Distracted by squirrels

by Steve Woods, executive director

Distractions. The movie “Up” has a wonderful recurring joke where the entire cast of dogs is distracted by someone yelling “squirrel!”. It also happens to work on my father as he engages in his own 30-Years War with the rodents plaguing his backyard bird feeder.

Desktop squirrels.
I just put a note on top of a pile of papers I, apparently, have deemed as too important to toss but not important enough to act on or file. The note says, “Extra s*** laying around is distracting and makes me lose sight of what the priorities are.”

The hope is that I first think about the priorities and then slay the pile. I think a similar mindset would be useful as the current and incoming occupants of the Capitol complex in St. Paul filter out the distractions from the essential.

Gubernatorial squirrels.
As the “Water Governor” leaves office there will be plenty of changes as Governor Walz’s team expands to include Commissioners of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Health, and Pollution Control. There will also be new chairs for the Met Council and the Board of Water and Soil Resources — plus members of other boards, commissions, and councils.

There will also be individuals asserting reorganization is needed to “fix water.” These are loud individuals rather than organizations who have studied the issue closely. Freshwater believes the state’s water system is an example of what Midwestern modesty would rate as being “pretty good,” so it would be unfortunate to let the tired refrain of “we need to reorganize” distract us from addressing the real problems.

How refreshing would it be for the Executive Branch to work together to tackle a few of our thornier problems by enabling and expecting the agencies to achieve a FEW goals that none of them can accomplish on their own?

We suggest having them address:

  • rising flood flows across Southern Minnesota
  • shrinking supplies of safe groundwater threatening economic and human health in several regions

Legislative squirrels.
Last session’s pennywise and pound foolish raid on $164 million of lottery funds was a bad way to do a good thing (pay for needed treatment plant upgrades). Freshwater’s board is on record as expressing gratitude to the handful of groups who have filed a legal challenge because the fiscal maneuver would likely violate the Minnesota Constitution and state statute while definitely violating Minnesotans’ wallets by wasting $35 million in additional interest payments. Here’s hoping the 2019 session finds legislators willing to quickly do the right thing again — but this time without the distraction of doing it the wrong way.

We’ve watched the Legislative Water Commission methodically work its way through a long list of issues over the past year. We hope their pruning of that long list down to a short one produces bipartisan support for a few priorities. Having some new idea spring forth that was thought up on Tuesday and introduced on Thursday would be the equivalent of yelling “squirrel.”

In closing.

The reason I’m thinking about priorities and avoiding distractions is that I recently told the Freshwater board that I will be stepping back from my executive director leadership role in 2019.

Everything’s great here — really! — and I have loved being able to wed my experience to the nimbleness and transformative power that nonprofits bring. We have a pragmatic staff with field and policy experience that has made us a sought-after partner by other non-profits, citizen groups, and many state and local governments. And our Board! Check out our board members to see how we have these fantastic intellects willing to help steer this organization! I literally bounce out of bed most mornings eager to get to the office.

A decision this weighty took some time to make. What it ends up looking like will likely keep evolving, but I know how it starts. The Board wants me to overlap with my successor just like Gene Merriam and Joan Nephew did for me five years ago. OMG that was a lifesaver for me and Freshwater never missed a beat as I stomped on the gas and played with the steering wheel. They, and the legendary Dick Gray, were supportive while gently dispensing advice and answering a zillion questions.

Ideally stepping back means working part-time because I still have a lot of ideas and relationships I’m not ready to let go of. There will be special projects I’ll carry out as long as people want me around. I’m looking at my local watershed district board or other appointments as a way to continue working for water.

During the interview process with Freshwater back in 2013, I unearthed a deeply emotional sense that I owed this place something. Freshwater’s groundbreaking work in the early 1980s expanded my water horizons and gave me perspectives that benefitted me through my private- and public-sector years. It has been an absolute joy and privilege to bookend my career through a Freshwater lens. The Board has started a search process and is accepting resumes for my successor through the month of December. If you know somebody that should apply, tell them!

Read Steve’s official announcement here.