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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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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