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Guest Opinion: Soil and Water Conservation Districts: Ensuring funding for the boots on the ground

Sen. Carrie Ruud

Our great outdoors is one of our state's main attractions. Outdoor recreation, in all seasons, is a tradition that all Minnesotans enjoy. To ensure that our natural habitats remain pristine, we need to work together to address policy issues and maintain funding sources across the state. Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) provide the project management and expertise to implement natural resource conservation projects across the state. In order to better ensure SWCD funding, counties should include the SWCD in their budgets.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts, while perhaps not as well-known as the DNR or PCA, are a vital component of a healthy environment by helping direct and manage natural resource programs in Minnesota. As I like to say, the SWCDs are our boots on the ground. They are in the fields and streams directly working on improving our environment. They implement projects that control erosion, ensure soil productivity, protect water quality, reduce flood damage, preserve wildlife, and protect public lands and waters. Soil and Water Conservation Districts work one-on-one with private landowners who make up 78 percent of the land surface in Minnesota. Managing these private lands, whether agriculture, forest, lakes, or urban, is key to Minnesota's quality of life. Despite the important mission of SWCDs, their funding sources remain, at times, uncertain.

In recent years there has been a debate over the best funding mechanism for SWCDs. By statute, SWCDs are local units of government tied to the counties. Since their inception, their funding has been pulled from various local and state sources in the form of grants and appropriations. When an estimated 40 percent of lakes and streams are not meeting state water quality standards, we need to continue to find funding sources so SWCDs can continue to implement projects across the state. Counties and SWCDs work together closely each day to ensure they serve their residents. Including the SWCD budgets in the county budgets is one of the most immediate ways we can begin to ensure SWCDs receive stable, full funding.

A large amount of funding comes from the Legacy Amendment and the Clean Water Fund, funding nearly $30 million in requests for 2019, but that only covers the cost for every 1 in 2.5 (46 percent) proposed projects. Between 2010 and 2018, the Crow Wing SWCD and Aitkin SWCD have done a great job of leveraging Clean Water Funds. Crow Wing has leveraged $2.3 million and Aitkin has leveraged nearly $600,000. While our SWCDs make the most of the funding they can access, they still fall short in covering some costs that are not covered by grants, including some operational and staff costs, and it is often difficult to get a local match for projects.

We know that SWCDs play an important role in keeping Minnesota's outdoors thriving. We know that their funding sources fluctuate making it difficult to fund all proposed projects. I believe one of the best ways we can begin to help fully fund our SWCDs is by having our counties include and account for them in their budgets. Our counties and SWCDs have a great partnership with each other to serve their residents. Soil and Water Conservation Districts and counties help implement state programs, provide one another with technical expertise, and more. Folding our SWCD budgets into the county budgets is one of the most immediate ways we can begin to provide consistent, stable and adequate funding for our boots on the ground working on conservation projects.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, represents District 10 in the Minnesota Senate