The Architecture of Water Resources Management in Minnesota
by Chuck Holtman
The following article was adapted from a February 14, 2006 presentation to the University of Minnesota, Water Resources Center:
My comments today concern the role of watershed-based units of government in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. I will approach this topic not just with respect to things as they are, that is, watershed districts and the powers that they have, but also with respect to whether this makes sense. In other words, if we approach water resource management as architects of governmental structure, where should we locate authority in a way that results in the best public decisions about water resources and the cost-effective implementation of management programs? This question can be quite complicated here in the land of 11,000 lakes where everyone is interested in water, and authority exists at federal, state, regional, county, watershed and municipal levels of government.
Let’s quickly review the hierarchy of water resource management authority. At the top of the food chain, we have the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Clean Water Act and other laws relating to water resource management. The traditional focus of the Clean Water Act is to protect surface waters from pollution by point sources such as industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants. The EPA sets wastewater treatment technology standards that require facilities in a number of identified industries to be outfitted with particular water quality control technologies. It also requires industrial facilities to be designed to prevent chemical and oil spills from reaching surface waters, and to have plans to respond to spills. It investigates pollution of surface and groundwater, and can require cleanup. Much of this authority it delegates to state governments. Nevertheless, it retains at least the formal ability to exercise oversight and reassume control.
The Clean Water Act also is directed at both point and non-point pollution thru its legal directive that water quality in all surface waters be protected or restored so that those waters are fishable and swimmable. Each state government must set standards for specific pollutants in surface waters that meet the fishability and swimmability criteria. Then it must determine how much pollution must be abated to meet those standards, and craft plans to allocate pollutant reductions among all of the point and non-point sources that contribute to the receiving water in question. This is the Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, program.
In recent years, the EPA also has stepped up its CWA program regulating non-point-source pollution through permits for runoff from industrial facilities and construction sites. A related provision of the Clean Water Act requires all entities that operate stormwater systems within urban or urbanizing areas – here we’re talking primarily, though not exclusively, about cities -- to craft and implement plans to reduce the amount of pollution that enters their stormwater systems, and therefore receiving waters. Again, state government carries out these programs under federal authority delegated from the EPA.
Under §404 of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with EPA oversight, regulates filling in waters of the United States. This universe of waterbodies was narrowed recently by a Supreme Court decision, but it still encompasses a vast range of lakes, streams and wetlands as well as the ditches and pipes that connect to them. This is the primary federal wetland protection law. Contrary to the EPA programs described above, the Army Corps delegates very little of its authority down to state government.
Beyond that, there is a further vast array of federal laws and programs that bear on water resource management; these involve regulation, data collection, land management, technical assistance and funding. Examples include riparian conservation easement programs run by the Natural Resource Conservation Service under the Department of Agriculture, and floodplain delineation and flood insurance programs under the Department of Homeland Security.
At the state level, one might conjecture that the primary role of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in water resource management is to carry out delegated federal responsibilities. Some of it, such as issuing technology based permits to industrial dischargers, is quite focused. Some, notably the TMDL program, is more wide-ranging. It involves the PCA in setting water quality standards for pollutants to achieve fishability, swimmability and other uses; in sampling and assessing surface waters throughout the state; in reporting to the EPA on the compliance status of all of those waterbodies; and in allocating pollutant load reductions among sources. Because the PCA doesn’t have the manpower, and also because it makes sense to do so, it does what it can to pass a good deal of these responsibilities down to local government.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, of course, also is heavily involved in water resource management. It has responsibility for water resource quantity issues, regulating higher-volume appropriations of surface and groundwater. It regulates any work in lakes, streams and wetlands that meet the definition of a “public water,” a term indicating that the waterbody is a certain minimum acreage, drains a basin of a certain minimum size, or otherwise has public significance. DNR regulation covers, for example, filling, dredging, dams, culverts, docking structures, aquatic vegetation harvesting, and mineral extraction from lakebeds. The DNR acquires conservation easements to protect riparian areas and manages aquatic and riparian habitat for both game and non-game wildlife.
Other state agencies, as well, have water responsibilities. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health regulates drinking water supply and septic systems, and oversees a program for local designation and, through zoning ordinances, protection of drinking water wellhead areas. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture oversees best management practices programs for agricultural operations and feedlots, and prescribes conditions for pesticide and herbicide use in riparian areas.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources is an agency headed by a board of 12 members appointed by the Governor and five nonvoting members representing state resource agencies and the University of Minnesota. It doesn’t have any direct regulatory authority. But it writes the regulations for the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act, and oversees how that law is implemented by local authorities. It also has specific oversight responsibility for watershed districts, soil and water conservation districts and joint-powers-agreement watershed management organizations.
Part of BWSR’s role is to carry out the laws that authorize, or in some cases require, counties, cities, watershed districts and watershed management organizations to prepare water resource management plans that inventory local resources, identify needs and goals and develop implementation programs to achieve those goals. Particularly in the metro area, these plans drive all watershed-based programs and identify the undertakings for which watershed agencies will budget and levy.
Finally, every ten years, each of the 200-plus cities within the metropolitan area defined by Ramsey, Hennepin, Anoka, Washington, Carver, Dakota and Scott Counties must submit a revised comprehensive land use plan to the Metropolitan Council for approval. The comprehensive plan governs how the city will develop over the next ten years. It identifies where development will occur, and where open space will be set aside, and forms the basis for zoning ordinances, development regulations and municipal decisions about where to build roads, sewer and other infrastructure. The land use plan must contain a water resources plan that the local watershed district has approved as consistent with the watershed-wide plan. To mention another vast realm of water resource management, the Metropolitan Council plans, builds and operates the sanitary sewer and wastewater treatment system serving the metropolitan area, and it coordinates with metro area cities and towns as to how they will connect to the system and how much of its capacity they may use. The Metropolitan Council also manages grant programs concerning, among other things, the protection of riparian corridors.
