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Monday, July 13, 2009

Water Project District: Where's Russ Olson?

[Part 5 of a series!]

Last I checked, District 8 State Senator Russell Olson lives within the proposed boundaries of the Interlakes Water Project District. He stands to see his taxes raised by this district. A serious fiscal conservative, Senator Olson should have something to say about the creation of a new tax burden and a new layer of government for his immediate neighbors. Having referred to the federal stimulus package as "a blessing and a curse," Senator Olson should also have something to say about the water project district pursuing a massive three-million-dollar infusion of those federal dollars into the local economy.

Yet as far as I know, our man Russ has made no public statements on the water project district (WPD) or the upcoming public vote on July 18.

Now I can understand a politician keeping his head down on an issue not directly before his agency. Why risk alienating voters when a vote is a local issue, not a legislative issue?

But wait a minute: maybe water quality is a legislative issue. Both proponents and opponents of the WPD at Saturday's meeting in Chester got me thinking: the WPD would tax lake residents to pay for a problem caused mostly by people outside that taxing jurisdiction. It would create a new layer of government to address a problem that existing agencies and regulations apparently aren't addressing.

Why aren't existing agencies and regulations taking care of water quality problems? (We'll assume there are water quality problems... unless some global-warming deniers would like to take a break and argue that Lake Madison doesn't have algae blooms.) Some obvious hypotheses present themselves:
  1. Current regulations aren't tough enough.
  2. Current regulations are written to favor business and agriculture over environmental concerns.
  3. Existing agencies (DENR, state Ag. Dept., etc.) don't have sufficient resources to enforce current regulations.
  4. Existing agencies are choosing not to carry out their statutory duties.
Whichever of those hypotheses might be true, they all have something in common: they would all be legislative issues. Our legislators could write tough water quality regulations. They could give the boot to any preferential industry treatment. They could increase funding and staff for DENR to investigate water pollution, construct retention dams, and buy or lease land for other water quality projects. And they could light a fire under any Pierre functionaries who are sitting on their hands instead of doing their duty.

Besides, water quality is inherently bigger than any one local jurisdiction. We see it in the pending WPD proposal. The district would encompass Lakes Madison and Brant, yet the pollution is coming from sources west along Silver Creek and north of the city of Madison. If we foul up our water in Lake County, that directly affects downstream in Moody and Minnehaha. Watersheds don't fit our happy grid of townships and counties. Environmental issues demand local action, but they also require some state-level oversight to ensure smaller districts don't flush their troubles away to the poor suckers downstream.

These are all issues that Russ and Mitch and Gerry can and should holler about. Yet the Legislature appears to leave it to small lake communities to decide whether water quality is worth taking action and to find the money to do something about it.

There's certainly a debate to be had about local control versus state efforts. But there's an argument to be made that if the South Dakota Legislature (not just Russell Olson, but the whole kit and kaboodle, plus the governor) were serious about water quality and other environmental issues, Lakes Madison and Brant would not be holding a vote this weekend. That's something not just for Russ to keep in mind this Saturday at the Hillside, but for Russ, Mitch, Gerry, and the rest of us to keep in mind during the 2010 Legislative session... and for the rest of us to keep in mind during the 2010 election.

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