MONTEVIDEO – Not long after Kylene Olson was hired to be the first director of the newly-created Chippewa River Watershed Project, a group of landowners showed up at the Chippewa County board of commissioners meeting.
“They asked ‘what on earth they thought they were doing by starting this watershed project,’ ’’ said Olson. They felt threatened by the creation of the watershed project, seeing it as something that was only there to impose regulations on them, she explained.
At the same time, there were those who never gave it a thought. Most people weren’t used to thinking of themselves as part of a watershed.
Things have changed for the better in both respects over the past 20 years, thanks to the efforts of Olson, her co-worker of 18 years, Jennifer Hoffman, and other staff members serving the watershed project since its start in 1998.
And now another change is around the bend: Olson is retiring at the end of this month, and Hoffman has declined an offer to take over the project’s leadership. The commissioners from the seven counties that are part of the expansive, 1.3-million-acre watershed are now in the process of deciding how the project should move forward.
Other than the donation of office space and similar, in-kind support from Chippewa County, the Project has sustained itself entirely through these years by obtaining state and federal grant monies. Funds are still available for water quality work, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find grant funds to support the administrative staff it takes to implement the projects, said Olson and Hoffman. Going forward, counties may find themselves taking on some of the costs of supporting watershed projects if they want to maintain them.
The benefits speak for themselves. With its start 20 years ago, the Chippewa Watershed Project became a pioneer in identifying what causes water quality problems, and how to address them with the support of cooperating landowners on a voluntary basis. The data collected here has made the watershed one of the most understood in the state.
The watershed has awarded about $7.5 million in grant funds during the past 20 years to address water quality issues, mainly by making possible best management practices on the land. The watershed has also provided nearly $4 million in low interest loans for residents to upgrade septic systems.
Landowners and local entities matched the grant funds with another $6.2 million in investments for improved water quality, making the overall impact of the project’s activities in the neighborhood of $17.5 million, noted Olson.
To overcome the initial suspicions about the Project’s intentions, Olson said meetings were held throughout the watershed and efforts made to engage and educate landowners and other residents. With time, more and more people have come to realize that the Project is there to assist with voluntary efforts to improve water quality.
Over that time, people have also come to understand their relationship to the watershed and their accountability in protecting water, said Hoffman.
Watershed scientist Paul Wymar, who served with the Project for 15 years, is responsible for setting it on its present course. He realized through his work that increasing the amount of the landscape with perennial cover provided the most effective means of reducing the sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen that pollute the waterway. The Chippewa River 10 Percent Project, working in conjunction with the Land Stewardship Project and 15 other partners, helps landowners find economically advantageous ways to increase perennial cover.
Olson, who grew up in Watson, had moved to the Twin Cities at age 19 and worked 10 years as an operations manager in a brokerage business before realizing the prairie was her true calling. She returned home, earned a degree in biology and environmental studies at Southwest State University in Marshall. She interned with the Chippewa County Soil and Water Conservation District before helping write the grant that launched the Watershed Project and becoming its executive director.
There’s been a lot to learn. “It’s more complex than rocket science,’’ said Olson of the complexities of a watershed. But always, she said, it’s been hard science that has driven the work and decisions of the Project.
No less challenging has been the human dimension. “Getting people to make change, embrace change, the financial, social implications,’’ said Hoffman. It’s all difficult to do.
Getting people together, holding events, sending out mailings, it all helps. But the biggest lesson of all came when the Project launched its 10 Percent Project. It became evident that it requires one-on-one conversations with people to help bring about the changes that really matter, said Olson.
Being determined helps too. She knows she’s probably angered a few people over the years. “If I did it’s because I stood my ground for what I believe in,’’ she said.
Change has come slower than she would have liked, said Olson when asked what disappointment she’s experienced in her work. The Project has helped keep the levels of sediment and phosphorus reaching the Minnesota River in check, but it’s still seeing increases in nitrate levels, said Hoffman.
Yet overall, she and Olson pointed out that people are more receptive to the work of the watershed. More people are playing positive roles for water quality. That’s especially true in the Upper Shakopee Creek subwatershed, where for 22 years a very dedicated group including landowners, organizations and public entities have worked together, noted Olson.
And despite the early questions posed to the county commissioners when the Project was created, the local governments have continued to support it. It took the support of all 35 commissioners from the seven member counties to keep the Project in place under a joint powers agreement at one point, Olson pointed out.
Yet water quality issues remain as big an issue today as they were when the Project was launched two decades ago. Are they optimistic going forward? “Jen and I have had this conversation a lot,’’ said Olson. “It is a hard call. You want to be optimistic or what’s the point of doing it. You have to have hope or you couldn’t come to work every day.”