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Crow Wing County Board: Planning to protect the Pine

A watershed the federal government considers one of the most important from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean is right here in Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin counties.

The Pine River Watershed primarily sits within Cass and Crow Wing counties, with about 12,000 acres in Aitkin County and 347 acres in Hubbard County. Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
The Pine River Watershed primarily sits within Cass and Crow Wing counties, with about 12,000 acres in Aitkin County and 347 acres in Hubbard County. Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

A watershed the federal government considers one of the most important from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean is right here in Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin counties.

The 783-square-mile Pine River Watershed contains more than 500 miles of rivers and streams and more than 400 lakes of 10 acres or larger, covering the center of the northern half of the Upper Mississippi Basin. Within its boundaries are the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, Pelican Lake and the Pine River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.

"According to the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Forest Service, of all the watersheds in the state, they feel the Pine is the most valuable of our water resources as far as quality, quantity and its ability to provide drinking water," said Chris Pence, Crow Wing County land services supervisor. "It's an important watershed, and it's a watershed that has some activity and development. There's some risk, so we think it's an important watershed to get an effective plan in there to really be able to look at some conservation activities."

Pence asked the county board Tuesday to support of applying for state grant funds to implement the "One Watershed, One Plan" approach to planning for the Pine River Watershed. The approach, championed by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and supported by legislative efforts to allocate Clean Water Fund dollars, is intended to shift water planning priorities to the major watershed level.

In what BWSR calls the "next logical step in the evolution of water planning in Minnesota," the One Watershed, One Plan approach seeks to marry local initiatives with priorities of state agencies to protect water quality.

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Pence said planning efforts developed in coordination with other local government partners would be incorporated into Crow Wing County's water plan update, due in 2018.

"Three or four of these pilot-type watersheds have been approved across the state. It's relatively new," Pence said. "It's an opportunity for us to be able to come in there and have some input into how the watershed-based plans are developed and implemented."

Planning on the major watershed level would involve developing a policy committee with members from each of the local water planning authorities within the watershed borders. Pence said this would mean a commissioner from each county board and a representative from each soil and water conservation district. Most of the Pine River Watershed is within Cass and Crow Wing counties, although 2.4 percent of its area stretches into western Aitkin County.

Maggie Leach of BWSR said Aitkin County had not yet decided on its participation in the planning process.

Commissioner Paul Thiede asked questions about the committee's power, and whether it could make decisions that would supercede the preferences of how Crow Wing County chooses to implement its own water plan.

"The intent is to prioritize, what are the No. 1 issues that need to be addressed?" Pence said. "If, for some reason, there was some sort of lack of agreement within the watershed, we still have the ability to decide what happens within the boundary of our county."

Thiede said he wasn't opposed to the "One Watershed, One Plan" approach, but was skeptical of the state's intent in removing local control of water planning efforts.

"It is moving us in a direction, but I'm, as usual, skeptical that the state can't capture a good idea and turn it to their advantage at our expense," Thiede said.

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Thiede asked what would happen if a decision made in the committee meant spending money the county board didn't want to spend.

Leach emphasized the process would be ongoing and would include a representative from the county board, who could voice those concerns as a committee member.

"It is imperative that you are there and speak your mind, and it is up to you in the end," Leach said. "This is a local plan, just like your local water plan, it is just based on the watershed scale rather than on county boundaries."

Thiede said his concern reflected a general skepticism on the part of the county board toward adding layers of governance, shown by the board's recent pursuit of eliminating the Thirty Lakes Watershed District.

"I'm just trying to be abundantly clear on how this impacts us," Thiede said.

"It provides a vehicle to be able to better access clean water funds from the state," Pence said. "There is going to be dollars available for the implementation of the plan."

Chairman Doug Houge asked what additional benefits planning at this level would provide that Crow Wing County doesn't already have in place.

Pence said the eventual goal is to have a plan for each major watershed in the state, and doing so meant looking beyond the political boundaries to ensure conservation efforts were more comprehensive.

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County Administrator Tim Houle said the planning process offered an opportunity to coordinate with Cass County and allowed for access to state funding to implement those plans.

"If you look at which way the water is flowing, what happens in Backus ends up impacting us, not the other way around," Houle said. "It is in our benefit to coordinate those activities of what's going to happen outside our boundaries."

The county board passed a resolution 5-0, supporting an application to BWSR for a planning grant to develop a Pine River Watershed management plan.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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