Should We Have Fewer Water Management Organizations?

Written by Jeff Johnson on January 14, 2013. Posted in General

I’ve been working on a proposal for over a year now to consolidate watershed organizations in Hennepin County.  After much work and several drafts, I presented a plan to my colleagues a couple months ago. 

My work on this issue arose after the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota completed a study and report on county water management for the Hennepin County Board last year.  In the report, the U of M recommended, among other things, consolidation of watershed districts and watershed management organizations in Hennepin County.  The U of M study also recommended that each of the new watershed entities have taxing authority.

 Over the past decade, watershed organizations within Hennepin County have budgeted expenditures totaling over $230 million with an average annual increase exceeding 5%.  These investments, combined with cities’ focus on storm water management, building standards and developer requirements and initiatives, have contributed to reducing the number of declining lake quality grades. 

The most recent lake quality trends indicate that water quality in Hennepin County lakes has stabilized in the past ten years, with the majority of county lakes showing no significant upward or downward trend.  The average lake grade in Hennepin County over the past decade is a “C”, regardless of watershed organization.

Despite this stabilization success, water governance in the county is still fragmented and often reactive, spending varies dramatically depending on location and, in some ways, transparency and accountability are lacking.  There are many of us who believe we can improve upon the current system.

 Below is an article that appeared last week in the Laker Pioneer newspaper, which covers communities in western Hennepin County.  It’s an excellent and fair summary of the challenges encountered in changing complex water management laws in Minnesota.

Proposal to consolidate water management agencies gets mixed reactions

By Amanda Schwarze

January 11, 2013 at 12:31 pm

A Hennepin County commissioner is looking to consolidate the watershed organizations operating in the county.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson, District 7, has a drafted proposal to go from the current 11 separate watershed organizations in Hennepin County down to three watershed management organizations.

Johnson said that his proposal is based on a study conducted by the University of Minnesota in November of 2011. The report on that study, he said, received broad support when it was first presented.

“Frankly, if I were to create my perfect water management system, it would look different from this proposed legislation, but since the U of M study seemed to have some momentum behind it, I thought it best to use that as the framework,” Johnson said.

“Bottom line: I brought this forward because many of us believe we can improve on our current system,” he said. “The current structure of water governance in Hennepin County includes at least six state agencies, 11 watershed organizations, 44 municipalities, several county-wide organizations and numerous lake associations. When managing our water, we sometimes fail to recognize it’s a system connected to other natural and human systems and our current water management structure could be more effective in protecting and improving water quality county wide.”

While people may want a change, not all agree with Johnson’s proposal. He said that the reaction to his draft proposal has so far has been mixed.

“Many people are excited that we’re finally having this important discussion.  Others are not so thrilled.  Change is always difficult,” Johnson said.

Among those who have concerns or questions about Johnson’s proposal include local city councilors and officials from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD). They said, however, that they applaud the effort to try to improve the system.

Proposal highlights
In Johnson’s draft proposal, he wrote that there are currently four watershed districts and seven watershed management organizations operating in the county. The watershed districts have managers appointed by the county commissioners and have direct taxing authority. Watershed management organizations do not have direct taxing authority and are joint powers organizations of the municipalities within the boundaries and the managers are appointed by city councils.

The proposal calls for the three consolidated watershed management organizations to each have direct taxing authority. The local area would be included in the Central Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would be made up of all of the territory in the Pioneer-Sarah Creek joint powers watershed management organization and the MCWD.

There would also be the North Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would include all territory in the Elm Creek, Shingle Creek, Bassett Creek, West Mississippi and Middle Mississippi joint powers watershed management organizations, and the South Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would include all territory in the Riley-Purgatory-Bluff Creek, Nine Mile Creek and Lower Minnesota River Watershed Districts and the Richfield-Bloomington joint powers watershed management organization.

Johnson said that the idea to consolidate the 11 existing organizations into three new ones came from the University of Minnesota study.

“I’m not wed to three as somehow the only correct number,” he said. “Certainly there are valid arguments that can be made for both fewer and more WMO’s [watershed management organizations] than three. The study, however, made a very strong recommendation for some level of consolidation based on hydrological boundaries and I believe that is a good recommendation.  Some level of consolidation will create efficiencies and certainly allow for better coordination between the vast number of water entities we currently have involved in decision-making under the current system in Hennepin County.”

Under the draft proposal, the board of managers governing the new watershed organizations would have to be elected officials from the cities within the organization’s boundaries. Currently the county board appoints people to serve on the board of managers.

