By Nancy Allen
Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District board members want to create a watershed coordinator position shared by two existing district employees after current coordinator Heather Buck resigns in the next six months or so.
Buck, coordinator of the Grand Lake/Wabash Watershed Alliance, recently told board members she intends to resign because she is moving with her family to the Indianapolis area, where her husband has worked for a year. Buck has been coordinator since May 29, 2001.
If officials with ODNR's Division of Soil and Water Conservation agree, Nikki Hawk, the Mercer district's administrator/education specialist and technician Matt Heckler, would share the watershed coordinator's position and duties.
"Matt and I have talked about it and it's neither one of our ideal situations, but we want to stay with this team," Hawk said Thursday. "It makes sense and we can both see it fitting into our positions well. We think we can do it and be successful"
Hawk also indicated that with the uncertainty in the district's much diminished budget this year and talk of staff cuts, the change would give them both more job security. Ed Everman, a program specialist with ODNR, said Division of Soil and Water Conservation officials want to see the watershed project continue and likely would be open to a shared position.
The watershed project was first started in 1996 and was called the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project and only concerned the 71,862-acre watershed area and the 13,500-acre lake. Last March the project was merged with another watershed group, the Wabash Watershed Alliance, after that group's coordinator quit.
The new combined watershed group, with Buck as coordinator, was renamed the Grand Lake/Wabash Watershed Alliance, and now involves a 270,000-acre watershed area. The Grand Lake Watershed is actually considered part of the much larger Wabash River Watershed because rainwater overflow from the lake's West Bank spillway empties into Beaver Creek, which then empties in to the Wabash River.
The coordinator's salary and benefits are paid in part by a six-year ODNR grant and with local funds from Mercer and Darke counties and the city of Celina. With each successive year, grant money decreases as local money increases, with the ultimate goal that the watershed project become self-sustaining.
Board members learned Thursday the district will receive $11,894 less in technical assistance funds from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) this year. The Mercer district uses the technical assistance funds to reimburse district staff who do design and engineering work needed to help people install conservation practices funded by federal programs.
Hawk said the decrease in funds will not stop the district from assisting landowners with projects. Hawk also said the funds weren't something the district traditionally depended on to operate, as they have been available only for two years thus far.
The district received $12,500 in technical assistance funds last year, all of which will be spent by the end of this year to reimburse the salaries of district staff who do the technical assistance work, she said.
Board chairman Rick Muhlenkamp said he intends to contact NRCS State Conservationist Terry Cosby to voice his concern about the fund decrease.
"Since we are a heavy workload county, maybe this would be a good time to request more help," Muhlenkamp said.