Third Generation Midterms: Signs of Innovation in Watershed Planning

by Louis N. Smith

Most watershed organizations in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have by now sent their draft Water Resource Management Plans to state and local agencies for review and comment. This is the “third generation” of ten-year plans for Twin Cities watersheds, implementing the Metropolitan Surface Water Management Act adopted by the Minnesota Legislature in 1982.

Now that we have started a round of review and comment, it is not a bad time for a “mid term” assessment of these draft plans. There is still time to compare notes and share ideas. And the good news is that we all seem to be learning something since the last generation of planning.

This is not a trifling exercise. Thirty-seven watershed districts and watershed management organizations are immersed in this generation of water resource management planning. Given the scale, technical rigor, and serious financial commitment that characterize this process, it is no exaggeration to suggest that we are the “Watershed Planning Capital of the World”! While the consensus mantra in nonpoint policy is to praise the “local watershed approach,” Minnesota is unique in organizing special purpose, local units of government in hydrologic basins – with taxing, regulatory, and planning authority. Minnesota’s watersheds are at the nation’s forefront of intensity and innovation in watershed management. So while we learn from each other, others around the country also may be interested.

The “Best Stuff” in Third Generation Plans
While some Minnesota watershed districts had adopted one or more plans prior to 1982, the 1980s brought the “first generation” of metro area watershed planning, and the focus was still largely on rate control and flood protection. The 1990s plans added more intensive focus on water quality. We were alert to opportunities for “regional ponds” to address nonpoint sources of nutrient loading to our lakes and streams. The newly enacted Wetland Conservation Act also had us thinking about wetland restoration and banking projects within our watersheds.

So what characterizes this third generation of planning? The best practices in watershed planning now seem to combine several key elements.

Robust modeling
Water resource engineers now have powerful modeling tools at their disposal. XPSWMM, HEC-GIS, HydroCAD, etc. provide watershed modelers with amazing layers of data, integrated in dynamic GIS formats that allow for more accurate prediction of runoff events. Our monitoring and meteorological data systems offer an ever-increasing ability to adjust the models to what really happens on the ground.

“We can now calibrate our models with monitoring data and radar precipitation data to the point that we are very accurate in modeling runoff events,” notes Bob Beduhn of HDR Engineering. “These tools are especially useful in volume-sensitive watersheds where land use development and flood protection are challenging issues.”

Our modeling tools also integrate hydrologic systems with other natural resources inventories and land use data. We will soon approach the point at where it is difficult for watershed managers to ask a data-based question that these models cannot answer! The real question is whether we are taking full advantage of these high performance models.

“TMDLs R Us”
Steve Woods leads the watershed plan review process at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), and has a few generations of watershed plans under his belt from his earlier days as a water resources engineer. Woods also has represented BWSR in the Clean Water Legacy working group (G16) that developed the legislation for state funding to address impaired waters – a process that develops Total Daily Maximum Loads (TMDLs) under the Clean Water Act for lakes and streams identified by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as impaired.

“The most striking development in this generation of metro watershed plans for me is the extent to which watershed districts are voluntarily embracing TMDLs as a part of their long term work planning,” observed Woods. “Most watershed districts do not have the legal responsibility to restore impaired waters, but nevertheless many have accepted the reality and relevance of pollutant load allocations as they assess how to go about protecting and restoring water resources in their watersheds.”

The fact is that the MPCA cannot meaningfully handle the impaired waters/TMDL workload by itself. The Clean Water Legacy group anticipated that “third party” TMDL delivery systems through creative partnerships (“locally led conservation”) would often be a preferred means of getting the job done. Many watershed districts have the technical capacity, policy expertise, and history of local government partnerships necessary to play an effective role in this work. Third generation plans are positioning watershed districts to play a key role in restoring impaired waters.

Municipal-Watershed Cooperation
Cities have always been critical partners in watershed management. Together, cities and watersheds have been called to find the right balance amidst the natural tension among municipal development, public works, and water resource protection. Under the old paradigm that gave birth to the Watershed Act, we simply pushed water problems downstream. The growth of a developing municipality could place a high priority on hardscape -- impervious automobile habitat -- that could collide with water resource managers' focus on flood protection and water quality. This third generation of watershed planning is serving to bridge that gap in policy orientation. More than ever, both cities and watersheds recognize that land use and water resource protection are inextricably intertwined, and that the best solutions to water problems are crafted locally – within the basin.

