By Nancy Allen
Members of the Wabash Watershed Alliance (WWA) want to hire another watershed coordinator and do not want to merge with the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project.
The unanimous decision and recommendation of the alliance on Tuesday followed nearly two hours of discussion, guided by a state facilitator.
Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) board members will consider the WWA's recommendation during its next meeting Thursday. The WWA operates under the umbrella of the Mercer SWCD. Mercer County Commissioners also will have to approve the decision before another coordinator can be hired.
Facilitator Liz Cline, of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, urged WWA members to list advantages and disadvantages of hiring another coordinator after former watershed coordinator Lance Schwarzkopf resigned in August. The WWA's options are to hire a new coordinator who would finish a watershed management plan started by Schwarzkopf or merge the WWA with the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project, headed by coordinator Heather Buck.
A state-endorsed management plan is necessary for the WWA to apply for grants so the group can offer cost share funds to landowners to implement best management practices and improve water quality in the watershed area and in the river. Some WWA members worried that if the WWA were merged with the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project, concerns associated with the lake would overshadow those of the Wabash River. They also worried the city of Celina, which currently provides matching local funds for the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project, would not want to lend financial support if the two watershed groups were combined.
Buck, who attended Tuesday's meeting, disagreed.
"The participating groups would have the same water quality interests," Buck said.
She also said, based on her conversations with Celina officials, the city would support combining the groups.
The Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed is actually part of the much larger Wabash River Watershed, because rainwater overflow from the lake's west bank spillway flows into Beaver Creek, which then empties into the Wabash River.
Mercer SWCD Administrator Nikki Hawk asked Mercer County Commissioner Jim Zehringer if commissioners had enacted a hiring freeze in the county in light of a recent countywide budget shortfall.
Zehringer replied there is no official freeze, but commissioners have advised county departments against any new hiring.
"There is no hiring freeze on paper, but it would be a decision all three commissioners would have to make," Zehringer said of hiring a new WWA coordinator. "But we would look at the fact that there is now funding available from the grant to do that."
Schwarzkopf was hired using a six-year, $191,048 ODNR grant awarded in September 2002 that paid for a portion of his salary and benefits. Mercer and Darke counties pay matching funds on the grant. Every year grant funds decrease as the local share increases, until the position is completely locally funded by year seven. This is the end of year two of the grant.
Zehringer said one watershed group headed by one coordinator, instead of two watershed groups headed by two coordinators, would be easier for the county to handle financially.
WWA member Doc Burkholder said the group should not rule out combining the two watershed groups at another time.
"I think we should keep it going a few more years and then look at combining them at a later date," Burkholder said. "I just don't know if now is the right time."