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'Voice of the Red River Basin' calls it a career

Dan Wilkens, administrator of the Sand Hill River Watershed District, stands by a recently completed restoration project on the Sand Hill River near Fertile, Minn., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Wilkens is retiring Dec. 31 as head of the watershed district, which he organized in 1974. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

FERTILE, Minn.—Dan Wilkens was in his 20s and recently married in 1969 when he and his wife, Pamela, bought a farm west of Fertile near the bottom of the Sand Hill River Watershed.

Flooding was a recurring problem, Wilkens recalls, and water as far east as Maple Lake at the top of the watershed would inundate farmland to the west.

Building a ditch system to alleviate the flooding presented challenges, Wilkens said.

"I researched drainage law, and there—it's kind of a voting operation—you've got to have a majority," he said. "Well, when you're the bottom end of 100 people, 99 to 1 isn't going to get you a project through the county system."

Somewhere along the line, Wilkens says he learned about a provision in Minnesota watershed law that gives watershed districts more authority to build ditch systems than a private citizen would have. Long story short, that finding led him to organize the Sand Hill River Watershed District in 1974.

The ditch system got built 10 years later, and flooding issues subsided.

That's just one of the hundreds of water stories Wilkens has accumulated as head of the Sand Hill River Watershed District, which started as a makeshift office in his home. Now, nearly 45 years later, Wilkens, 75, is retiring as administrator; his last day is Monday, Dec.31.

For a man who built a watershed district and worked to reduce flooding across the Red River Basin through organizations such as the Red River Watershed Management Board and the Red River Basin Commission, among others, stepping aside is going to be an adjustment.

A retirement party and roast in his honor is set for 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 at the Duane-Knutson Community Center, 101 S. Mill St., in Fertile.

"I'm trying to handle this quitting stuff," Wilkens said. "Every day, I'm going to get up at 4 in the morning, have breakfast, and then I'll come on down here (to the office) just out of habit."

Voice of the basin

As friends and colleagues will attest, Wilkens has been the voice of the Red River Basin during his tenure as a water manager. In 1976, he helped organize the Red River Watershed Management Board, which provides a basin-wide perspective for managing water on the Minnesota side of the river.

In later years, Wilkens served as chairman of the Red River Basin Commission from 2005 until 2007. Formed in the late '90s, the RRBC provides a unified voice for water managers in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Manitoba to work on flooding issues throughout the basin.

"Our Sand Hill Watershed has been fortunate to have Dan all these years," said Roger Hanson of Fertile, a member of the Sand Hill Watershed board since 1978. "He's by far the most knowledgeable guy in the whole valley in the water world."

April Swenby, who has worked with Wilkens for 17 years and will replace him as administrator, says he has been both a boss and a friend.

"He has taught me everything I know about water management, people and the passions water brings out," Swenby said.

Wilkens had a knack for keeping people's passions from getting too intense, said John Finney, chairman of the Red River Water Management Board.

At no time, perhaps, was that more apparent than the mid-'90s, when the "Red Board"—as the RRWMB often is called—sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for refusing to issue permits to build flood retention projects in the basin.

That set the stage for the Minnesota Legislature to set aside funding for the Red Board, state and federal agencies and several environmental groups to mediate an agreement for flood retention projects, Finney said.

Finney worked with Wilkens on the board for more than 25 years.

"As you can imagine, Dan was right in the middle of the discussion," Finney recalls. "I remember at one session, he held up a copy of the Audubon Society magazine with a picture of a track backhoe on the cover and thanked the Society representative for their nice photo of the Minnesota state bird."

Even the Audubon rep had to laugh, Finney recalls.

"Without Dan, I can't imagine just how intense things could have become," he said.

Chuck Fritz, executive director of the Fargo-based International Water Institute, said he was administrator of the Red Lake Watershed District and fresh out of college with a master's degree when he met Wilkens in 1997. On the heels of the Red River Flood of 1997, it was a controversial time for the district, Fritz recalls.

"Dan was a great comfort and a mentor, and I learned a lot from Dan," Fritz said.

Wilkens definitely has a gift for gab, he says.

"You never want to sit next to him at a meeting because he'll talk your ear off," Fritz said with a laugh. "I don't even know where to begin. He's got more stories than anybody I ever met."

Founding father

Wilkens also is a founding father of River Watch, a program launched in 1995 to get high school students in the Red River Basin engaged in water quality issues. As Finney recalls, "an ambitious young fellow" by the name of Wayne Goeken had started a water monitoring program for local students at the Agassiz Environmental Learning Center in Fertile and approached the Red Board about expanding the program to other schools.

Wilkens found $200 a month for the program, and River Watch today includes several hundred students from more than 25 schools in Minnesota and North Dakota and 22 schools in Manitoba.

"I'm pretty proud of that," Wilkens said. Today, he serves on the board of the International Water Institute, which administers River Watch.

"Thanks to Dan, that program has had a profound effect on a lot of people's lives," Fritz said.

Looking back on his career, which includes being named Watershed District Employee of the Year in 2015 by the Board of Water and Soil Resources, Wilkens says it's tough to single out what he wants to be remembered for as an administrator.

When posed with the question during the recent Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts convention, he came up with this answer:

"I said, 'What is your definition of community?' " Wilkens said. "They looked at me kind of dumb, like, 'What kind of an answer is that?'

"Well, I said, let me tell you this: Most people—or an awful lot of them—their definition of community is 'me.' For some, it's their church; for some, it's their township.

"I chose to bite off the Red River Basin, which includes Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba and two country borders. I said I thought that was a big enough piece to bite on—and all I've ever tried to do is make it better."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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