Third generation water resource planning seems to be ushering in the potential for a new era in collaboration. This new dynamic seems to be born of necessity and candid assessment of self-interest. Thirty municipalities are now subject to a “Nondegradation Standard,” which means that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has conditioned the NPDES permits of those municipalities on achieving water quality benchmarks from 1988. The burdens and challenges of meeting this standard suggest a new reality, one where cooperation and partnership make a lot of practical sense.

The fact that watersheds have embraced TMDL pollutant loading allocations in their planning means they have something useful to offer to municipalities. “We have found that cities seem to have a lot of interest in this round of watershed plans,” observes Barr Engineering veteran Bob Obermeyer. “The water quality monitoring and implementation strategies offer meaningful assistance to cities who are seeking cooperative ways to meet the nondegradation standard. There are more reasons for cities and watersheds to work together.”

Mike Wyatt, Watershed Planner for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District sees a strong connection between the resource-based performance goal approach in the District’s new watershed plan and city stormwater management. “We have definitely set some aggressive goals – even specific pollution and loading restrictions – within our subwatersheds,” said Wyatt. “And we are looking for cities to help achieve these goals with our financial and technical assistance. We think we have developed both policies and funding strategies that will foster effective collaboration.”

Mike Panzer, a watershed engineer with three generations of watershed planning experience at Wenck Associates, sees an era of greatly increased cooperation ahead for cities and watershed districts. "We are operating in an era of greatly increased demands and expectations, but limited resources," he observes. "Both municipalities and watersheds are realizing that achieving the 1988 water quality benchmark will really require some work, and there is no point in duplicating our efforts."

In Washington County, Brown’s Creek Watershed District Administrator Karen Kill also believes that Third Generation planning sets a better stage for cities and watersheds to work together. “Our plan has helped us to clarify what cities and the watershed district have to offer,” Kill observes. “We are moving beyond the basic flooding problems and share a mutual commitment to water quality.”

Reaching for Extra Credit
From where we sit, it looks like most all of the third generation watershed plans will be passing their midterms, but here are a few additional pieces that could help you to earn an “A” on the final exam:

Global Warming?
It should be enough to congratulate watershed districts for taking on the TMDL challenge. Isn’t it too much to think that a local watershed board of managers can do something about climate change? Yet there is a role for watersheds to play here. It begins with reviewing our assumptions. The reality of climate change suggests that watershed districts should be prepared to adjust our stormwater runoff expectations. It might not be a bad idea to consider that the past 30 years’ precipitation data is not likely to predict the next 30 with as much accuracy.

Watershed management offers more to the climate change challenge than modeling adjustments, however. It won’t solve global warming overnight, but carbon sequestration is one strategy that climate change experts are advancing to reduce greenhouse gases. Carbon sequestration is, at least in part, about soil conservation, water quality protection and restoration of natural vegetation -- in short, much of what we already are up to in watershed management. And here is the great part – innovative watershed districts could even gain a little “extra credit.” Cheryl Miller is leading the Minnesota Terrestial Carbon Sequestration Project at the University of Minnesota. The project is pursuing research, education, and outreach on biophysical, economic, and institutional aspects of terrestrial carbon sequestration in Minnesota -- the capture and storage of atmospheric CO2, a potent greenhouse gas, in plants and soils. "We are still in the early stages of our work," notes Miller. "But we do know that good watershed management practices will also sequester carbon. I see a helpful role for watershed districts to play in this process; it is especially important that we develop climate change mitigation strategies that can be implemented locally."

State and local governments, as well as the market place, are not waiting for the federal government to address climate change. One carbon trading market is already off the ground, and other are likely to emerge. Minnesota could soon start planning a carbon trading system, and watershed districts could be positioned to facilitate some trading. So, if you are an overachiever seeking extra credit, it may well be worth the trouble to kick up the erosion control section of your watershed plan just a few notches. Stream bank restoration projects and other watershed projects that sequester carbon could offer multiple layers of ecological benefit.

Conservation Design
This era of watershed planning has unquestionably brought watershed districts to the table of conservation planning. The Urban Land Institute, a non-profit organization supported by developers to promote “responsible land use to enhance the total environment,” and the Regional Council of Mayors have organized a conservation design initiative that seeks to integrate the best conservation principles into the next generation of municipal comprehensive land use plan. ULI and the Mayors’ Council recently convened a session to introduce the Conservation Design Framework and brought Ed McMahon, author of Green Infrastructure, to highlight and keynote these ideas. “More and more cities are recognizing the interrelationship between healthy natural resources, a vigorous economy, and a vibrant community,” said McMahon. “This is what people mean by ‘sustainable development,’ and the key is to preserve natural resource areas, open space and wetlands as we also plan for growth. Communities that develop while preserving their ‘green infrastructure’ are also poised to thrive economically.”

