Water Management District plan draws criticism at public hearing
HERON LAKE -- More than 20 people who live within the outline of a proposed Water Management District (WMD) in the Heron Lake Watershed provided comment to members of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources Thursday night regarding additional fees they could be assessed if a WMD plan is approved.
The nearly two-hour public hearing at times grew heated as people expressed their displeasure at "another tax," and the prospect of a plan being implemented by an HLWD board consisting of five appointed, rather than elected, members.
Most of the approximately 75 people in attendance were residents of Jackson County, where county commissioners voted against the WMD plan earlier this year. Both the Nobles and Murray county boards of commissioners approved the proposal in July.
Jackson County Commissioner Dave Henkels spoke toward the end of the meeting, saying he was likely responsible for the large crowd mostly opposed to the WMD.
"A tax is a tax is a tax," he said in addressing the BWSR board. The tax he referred to is a proposed assessment on property owners who contribute to runoff in the watershed district.
A possible 50-cent-per-parcel assessment -- collected only on land identified as contributing to flooding problems -- could generate $50,000 in one year for the HLWD. The maximum the district could generate through the fee is $200,000.
Mark Deutschman, with Houston Engineering Inc., helped develop the plan. He said its contents are driven by state requirements and includes problems and possible solutions in the HLWD.
"The original plan was drafted in 1971, when the HLWD began," he said. "Now, BWSR requires they be updated every 10 years or whenever there is a change in the plan."
In reference to possibly collecting assessments through the WMD in the future, Deutschman said the money generated can only be used to implement projects that reduce flooding damage or have been identified in HLWD's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study.
"The more you contribute to the issue, the more you pay," Deutschman said. "If you have more pavement on your property, you generate more runoff. It is a charge, it is not a tax."
Deutschman said the HLWD is not the first district interested in implementing a WMD.
Henkels asked why local units of government were "not allowed to review and comment on this plan" and questioned BWSR on its request for a mediation session with Jackson County prior to the public hearing.
BWSR board member Paul Langseth, of Worthington, said the plan was open for anyone to comment -- including local government units -- during the comment period. As for the request for mediation, BWSR staff member Jeff Nielsen said the board often provides mediation when two parties disagree on philosophy.
"Jackson County had values and beliefs, and the Heron Lake Watershed District had reasons for why they wrote the plan," Nielsen said. "The mediator can ask the two parties to talk. It's just a matter of getting people to open up and communicate."
Jackson County commissioners did not respond to the request for mediation and, as a result, misinformation regarding the plan spread throughout the county.
HLWD administrator Jan Voit stressed prior to the public comment portion of the meeting that the proposed fee is not a tax, and that the district has not raised taxes for watershed residents in the last four years.
She said no tax increase was proposed for 2012, and the WMD plan will not be implemented in 2012.
"Any rumor about us increasing taxes is absolutely false," Voit said.
She explained that grant funds the HLWD has relied on for many years have been drastically cut, forcing the district to reevaluate its financial situation and chart a course.
"Water pollution problems are created by those who live and work in the watershed," Voit said.
Non-point source impairment costs in 2002 were estimated between $600 million and $3 billion, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
"Securing adequate funding to address these issues is always going to be a challenge," she added.
Still, the HLWD has been successful in obtaining more than $2.2 million in grants during the past 15 years, and has a grant request now for $200,000 in legacy dollars to complete projects in the West Fork of the Des Moines River. Voit said the HLWD works closely with counties, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and other watersheds on projects that benefit water quality.
Bob Dieter, a resident in Hersey Township, Nobles County and a member of the HLWD advisory committee, said he was in favor of water quality "like everyone else," but he said he became disillusioned with the board after politics entered into it.
"At this time I'm very concerned," he said. "The financial funding for this program is determined by the five members that are on the board, and they are appointed rather than elected. Maybe we should consider the watershed board being elected rather than appointed."
Mark Bartosh, another member of the advisory committee, said he was against the Water Management District plan -- not because of the plan itself, but because it isn't being submitted to the electorate for a vote.
He also questioned the mission of the HLWD, saying that when it was established in 1971, its goal was to reduce flooding problems. Then, 20 years later, the mission switched to water quality. Now, Bartosh said, it's going back to flooding.
"There's been a lot of money spent in the last 20 years on the watershed and I'm still getting water out there," he added. "I would really like to be able to vote on the managers or vote on the referendum."
Some were concerned with the length of the decade-long plan, while several residents questioned the assessed fee, wondered who would determine what land is assessed and how much it would cost landowners.
"Minnesota demographics show the population is aging in our state," said Sandy Hartman. "Many people are on fixed income and don't have the money to spend."
"If (the HLWD) can't get grants from the government, they should make other cuts, just like other agencies," added Marietta Bartosh. "Many other agencies could do what the Heron Lake Watershed District is doing."
"My concern is you're going to charge and we don't know how you're going to charge," said Paul Pelzel, an Alba Township, Jackson County farmer. "I want good, clean water, but at any cost? We've got to know what we're going to be charged as landowners."
Farmer John Nauerth III said he was "a little bit steamed" the public hearing was conducted during harvest. He accused the agencies of "pulling it off" when farmers are busy.
"If you have a public hearing, you have it when we can attend it," Nauerth said loudly as applause broke out.
Later in the meeting, Langseth explained that, by statute, BWSR needed to conduct the hearing within 45 days of the Department of Natural Resources review. That left the choice between September or October, and the BWSR board needed time to coordinate a time for the hearing.
Just one commenter, Kelli Nerem with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, provided a positive comment about the work being done in the HLWD.
In closing, Langseth offered some response to commenters, saying the 10-year WMD plan is a legislative mandate.
"As BWSR board members, it's our responsibility to follow that plan," he said. "We can't do anything about the 10-year plan, and we can't do anything about the appointed board -- those are areas we don't have control of."
Thursday's public hearing was one of the final steps required for the WMD plan, which will now advance to the state's southern water committee on Nov. 3. It is slated to be discussed by BWSR on Dec. 14.
People still have time to offer written comment on the WMD. Langseth said the hearing record will remain open until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 24 for people to submit comment via email. Mailed comments must be postmarked by Oct. 21. The plan can be viewed online at www.hlwdonline.org.