County clean water fund axes Watershed Stewards

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Watershed Stewards funding agreement

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Clark County funding agreement for Master Gardeners

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Clark County funding agreement for small acreage program

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Clark County is cutting funding for a popular environmental education program.

Watershed Stewards volunteers received an email Monday informing them that their program lost funding from the county's clean water fund, which otherwise was projected to run out of money next year.

"The Department of Environmental Services Clean Water Program will be redirecting funds to other priority areas," Douglas Stienbarger, director of the WSU Clark County Extension, wrote in an email to volunteers. "I want to thank DES and Public Works (where the Clean Water Program was before DES) for their years of support for this great program."

Many of the program's 100 volunteers, who worked to improve area waterways, are upset. "There are many impassioned stewards that are heartbroken about this change," volunteer Tracy Sand said. "There is a lot of anger about the abrupt end to this beneficial program."

David Page, who has given 1,000 hours to the Watershed Stewards program, agreed. "Frankly, it didn't come as a big surprise to me considering the current power structure in the county, and Don Benton's appointment," he said.

Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke appointed Benton, a Republican state senator, to head the environmental services department last spring.

At a work session with county commissioners last month, Benton raised the red flag about the county's clean water fund, which is replenished by fees paid annually by property owners.

Benton would not accept The Columbian's phone call to inquire about the Watershed Stewards program, but referred a reporter to a county spokeswoman.

Two other programs that received money from the clean water fund were also on the block. The extension's program to educate owners of small-acre plots on how to reduce pollution may also lose its funding. But the county plans to continue its grant to the Master Gardeners program, said Mary Keltz, a county spokeswoman.

The county budgeted $18.6 million for clean water programs for the 2013-2014 biennium. Of that, about $72,000 each year went to the Watershed Stewards program, which relied entirely on the grant. A $40,000-a-year grant provided about two-thirds of the Master Gardeners program's funding. A $63,000 grant comprised 85 percent of the small-acreage program's budget.

Without cuts to the clean water budget, the balance would have dipped to $2,672 by the end of 2014, said Bob Stevens of the county's budget office. Most of the clean water money goes toward planning, building and maintaining stormwater facilities.

The Watershed Stewards Program began in 1999 as part of the Lacamas Lake Restoration Program. A year later, Clark County began funding the program in cooperation with Washington State University Clark County Extension.

The program trains volunteers to become stewards who not only work on projects to improve water quality, but also educate others how to protect natural resources.

"You should be proud of what you have accomplished over the years," Steinbarger wrote to volunteers. "You reached 91,116 county residents in your outreach efforts."

Steinbarger said the program may be able to continue in an all-volunteer form, but he has yet to work out details.