In 1972, Marilyn Bernhardson moved to Redwood Falls.

Soon after she found a job working as a receptionist but was not finding satisfaction in that role.

So, she applied for a new position working with a conservation program and was hired to work part time for the Redwood Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

“The job was part-time at first,” said Bernhardson, adding the day she showed up for work Bernhardson received three hours of training and then jumped right into the waters feet first of a role she would continue in for the next 46 years.

“We started out in the post office, and at that time the county controlled our funds,” said Bernhardson.

The job was pretty basic at first, said Bernhardson, adding she worked alongside the federal SCS office at that time. She started in a bookkeeping role as a district clerk, but by the time she walked away Feb. 8 of this year she had served for much of those years as administrator in a full-time capacity.

“At first our only job was planting trees,” said Bernhardson.

Then in 1976 the state legislature introduced a new program called state cost-share, which provided funding to private landowners who were implementing conservation practices.

“Things just grew from there,” said Bernhardson.

In the mid 1980s, Bernhardson took her role to the next level, as she not only focused on helping landowners implement conservation practices on there property, but she also got involved with legislative affairs.

That role, she said, meant communication with state legislators about the importance of the work being done by SWCDs.

“That work was fascinating,” said Bernhardson, who said through those efforts she also met her husband, Wally. “The legislative work was very appealing to me.”

In that role, Bernhardson said she testified before numerous Senate and House committees, at the state level adding she met face to face with five of the state’s governors. 

Bernhardson said the Redwood SWCD board of supervisors was very supportive of her work on the legislative level, because they understood the impact it would have in the area. For Bernhardson, the role she filled was extremely rewarding.

“No two days were ever the same,” she said. “I had a great team and board.”

She also said there was always a learning curve, as no two programs offered through SWCD were the same, either.

Over the years, Bernhardson was able to help implement a wide variety of programs through the SWCD office, but she said the program that made the biggest difference was Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM).

“The program took highly sensitive, flood prone land out of production,” she said, adding that program especially had a big impact on water quality.

For much of the 20th Century the wetlands of Redwood County were drained to create additional farmland, and Bernhardson said she worked hard on restoration of those wetlands, adding those wetlands also made a big impact on water quality in the county.

The wildlife element related to wetland restoration was a side benefit, she said.

Bernhardson expressed concern about the groundwater in southern Minnesota, adding that programs that help to recharge that groundwater are absolutely critical as the efforts of the SWCD continue.

It is safe to say that over the four-plus decades Bernhardson served Redwood County through the SWCD the landscape has dramatically improved. She can easily claim that things today in Redwood County are definitely better than when she started.

Bernhardson became a water quality leader as a member of the Clean Water Council including two terms as its chair, and people over the years looked to the example of Redwood County and its efforts to implement programs that were most effective.

Bernhardson said she believes retiring when she did was a good decision, as she still is in good health and plans to stay active doing some traveling, visiting with family (especially her grandchildren) and finding ways to serve her community.

“It’s my turn to give back,” said Bernhardson.