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Bill would give conservation districts a dedicated funding source

Hear the word “Bowser” and some will picture a friendly, gallivanting dog, while others call to mind that dinosaur-esque nemesis in the Super Mario Bros. games. But, around the Capitol, it’s an abbreviation for the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the state agency responsible for distributing funds to local soil and water conservation districts.

Finding the money to help those local environmental “boots on the ground” conservation advisors do their work has been something of a hot potato in recent years, being passed from one category of the state budget to another. Currently, its $12 million annual budget comes from the Clean Water Fund.

But Rep. Liz Reyer (DFL-Eagan) has an idea for how to give them a consistent funding source.

She’s the sponsor of HF735, which would use General Fund money to establish a new $22 million aid program for the state’s 88 soil and water conservation districts. On Wednesday, the House Property Tax Division laid the bill over for possible consideration in the division’s report to the House Taxes Committee.

Soil and water conservation district staff work primarily with private landowners on voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs. Here’s how the bill’s $22 million annual outlay for their work would be distributed:

  • 70% equally among all districts;
  • 20% according to each district’s proportional share of nonpublic land; and
  • 10% based on each district’s population.

The provision would be effective beginning with aids payable in 2023.

“District by district, they’re starved for resources,” Reyer said. “They’re scrambling. They’re losing people. That 70% is going to raise all boats. It’s going to give them the stability that they need. The ability to attract and retain the talent that has built trusted relationships in their communities.”

There is at least one district in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties, except for Hennepin and Ramsey. Three of the state’s larger counties have two districts: Otter Tail, Polk and St. Louis. Hennepin and Ramsey counties have special legislative authority to carry out soil and water conservation district functions and would therefore be included in aid payments.

“Our staff and elected board members are able to help landowners work through conservation programs from start to finish,” said Chuck Rau, president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. “State funding over the past several years, however, has been a struggle.

“The funding proposed would provide a more efficient, predictable and longer-term funding mechanism, allowing SWCDs across the state to support implementation of conservation projects. This new path would also allow us to more adequately leverage federal conservation resources.”

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