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Soil and Water Conservation District offices open during shutdown

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 10/22/2013 9:51 AM

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It's quiet these days in the state's co-located Soil and Water Conservation District offices.

Soil and Water Conservation District staff still are at work, and their federal counterparts with the Natural Resources Conservation Service are furloughed because of the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1.

In Minnesota, 72 of the 90 Soil and Water Conservation District offices are co-located with the NRCS.

The quiet isn't all that unusual given that farmers are busy in the field, district managers said, but if the shutdown drags on much longer, it will mean less conservation work is completed this fall.

In Mower County, farmers come into the office and look around with disbelief, district manager Bev Nordby said. They can't believe the federal offices really are closed. The Mower Soil and Water Conservation District is co-located with the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Only the SWCD staff are at work.

"It doesn't affect us that much because we have our own stuff; it's the offices that don't have their own stuff that are really affected," Nordby said.

The Mower SWCD owns its own computers, survey equipment and trucks.

One hiccup is that the Mower SWCD can't rely on the area NRCS office for engineering sign-off on state-funded projects because the staff at the area office are furloughed. Instead, the Mower SWCD may hire a private engineering firm so projects can keep moving forward.

In Dodge County, the situation is much different. Their work is hampered because they are unable to access their computers that they share with the NRCS. The federal directive disallows their use.

District technician Tom Johnston said they are getting to things lower on the to-do list and finishing up little projects.

"We're still here; we're open for business," he said.

But, they are getting little business, and many people assume they are closed, Johnston said.

He's waiting for Congress and the president to reach a deal to get federal employees back to work so he can get on his computer and get projects rolling again.

Johnston asks that people interested in conservation projects in Dodge County not send email because no one in the office can check email. Instead, call or stop in, he said.

Being integrated works great until something like this happens, said Glen Roberson, district manager of the Goodhue Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Goodhue SWCD has its own computer system, vehicles and some survey equipment. They are working on their projects and on projects with the county, but other projects ceased when the government shutdown.

"It definitely shuts down certain projects," he said.

Timing is of the essence now, as the conservation office gets really busy after the crop comes off, Roberson said. Silage harvest is already complete, and soybean harvest is underway. Projects funded through state cost-share can proceed as long as the technical sign-off is local or through a Board of Water and Soil Resources engineer.

Brian Nyborg, district manager of the Jackson County SWCD, asked that landowners call if they see a conservation need while out harvesting.

"Our doors are open," he said.

Work is proceeding as normal as possible in the SWCD office, Nyborg said. Many projects weren't impacted by the shutdown; others are.

A RIM-WRP project has been completed, but the Wetland Reserve Program payment is delayed. A handful of other WRP projects are ready to close, but they can't with the shutdown. There is no ongoing sign-up for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program or any Conservation Reserve Program payments.

Several managers said they have received calls from landowners wondering when their CRP payments will arrive. They can't answer that, and there is no way to reach the Farm Service Agency to ask. Also, direct payments were due to be issued in October.

The biggest issue is going to be tiling, Nyborg said. The SWCD can't answer questions about federal Swampbuster regulations. The NRCS has to answer those questions.

It's an unfortunate circumstance, said Kay Clark, district administrator of the Cottonwood County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"We do a lot of things together, but right now, those things are put on hold," she said.

The Cottonwood SWCD shares a phone system with the federal offices it's co-located with. An Oct. 8 power outage knocked out their auto attendant on the telephone answering service, so it goes to static. A person calling the office must press three to get to the SWCD. The auto attendant can't be re-programmed until the federal employees come back.

Some projects that could be going on aren't because of the shutdown, Clark said, but projects with state cost-share funding are proceeding. They do a lot of work jointly with the NRCS through EQIP, but those projects are on hold.

Employees who work in SWCD offices but are funded through federal grants also are unable to work.

The effect of the shutdown extends beyond the people out of work, Clark said. Contractors may be waiting for payments on big projects they completed during the summer, and farmers may need to take out loans to pay contractors for projects because they haven't received their federal funding.

While the federal employees aren't working, bills still are accruing at those locked offices.

"We're doing the best we can," Clark said.

If they encounter someone who's disgruntled with the shutdown, their advice is to "call your member of Congress."