Retiring SWCD administrator plans continued personal conservation efforts

Donna Rasmussen
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“I knew I wanted to do something that took me outside. I spent most of my childhood in the creek and the woods, exploring. It was years later that I realized that the creek where we played was fed by several septic systems,” shared retiring Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Administrator Donna Rasmussen. “I think that’s something that proves the science that says the more kids are in dirt, the stronger their immune systems. I think that’s why I have such a strong immune system. And, I’ve worked around water all my life, and I’ve never learned to swim.”

Rasmussen shared that she can actually remember the first Earth Day. “My seventh grade English teacher asked us to write essays about how we would save the planet, and mine was about litter, all the beer and pop cans, and she liked it so much I ended up reading it at the school assembly,” she said. “I think I knew early what career I wanted.”

Her first job out of college was on the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge. “I spent four years banding and counting ducks and painting signs, doing a muskrat population study, then I took a few years off to have a family,” she said. “I ended up in Fillmore County, looking at what happens to the tributaries that affect the Mississippi.”

Rasmussen began her career in Fillmore County in 1991. “I was hired as the first water plan coordinator because the county had just completed its first water plan. I was a county employee for about ten years, then in 2001, my position was transferred to the SWCD,” she noted.

In 2008, Rasmussen became the administrator of the SWCD. “Before I worked as the water plan coordinator, I worked with Sheila Craig in the Extension office, on a recycling project. That probably gave me a foothold in Fillmore County. Sheila and I had partnered through the years on recycling education, pilot programs on septic education, and she’s worked on wastewater initiatives in Granger and Greenleafton. She’s probably the one person who’s been through the years…supportive and really a role model for me. And she was my teacher before I graduated from high school.”

The county and SWCD’s programs converged as the years went by, and it made sense for the SWCD to adopt the county’s water plan.

Rasmussen recounted, “The SWCD did the traditional soil erosion planning, but adopting the water plan, we got into nutrient management, septic systems and more environmental water monitoring.”

She also said the SWCD started getting more involved with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“This really expanded the role of the SWCD and water regulations and management, it started looking at things more holistically,” she said. “If we address soil erosion, we address a lot of water quality issues as well, and we address a lot of things that don’t fit into the feedlot department.”

That meant the stacks and stacks of binders that have helped Rasmussen stay organized also contain more and more information on various programs that have been implemented over the course of her tenure – most of them dependent on the awarding and continuation of grant funding.

“We’re still managing between 20 and 25 grants, and we’re fortunate to have the Clean Water Legacy funds that have provided a lot here in Fillmore County,” she said. “We’re still dealing with the large number of grants, and it’s a challenge to make sure we’re managing them all and our priorities.”

A couple things have helped, Rasmussen continued, including stabilizing grants, local capacity grants have helped provide funding for day-to-day operations, and the establishment of the One Watershed, One Plan has provided watershed base grants from the Clean Water Legacy

These are “base funds we can rely on for at least ten years to help stabilize and plan out ten years,” Rasmussen explained. “I think we have things in place to keep things moving forward over the years and have stability in the long term.”

Cooperation of landowners, the agencies that administer grants and plans, the county and the SWCD has been vital, according to Rasmussen. “We can’t do it on our own. We have to have the landowners and the agencies cooperate. Overall, we’ve been blessed to have good staff and good relationships. Our board has been there…proactive people who are willing to step outside the box and take a chance,” she said.

Rasmussen also acknowledged, “Not everything will work out in your plan, but you might take a step back every once in a while, but most often, we’ve been in forward motion. Strong regulatory groups helped us be more progressive – I don’t know how many projects we’ve done that have said ‘pilot’ that we’ve tried here for the state, had access to funds and been allowed to make a few more mistakes. It’s not always easy being the first to try something, but we worked out the kinks and never felt isolated because we had good relationships with other agencies. Our oversight has been the Board of Water and Soil Resources, and we’ve had guidance from them, always followed the proper procedure. They’ve been really helpful.”

A typical day in Rasmussen’s career may have tested her tolerance of farm and stream bacteria and wood ticks, but she’s also gotten to know Fillmore County’s people and its history through her work as administrator.

Not a day went by without getting acquainted with someone who had concerns about how their existence affected the water and soil that sustains the county’s farmers and residents.

