Process slow, complex in watershed talksSeemingly mundane local watershed management talks are beginning to look like delicate peace accord negotiations.
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
Seemingly mundane local watershed management talks are beginning to look like delicate peace accord negotiations.
Local governments at odds over south Washington County watershed management are beginning to move toward a consensus plan for handling stormwater.
But that movement is slow and the sides have been cautious even in how they describe the status of their negotiations.
“There’s not an agreement yet,” Washington County Administrator Jim Schug cautioned. “There’s an agreement to draft this model to see if everyone can agree to it.”
“We’re kind of moving down a road,” added Woodbury City Administrator Clint Gridley. “We’re supportive and we’re interested and we’re participating, but there are details that are important to be worked out.”
To the typical local resident, details of the watershed dispute may seem mind-numbingly complex, but the outcome will affect their pocketbooks.
The cities of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, Denmark Township, Washington County and regional watershed officials are trying to agree on watershed district boundaries, how local residents will be charged for stormwater drainage projects, who will decide which projects to fund and myriad technical issues.
Process not simple
“I think it’s been a good process, but it’s not simple,” Gridley said.
The group is trying to reach agreement after the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources made a watershed decision last year that was favored by Washington County, Denmark Township and Cottage Grove, but opposed by Woodbury. The board later reversed that decision, favoring watershed district boundaries preferable to Woodbury.
Woodbury went to the Minnesota Court of Appeals over the initial decision, and Cottage Grove and Denmark Township filed their own appeal of the board’s reversal.
“Woodbury felt they were left out at the very beginning, and we felt we weren’t given just due when it went before the (Board of Water and Soil Resources) board,” Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said, calling the state board’s process flawed. “Everybody felt the system was broken.”
The appeals cases remain active, but the cities decided to try talking through an alternative solution.
After two mediation sessions, the local governments have agreed to review their progress before returning to the negotiating table to work on a joint petition that could ultimately be presented to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources for approval.
Bailey said the negotiators reached a “handshake agreement.”
“Not a done deal yet,” he said, “but I believe we all kind of left the table with a direction of where we want to go.”
Woodbury prefers watershed district boundaries separating hydrological areas that flow to the Mississippi River and the St. Croix River.
Woodbury is worried that if the two areas were merged, the higher environmental requirements of water draining to the St. Croix River would become the standard, Gridley said.
That could potentially drive up development costs for areas such as Woodbury that drain to the Mississippi River.
“The future (South Washington Watershed District) board could say we should apply that standard to the whole area,” Gridley said, explaining that Woodbury wants to prevent such a decision. “We have to have firewalls that give us some surety on some things.”
But what works for Woodbury may not work as well for surrounding communities.
The local governments also are discussing how to pay for watershed projects — the use of a fee versus property taxes.
A flat fee approach would benefit Woodbury because of its size, but a more sparsely populated area, such as Denmark Township, may struggle to generate enough revenue to pay for projects.
The local governments will meet again with a mediator April 15.
“There’s still a ways to go,” Gridley said. “There are changes that we’re going to need to have to be able to move forward.”
Bulletin staff writer Jon Avise contributed to this story.