Watered Down

The peculiar politics of watershed management in suburbia

A few years ago, when Diane Niesen learned that the City of Brooklyn Center was planning to reroute a section of France Avenue near her home, she resolved to take a close look at the plans. Niesen, who lives with her husband and two children on nearby Upper Twin Lake, didn't like what she saw. The new road would certainly accommodate the long-awaited reconstruction of Highway 100. And it met the needs of another project backed by city hall: the commercial redevelopment of a badly polluted parcel of land just west of the highway. But Niesen felt a whole array of traffic, safety, and health concerns were being given short shrift. "For many, many reasons, this was a bad design. There were other alternatives that were much better. But the city just wanted to please the developer," she says.

Niesen and a handful of fellow residents formed the Brooklyn Center Community Association and embarked on a campaign to force the city to reconsider. They took their grievances to every government bureau they could think of--the state Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. At each turn, their efforts were rebuffed.

On March 14 Niesen and her neighbors appeared before an agency they figured would be more sympathetic to their cause: the Shingle Creek Watershed Management Commission. One of 38 watershed-management organizations (known as WMOs) in the seven-county metropolitan area, the commission operates under a broad mandate to control flooding and protect water quality in its 43-square-mile watershed, which stretches eastward from Plymouth to Minneapolis, passing through nine municipalities on the way. Because the France Avenue relocation proposal called for the filling of a small wetland, Niesen argued, the commission should order the city to choose an alternate route.

Brooklyn Center resident Diane Niesen says the Shingle Creek Watershed Management Commission is all wet
Craig Lassig
Brooklyn Center resident Diane Niesen says the Shingle Creek Watershed Management Commission is all wet

And thus began a new chapter in Niesen's unhappy civics lesson. As she tells it, the hearing--held at a conference center at the Edinburgh golf course in Brooklyn Park--was a disaster from the start. To begin with, it was scheduled in the middle of a weekday. That meant Niesen, and other working citizens interested in the proceedings, had to take time off from their jobs to attend. But what really rankled her was the approach of commission chair Tom Mathisen. She says Mathisen questioned the residents' motives for objecting to the project; attempted to place a five-minute cap on their speaking time but allowed others ten minutes; and unfairly limited the scope of their comments. By the time she began her presentation, Niesen says, she was so rattled she was fighting back tears. "I was just so mad. We spent two years investigating this, and they're telling us, 'Don't repeat yourself, don't bring up any new issues.' It was just unfair."

After the hearing, the commission voted 5-2 to approve filling the wetland. Mathisen defends the decision and contends that Niesen's group was using the wetland issue as a ploy to block the project because they were unhappy about how it would affect their commuting lives. "It just didn't hold water," Mathisen maintains. "It's not like this is some five-acre wetland in some pristine area that people have come to love. It's a half-acre next to a Superfund site and railroad track.

"The Brooklyn Center City Council went through hearings and looked at all the options," Mathisen adds. "We don't try to second-guess the city council's decisions. That's not our position."


Some say that's precisely the problem.

Minnesota WMOs come in two main types: watershed districts, which are governed by county-board-appointed citizen volunteers, and "joint power WMOs," whose volunteer members are appointed by the governing body of their member cities. The distinction may seem subtle, yet it's anything but: Because of the way they're composed, joint-power WMOs are directly beholden to the interests of the municipalities they serve. In Shingle Creek's case, five of the WMO's nine members are city bureaucrats--including Mathisen, who works as Crystal's city engineer.

"These WMOs are supposed to be run by citizens, not bureaucrats," complains state Rep. Dennis Ozment, who argues that many joint-power WMOs have become rubber stamps for developments their cities have backed. "I know many of these city staff people want to do good things," Ozment allows. "But there is too much conflict of interest. You find me a city engineer who will tell a mayor, 'Hey, this development plan you support isn't going to be good for the watershed, so I'm going to vote against it.'"

Ozment became interested in joint-power WMOs after he received complaints from rural constituents concerned about flooding in the Vermillion River watershed. At the time, the Rosemount Republican recounts, the Vermillion River WMO was dominated by city staff from the more urban, upriver communities. They were good at looking out for their own communities, Ozment says, but that often came at the expense of the farmers downriver, many of whom were losing land because of excessive runoff from the developed areas. Ozment's solution was a 1999 amendment to the state WMO law: Beginning in January 2000, cities were prohibited from appointing staff members to fill vacancies
on WMOs.

Doug Snyder, a conservationist with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the state agency that oversees WMOs, has no hard data on compliance with Ozment's amendment. But he says that a survey last year revealed that most of the commissions seemed to have begun making the shift to citizen representation.

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