Officials say proposed state budget cuts would hurt DC land and water conservation efforts

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  Land and water conservation efforts are so much of a partnership between state and county agencies and other organizations that state budget cuts would have broad impacts.

“It’s impossible to grab onto because so many parts are being affected,” said Dan Prestebak, Dunn County conservationist, at the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development Committee meeting March 24.

Reductions in the state budget to the Department of Natural Resources, UW-Extension and the state’s land stewardship program would have a significant impact on the environment, said Bob Walter, county board supervisor from Menomonie and chair of the PRD committee.

For example, the positions filled by Dan Zerr, Lower Chippewa River Basin educator through UW-Extension, and Julia Olmstead, farmer-led watershed council coordinator, could be eliminated, Walter said.

Many of the programs, projects and initiatives have taken years to develop.

Improving the water quality of Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin, for instance — both listed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as impaired waters — is the goal of the Red Cedar River Watershed’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The TMDL has been in the works for more than a decade.

For starters, the $25,000 grant that supports the farmer-led watershed council’s efforts would most likely disappear, Prestebak said.

The money is part of a lake management grant from the DNR, he noted.

Another $15,000 that the Joint Finance Committee restored two years ago would also be lost in the current budget proposal, he said.

The state budget does contain a $250,000 provision for farmer-led watershed councils, but the budget is exceptionally vague on how the money would be administered, he said.

The $250,000 is for the whole state, but Prestebak said he did not know if the budget intended the money to be used for farmer incentives or if it would be used for staff.

In either case, dividing $250,000 by 72 counties would leave about $3,500 per county.

Since the DNR would cut money from UW-Extension for water quality, the cut would affect the staff for the TMDL plan and the coordinator for the farmer-led watershed councils, Prestebak said.

The governor’s proposed budget also would take the rule-making authority and policy authority away from the Natural Resources Board and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board and make those boards advisory, he noted.

The budget is “purposely designed for impacts,” Prestebak said.

The county could perhaps absorb the loss of the $15,000, Walter said.

Prestebak agreed. “It will not put us into a corner.”

The state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has been holding public hearings on the proposed budget.

Conservation has not been very well represented at the budget hearings, said Dick Lamers, past president of the Tainter Menomonie Lake Improvement Association.

People who like to fish and hunt will suffer the impacts of budget reductions to land and water conservation, but they are not represented at the budget hearings, he said.

“We cannot afford to work in reverse,” Lamers said.

Philanthropic organizations will be less inclined to give grants if state government cuts funding, said Tom Quinn, county board supervisor from Downing, a member of the PRD committee, and the executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Farmers need staff support, he said.

Dunn County land conservation would not plan to drop staff for the watershed efforts, but the county could lose the farmer-led watershed council coordinator, Prestebak said.

“For some inexplicable reason (state legislators) do not see land and water conservation as important,” Quinn said.