“I think our 75th anniversary a couple years ago was a highlight. It really helped me understand the history of the SWCD,” Rasmussen said. “I learned a lot about how this district was formed and how it got going, how the people got it started. That was something I hadn’t gotten into before.”

Another highlight was seeing the One Watershed, One Plan come together so the SWCD has stability and funding for the years ahead to get the plan implemented.

“We’ve had karst education exhibits and trunks – they’re at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, but each of nine cities got educational trunks,” Rasmussen said. “That was about 2000 when that was done, and things have changed a lot. We’re in the process of updating those trunks and replacing the VHS with DVDs and other things so that when a person plans a lesson using the trunks, they meet current educational standards.”

For about ten years, the SWCD worked at the south branch of the Root River in Forestville State Park and partnered with Root River Field and Stream.

“In 2009, we started monitoring three small watersheds – the headwaters, the middle karst and one in the blufflands to evaluate how different agricultural practices affect runoff and the water quality of rivers and streams,” Rasmussen said. “And in 2016, we got implementation money for a baseline water sample study – we collected water and measured effects of putting different practices in place. It was very intensive and on a small scale, but I really enjoyed that project because it filled in a lot of gaps. The staff would go out every day, and even though it was very labor-intensive, it was very rewarding because we started seeing some results...very encouraging. There are pretty basic practices that farmers could do, using targeted practices where you might see erosion coming from their fields.”

The SWCD staff has been invaluable to the county’s conservation efforts, Rasmussen noted. “Personally, it’s going to be hard to leave the people I work with,” she said. “I will miss most the relationships with my staff and the landowners. They’re who make a difference.”

She added that her retirement comes as part of a transitional period for the agency. “Rick Grooters retired last spring, Jeanette Serfling is the person who answers the phones and is sort of the face of the SWCD when people call or stop in – she’s retiring in July, and in a way, we’re starting a new era,” she said. “Longtime employees Doug Keene and Anne Koliha will be here, and the rest will be relatively new. You lose a little collective knowledge when someone goes, but it’s nice to have people coming in with a new background, new ideas and knowledge. Jeanette will keep things moving without me, and I’m excited for the new person coming in. She’s young and enthusiastic, she has a SWCD background. And it’s been satisfying seeing the level of understanding people in our county have of our resources, how fragile they are – especially our groundwater.”

Retirement offers Rasmussen a chance to stick her feet in water that’s likely notably cleaner than the streams she played in when she was a child, and she’s not planning on giving up her mission as a steward of the waterways just yet.

“I do stream monitoring for the MPCA – that’s something anybody can do – recording the transparency of the water after rain events, taking the water temperature and observations about the stream. It’s very valuable information for the state, and it’s something I can continue doing,” she said.

Rasmussen has two grandsons, and she would like to spend more time with family and her grandsons, as well as travel.

“I’m trying to get more involved in our local farmer’s market because I farm with my brother, I’m with the Decorah Chorale, I’d like to join the community band, do some woodworking because I’ve been interested in that, a home to clean,” she listed. “I’ve got files to finish or sort. Going through them, I’m finding a lot of projects that we’ve done over the years that I’d forgotten about that we’ve built upon.”

The last few weeks of Rasmussen’s time in the SWCD offices found her doing just about the same things she’s done every day for the past decade or more, but there’ve been a few moments where she’s paused to organize files for the incoming new administrator or pack a box to take home – not forgetting, of course, her “Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipper” bumper sticker.

“It hasn’t hit me yet that I’ll be done at the end of the month. My last day is Friday, May 24, and it will be the people and the relationships I’ll definitely miss most,” she added.

Parting words from the former woods-pirate child who grew up playing in a muddy stream are those of experience and ecological wisdom.

“I’d like people to realize that everyone has a role to play in making where we live a little better,” she said. “If we rely on the county, the SWCD or the state to make things better for you, it won’t. It’s what you do in your own lives.”

Rasmussen explained, years ago, people thought pollution was big pipes spewing dirty water, but now, it all comes down to the cumulative effects, the things people have control over.

“If you live in an apartment in town, you still have an impact – you can recycle, maintain a rain garden, put in a rain barrel. If you have 1,000 acres of land and you can see erosion, you know that it’s beyond the tolerance level,” she encouraged. “Try to address the things you can. Be the change you want to see in the world and bloom where you’re planted. Make better your own corner of the world, because it’s not insurmountable…it makes a difference.”