Jane Prohaska, executive director of the Minnesota Land Trust, sees growing support for land conservation among local government officials, and a great opportunity for watershed districts to play an important role by integrating land conservation into watershed and municipal land use plans. “As we map the critical natural areas in the metropolitan region, most are near water,” Prohaska points out. “There is clearly a strong synergy between land conservation and water resource protection.” The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District has a $30 million land conservation program as a key element of its third generation plan, and other watershed districts are exploring how land conservation can advance watershed goals.

Integrated Resource Management
In asking about the effectiveness of your watershed plan, one important test is the extent to which your priorities for water resources are integrated with the priorities set by other plans – comprehensive land use, natural resource inventory, open space and transportation infrastructure. Steve Hobbs, administrator of the Rice Creek Watershed District, brings a strong conservation and habitat protection ethic to watershed planning. “Once you assess wetlands, wildlife habitat, or other valued natural resources, the key is to marry real-world market forces factors with protection and enhancement of these resources,” suggests Hobbs. “The more you pursue the integration of these goals, the more you will find the leverage and complementary elements.”

Jason Naber, P.E. with Emmons and Olivier Resources, has found that his watershed planning reflects a multi-disciplinary effort that combines soil science, plant and wildlife biology with hydrology. “We are trying to match each watershed area with the particular technical skills and professional discipline that the landscape requires,” notes Naber, “and the result is a much more integrated plan.”

Who Owns Your Plan?
Every watershed district is required to seek citizen input in crafting its watershed plan. It is not easy to garner citizen interest in the details of XPSWMM, but neither is it difficult to get a passing grade on the “public involvement” section of your watershed plan. A few open houses and convening a citizen advisory committee will usually be “adequate.”

To take citizens seriously, though, “public involvement” is better understood in terms of ownership. The real measure of success in public involvement is the number of people – not counting watershed managers, staff, or consultants – who “own” your plan. “Owning” does not mean “I read the plan from cover to cover and understand it all, including the tables and figures.” What matters is the number of community opinion leaders you can count on to support and defend the strategies and projects developed in your plan when the inevitable implementation controversy arises.

Excellent strategic plans are about choices and priorities. Successful implementation of strategic plans is about partners and friends. How many partners and friends will understand and actively support your choices and priorities? If your list of friends includes city council members, planning commissioners, county commissioners, city and county public works directors, developers, local bankers, the Rotary, and environmental and community advocates, then your plan has hit the Public Involvement Gold Standard.

Once you are blessed with friends who own your plan, the next question will be how to keep them tuned in. Lake associations and “friends of the creek” organizations can provide a strong roster of people who are more likely to tune in for the long-term implementation of your plan. Engaging them in a focused citizen monitoring effort will not only augment your water quality database, but provide for ongoing engaged local stewards who make a commitment to the cause of water quality.

“The loudest message we received from citizens in our planning process was a desire to protect and improve water quality in our local lakes,” reflects Nine Mile Creek Watershed Administrator Kevin Bigalke. “So our plan reflects this priority, and we intend to keep these citizens engaged through water quality monitoring. We are forming partnerships between the District and local lake associations.” Bigalke believes that the benefits of citizen monitoring partnerships extend far beyond the data. “We are forging better ongoing relationships in the community, and these folks have their hands on the pulse of our watershed in ways that managers, staff, and consultants do not,” he suggests. Citizen monitors also make for more active CAC members.

Can We Succeed?
In six months or so, most watershed organizations in the Twin Cities should have their Third Generation plans adopted. Then the focus turns to implementation, and the question will be whether watershed organizations and their partners can succeed on the final exam: reaching the vision of sustainable development in healthy watersheds. No one should think this work is easy. Some of the hard work ahead will require a continued commitment to courageous decisions, stronger partnerships, and even more change. Success will also require extensive expertise to negotiate a complex legal, scientific, and policy landscape. Amidst all of the challenges, the greatest key to passing the final exam could be the lesson you learned in grade school – make friends. In 2006, too few people know about watersheds. The work that watershed managers do in the next ten years to make new friends will be critical as resource decisions are made in the halls of government and in the marketplace.


Goya Ngan, Green Roof Policies: Tools for Encouraging Sustainable Design, December 2004
Minn. Stat. § 444.075 (2004)
Minneapolis Storm and Surface Water Management Program Minneapolis Code of Ordinances Ch. 54 (Comprehensive Stormwater Management Requirements)
City of Minneapolis Stormwater Management System and Operation of a Stormwater Utility
Minneapolis Stormwater Utility Credit System
(water quality credits)
(water quantity credits)