Watered Down

The peculiar politics of watershed management in suburbia

When it comes to Shingle Creek, however, compliance with the law has been less than perfect. Two of the commission's five city bureaucrats--Mathisen and Brooklyn Park assistant city engineer Kevin Larson--were reappointed to three-year terms in December 1999, just before the deadline. Maple Grove Public Works director Gerry Butcher was appointed to a "perpetual" seat in January of 1999. Osseo city planner Sarah Shield and Mark Hanson, who works on a contract basis as New Hope's city engineer (and so is technically not a city employee), were appointed after the December 1999 deadline.

Mike Opat, who chairs the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, says eliminating city staffers won't entirely solve the problems that joint-power WMOs present. The watershed district, he argues, is a better model. Not only do they sidestep the conflict-of-interest conundrum, but they also have their own taxing authority. As a result, Opat says, watershed districts tend to be far more aggressive in their efforts to promote better water quality. By contrast, Opat concludes, "If you look at these joint operating agreements, they're a recipe for nothing to ever happen."

Pam Blixt, president of the seven-member board of managers of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, agrees. The district employs a full-time staff of seven and has a budget of $6 million. (The Shingle Creek Watershed Management Commission's annual budget is about $350,000, and the commission contracts out all its office and technical functions.) In addition to waging well-publicized legal battles against the Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the Minnehaha district has funded a broad range of award-winning projects, including the construction of ponds on the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes to filter out phosphates and sediment before they can reach the lakes. Joint-power WMOs have neither the funds nor the political independence to undertake such projects, Blixt points out.

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

In fact, some joint-power WMOs accomplish so little that the state does away with them altogether. According to the state records, nine such agencies in Carver and Scott counties were dissolved in the past decade, because they were "non-implementing." In some cases the WMOs were simply failing to meet. More often they hadn't formulated their mandated five-year plans. "I think joint-power WMOs can and do function well, but it really depends on how much ownership has been taken on by the board," says the Board of Water and Soil Resources' Doug Snyder. "As long as you have folks that are concerned, the system works."

In 1999, in response to problems with flooding, Washington County planner Jane Harper reviewed the forms of watershed management and concluded that the district model is superior. Now Washington County is in the process of converting its remaining joint-power WMOs into watershed districts. "The problem was that with joint-power WMOs, it was difficult to get an agreement to pay for projects when all the communities didn't see a benefit. If the benefits were downstream, the upstream communities didn't want to pay for it," Harper says.

Tom Mathisen, chair of the Shingle Creek commission, notes that his commission--and most other joint-power WMOs in the metro area--have successfully addressed flood-control problems. He acknowledges that watershed districts have historically been more aggressive on water-quality issues--sometimes to a fault: "Just compare a WMO to a watershed district, and take a look at how much each is spending on attorney fees. The districts can be kind of like the [Army] Corps of Engineers, where they justify their existence by doing a lot of projects without always looking at cost-benefits. We're in an urban area, so you can't reasonably expect to turn all these waters into trout streams and trout ponds."

Counters Opat, chair of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners: "I can't imagine that you could have a Superfund site in south Minneapolis--that close to the lake--without someone testing it very regularly. I think the Shingle Creek commission is aware of some of the problems, but I don't think they have initiative to do much about them."

Diane Niesen, meanwhile, is taking her case to the Board of Water and Soil Resources. Last month she sent a four-page appeal--along with a $200 check--to the board, asking that the Shingle Creek WMO's vote authorizing the filling of the wetland be overturned.

The issue is more than just that single wetland, says Niesen; it's a culture of governance: "These people get together at a country club. They have lunch together, they're on city time--they're getting paid to come to these meetings--and then they've got a city saying, 'We'd like to do some development.' Who's gonna vote against it?"

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