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Rural watershed residents trying to kick urban counties out of watershed council
Racoon River Watershed - Western Iowa
Racoon River Watershed

IOWA - A bloc of counties has demanded the removal of Polk and Dallas counties from the North Raccoon River Watershed Management Coalition, and the passage of its watershed plan is its ransom. 

The coalition’s board will vote on Friday to approve the plan that, in its most recent iteration, calls for a 48 percent reduction of the watershed’s nitrate levels and lists best water quality practices for government entities and landowners to implement so the reduction can be made possible. The meeting was held at King’s Pointe Resort last week.

 “This was the North Raccoon Watershed, and it’s turned out to be the Raccoon (watershed),” said Pocahontas County Supervisor Clarence Siepker, one of the board’s voting members. “We’re supposed to be a board that’s rural.”

Siepker’s grievance is the newest of myriad claims a growing opposition has registered since the beginning of the year. 

But it’s now the northern counties’ rallying cry. 

The Des Moines Register reported boards in Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Palo Alto, Pocahontas, Sac and Webster counties have passed resolutions saying they will not support the watershed plan if Dallas and Polk counties remain part of the coalition. 

This week, the same northern counties voted on a resolution that called for Polk and Dallas counties’ removal because they’re “highly developed, improperly added land, (that) would represent 56 percent of the population of the coalition, but includes very little of the agricultural land that dominates the true watershed…”

The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors voted against the resolution because its representative, Paul Merten, hasn’t fully reviewed the plan that was up for a vote last week. He said he’d vote for it if his wishlist was in the plan, but he wasn’t confident the coalition took his requests seriously. 

 “I’ll make a decision when I vote for the plan,” said Merten, noting the resolution that boots Polk and Dallas counties was prompted by Palo Alto and Pocahontas counties. 

Since its founding in 2017, the coalition has been mired in bitter disagreements and project proposals that never came to fruition.  

 “There are serious fundamental differences between the developed Raccoon River area needs and the rural North Raccoon River area needs,” wrote Palo Alto County representative Don Etler in an email to board chairwoman Keri Navratil in January. 

The Storm Lake Times reported in May the coalition hasn’t sought grant funding to sustain operations past 2021. Its coordinator, Marius Agua, hasn’t been notified whether he’ll return. And it’s only spent $540,000 of its $2.5 million it had budgeted for projects. 

 “This whole notion of the North Raccoon River Management Coalition was to bring people together,” Navratil said on Monday. “We’ve discussed these issues over and over. Frankly, I thought we resolved them a long time ago. I’m confused by this.”

Board members have taken issue with the plan’s nitrate reduction goal because it doesn’t exactly match the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The watershed management plan that’s up for approval calls for a 48 percent reduction. The states’ plan calls for a 41 percent reduction. 

They’ve taken issue with the list of best practices because they could be an entrée into government mandates. 

They’ve disputed the drawing of the watershed maps. Even though its map was derived from the U.S. Geological Survey, the opposition says the drawing was too expansive. Etler, Siepker and Merten want two watershed management coalitions. 

Navratil said she appreciates their concerns, but their comments were already taken into consideration through months of discussions. She believes it’s a self-destructive move to scuttle the plan, which they’ve expended $200,000 to draft, just because of issues that she believes have already been litigated. She noted many of the issues stemmed from the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2017. 

 “By state code, Des Moines Water Works can’t be a member of a watershed management authority,” she said. “We named it a coalition so it wouldn’t give off the impression mandates weren’t being considered.”

Earlier this year, an informal survey of many of the controversial points passed by an overwhelming majority. 

 “We plan to present the plan, and recommend its approval,” she said.

Tom Cullen writes for the Storm Lake Times, and this article is reprinted with permission.

In an editorial that appeared in the Storm Lake Times e-edition on Thursday, July 30, the following was said about the current status of the Racoon River Watershed Management Coalition:

“We hate to say that we told you so, but we saw this coming: The Raccoon River Watershed Coalition is all but dead after just three years, and can barely give away about $2.5 million in funds for conservation projects. The rural counties tried to boot the urban counties, but at least the coalition survived in name if not cooperative spirit following a 14-11 board vote on Friday in Storm Lake. They argued over whether the goal is to reduce pollution by 41% or 48% when in fact pollution is going up, not down — 41% and 48% are shiny academic distractions shrouding a fatal contradiction: we want to get 200 bushels of corn from every acre, right up to and even into the river, and dump manure on top of anhydrous, while claiming that we are stewards of God’s green Earth who can engineer our way out of darn near anything.”

This article is reprinted with permission of Tom Cullen of the Storm Lake Times.