Jeff Johnson proposing to lower number of watershed organizations

By Amanda Schwarze
Staff Writer

A Hennepin County commissioner is working on a proposal that would reduce the number of agencies that are in charge of the county’s watersheds.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson (Dist. 7) outlined his plan for the Maple Plain City Council at its June 25 meeting. Johnson said he was still working on the plan and that he would need support from his fellow county commissioners before he would present a proposal to state lawmakers.

Johnson said that there are currently 11 watershed districts or watershed management organizations operating in the county. Some parts of the county, he said, spend very little money on watershed agencies while others spend a great deal of money on the agencies. To help spread the money more equitably around the county, Johnson said he wanted to consolidate the 11 agencies into three agencies.

Each of the three watershed districts, Johnson said, would have taxing authority and all of district board members would be elected officials – either city councilors or mayors from the area. Currently, some watershed officials are appointed rather than elected.

Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) Administrator Eric Evenson said that he can understand concerns about money and appointed officials. Evenson said that the difference in money that watershed agencies receive could at least be partly attributed to the size of the watersheds.

The MCWD includes Lake Minnetonka, the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Creek. In all, the MCWD includes eight major creeks, 129 lakes and thousands of wetlands. Evenson said that the MCWD has more projects to undertake than smaller watersheds.

The question of having elected officials rather than appointed officials serve on the watershed boards is a philosophical one, Evenson said. He said that he understands that some people want elected officials to run agencies with taxing authority. The MCWD is governed by a seven-member board of managers. Evenson said that the Hennepin and Carver County Boards appointed the board members, so they are then held accountable to the county commissioners.

In addition, Evenson said, county officials can appoint people with specific backgrounds that could be of most benefit to the watershed. If a district is having money problems, they can appoint someone with a financial background or if it is in a mainly agricultural area they can appoint someone with an agricultural background.

"I can understand both sides," Evenson said.

During the June 25 Maple Plain City Council meeting, Councilor Jerry Young questioned why Johnson was proposing to consolidate the 11 agencies to three rather than to just one agency.

Johnson said that having one agency was an option and that the Hennepin County Board could serve as the water management organization.

"I’m not thrilled about that because I prefer to have people who are focused more on the water issues than we would be as a board since we’re focused on so many other things," Johnson said.

He also said that there could be interest in having more than one group overseeing the different watersheds in the county.

Young asked if consolidating the agencies would save money. Johnson said that a little money would be saved on administrative costs. The two biggest changes with his proposal, he said, would be spreading money somewhat more equitably around the county and requiring watershed boards to be governed by elected officials.

Johnson said he would take time to continue working on his plan until the start of the next Minnesota legislative session. Prior to presenting his proposal to lawmakers, Johnson said he would have it available for city officials to review.