Questions, concerns
MCWD District Administrator Eric Evenson said he wasn’t sure what advantages actually might come out of the plan.

“I think we need to look at what problems this solves,” Evenson said of Johnson’s proposal. “I’m not sure what this really addresses.”

For example, he said he was unsure of the advantages of reducing the number of organizations. There would likely be some efficiencies with fewer organizations, but there would also be costs associated with three large administrations instead of 11 smaller ones, Evenson said. Because the three new watershed organizations would be handling larger territories, there would likely be greater administrative needs, he said.

Johnson said that cost savings were not the driving force behind his proposal and that he has not analyzed the issue.

“Common sense, however, suggests that three organizations versus eleven would bring some efficiency and administrative savings to the system,” he said.

Consolidating the organizations could also lead to a question of what issues should be the focus of the new, larger watershed agencies, Evenson said. Medina City Councilor Elizabeth Weir said that she feared a consolidation would lead to the interests of smaller, rural communities being pushed aside in favor of the more urban areas. She said that the proposal to combine the areas of the Pioneer-Sarah Creek joint powers watershed management organization and the MCWD could lead to a rural versus urban conflict.

“These two WMOs are diametrically different,” Weir wrote. “MCWD is largely a developed watershed comprised of one large urban city and 28 sizable suburban cities within its boundaries. Pioneer-Sarah is a rural watershed with six small cities, all under 5,000 in population.”

Johnson agreed that managing the conflict between rural and urban interests was a concern.

“I think there is always a risk that the more heavily-populated/urban areas will receive more of the money, but that’s happening now,” he said.  “I think this proposal would actually make that less of an issue as the entire county would be covered by a watershed organization with taxing authority.  Currently, many of the less-populated areas in Hennepin County are in WMO’s that don’t have levy authority and rely on contributions from small cities within the jurisdictions to operate.  They tend to spend very little on water projects.  The disparity under the current system is significant and I believe consolidation would actually lessen that.”

Weir also had concerns with the taxing authority as noted in the proposal. It leaves open the possibility of capping the amount of money that the new organizations could levy to a certain percentage of the total taxable market value of the territory of the watershed management organization.

“The unspecified cap on levy authorization will likely work against the cleaning up of impaired water bodies since projects to reduce loading are extremely expensive and a cap will effectively limit the money that is available for remediation,” Weir wrote.

“There are some in the legislature with concerns about how much some current watershed districts spend,” Johnson said.  “Since this bill would create new entities with levy authority, I placed the cap in the draft in anticipation of a discussion of whether WMO’s should be subject to levy limits just as Minnesota cities and counties currently are.”

Johnson also said that the proposed taxing authority was one of the reasons why he is also proposing to only allow elected officials on the board of managers of the new organizations.

“If these organizations are to have the authority to levy taxes on their constituents, they should be elected by those same constituents, rather than appointed by some other body,” he said.

Evenson said that there are advantages to having appointed members. He said that now the county board has the ability to appoint individuals to the boards based on their areas of expertise.

Current MCWD board members include people with backgrounds working in finance, large corporations, higher education and the law.

“It’s an excellent set of talent that works really well,” Evenson said.

Requiring that only elected officials be on the boards would limit the selection, he said.

Weir also said she was concerned that mayors and city councilors already had a lot of responsibilities. She said that many have full-time jobs in addition to the work they must do preparing for city council and commission meetings and attending those meetings.

Johnson doesn’t have the same concerns.

“Numerous city council members already serve on the eight WMO’s currently in existence and have been doing that for years,” he said. “I’m not sure how this is any different.”

Regardless of their differences, Weir, Johnson and Evenson all said they were happy to look at various ways to improve the water management system.

“I respect Jeff Johnson’s initiative to look at how best to manage surface water in order to improve water quality in Hennepin County’s many impaired water bodies,” Weir said.

“We have been talking for years about ways to make water management more effective in Minnesota and commissioning study after study, but in the end, nothing ever changes,” Johnson said. “My hope is that this will force a serious discussion about how we can improve the process and more efficiently and effectively affect water quality – at least in Hennepin County.”

“If opportunities arise to do things better, I say we embrace them,” Evenson said.

The full draft of Johnson’s proposal as well as the University of Minnesota study that it is based on are available on his page on the Hennepin County website. Go to www.co.hennepin.mn.us and click on the Government header on the top of the page, then click on County Board and on Johnson’s name.

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