow the conversation via our Facebook page (@ShellRockRiverWatershedDistrict), website (www.shellrock.org), by attending our monthly board meetings (8:30 a.m. at City Council chambers) or by simply reaching out or swinging by our office (507-377-5785; 214 W. Main St. Albert Lea). We look forward, and are committed, to our mission of improving water quality in the area.


© 2015 Shell Rock River Watershed District, 305 S 1st Avenue, Albert Lea, MN 56007