This whirlwind tour of federal and state roles – admittedly with much left out -- brings us to the local level – the level of counties, cities, townships, watershed districts and watershed management organizations. The purpose of that excursion was to observe that these local levels of government don’t start with a blank slate and their own pure aspirations for the water resources within their jurisdictions. Rather, they assess their own programs within a context of multiple, overlapping federal and state programs and mandates. Three ramifications of this:
First, local levels of government operate under a substantial set of mandates from above. Some are obligatory. Some are voluntary, but when they come with money and allow the greater retention of local control, they can be hard to resist.
Second, before exercising its authority over water resource management, a local unit of government must ask: Do I have authority, or is it withheld from me to be exercised only by the state or federal government? This is known as the doctrine of preemption. For example, in the face of what they perceive to be inadequate state regulation of feedlots, in recent years some counties have fought to keep their own regulatory authority. They’ve largely prevailed in this battle, at least for now. In other areas, court cases have determined that authority exerted by the federal government or the state means that local government has none.
And third, if I have authority, need I exercise it? Or would it only duplicate a federal or state role already being performed? Limited resources and the desire to avoid pointless layers of bureaucracy suggest focusing efforts where they won’t be duplicative.
The traditional local units of government are counties, cities and towns. Cities, or incorporated areas, largely set their own policies and regulatory programs, and counties stand aside. In towns, on the other hand, the towns and the counties in which they are found share authority over matters such as land use and development, and water resource planning.
We might classify the water resource activities of local units of government into two groups. The first is services for residents: drinking water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, designing and maintaining roads to avoid flooding, snow plowing and related issues of road salting and snow storage. The second is the category known as the police power, a term that refers not just to catching evildoers, but to the broad authority of a local unit of government to regulate activity in order to advance the public welfare.
Foremost, the local police power regulates land use and development through ordinances governing what uses land can be put to, what can be built where and how it must be built. In carrying out this fundamental role, cities, counties and townships indirectly are affecting the water resources in their jurisdiction and downstream. Also, local units of government may directly regulate for water resource purposes thru ordinances to abate nuisances, to protect wetlands, steep slopes and wellheads, and so on.
Watershed districts are local units of government with boundaries that conform to watershed surface hydrology. As common sense suggests, outstate districts are substantially larger than those in the Twin Cities metro area. The Jupiter of districts is the Red Lake Watershed District, in the Red River basin, covering 6,000 square miles and all or part of 10 counties. The Brown’s Creek Watershed District in Washington County, then, would be the Mercury, covering just 28 square miles and parts of seven cities and towns. The Minnehaha Creek and Rice Creek Watershed Districts are among the larger metro area districts, at about 200 square miles and encompassing parts of some 30 cities and towns. This building lies in the Capitol Region Watershed District, which is small at 40 square miles but encompasses most of St. Paul as well as parts of Lauderdale, Falcon Heights, Roseville and Maplewood.
The law creating watershed districts was enacted in 1955, and Minnesota has 47 of them. Minnesota may be the most developed of the states with respect to the maturity and authority of its watershed-based governmental units.
Nevertheless, given the many levels of governmental activity we’ve described, why another? Aren’t there enough units of government cluttering things up? Watershed-based governmental units have four primary justifications.
First, it is a fundamental principle of public policy that, other things being equal, the optimal size of a governmental unit should be that which encompasses as fully as possible the geographical area that bears all of the benefits and costs of that unit’s decisions. A community on a river has the incentive to extract its benefits from the river and send the costs of its actions downstream. Communities on a lake or over an aquifer each will feel an urgency to exploit that resource to the maximum extent, lest they lose their opportunities to the other communities. This is Garrett Hardin’s phenomenon of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” The solution is a governmental body that encompasses the entire resource, that can distribute the public benefits of the “commons” equitably and in a manner that is sustainable for the resource.
Second, the law recognizes that regulation of land use is an essential part of protecting water resources. Counties, cities and towns are interested in protecting the resource. But they’re also interested in promoting tax base and economic development, in not disappointing residents who want to maximize the economic use of their land, and in other goals that may conflict with resource protection. Watershed districts can address land use issues with an exclusive focus on the water resource.
Third, when money for projects and programs is raised through property taxes, watershed-based levies generally are fairer than levies based on city, town or county boundaries. This way, the cost of management efforts can be placed on the property owners who contribute drainage to the receiving water and who most directly benefit from the sound management of the resource.
Fourth, as compared with management at regional, state or federal levels, keeping management local maximizes citizen engagement and its companion, government accountability.
I would like to think the 1955 legislature was thinking of these policy considerations when it authorized the formation of watershed districts.
We’ll review the nuts and bolts of what a watershed district is, and then compare it to a joint-powers watershed management organization.
A watershed district is governed by a board of three to nine managers, appointed by the County Commissioners of the counties in which the district lies. The number of managers each county appoints is based on some general combination of area, population and tax base compared to the other counties in the district. For the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, the Hennepin Commissioners appoint six managers and Carver Commissioners one. Well over 90 percent of the Minnehaha tax base is in Hennepin County, whereas its land area is perhaps 80 to 85 percent of the watershed. For Rice Creek Watershed District, Ramsey County appoints two managers, Anoka County two and Washington one. Ramsey County has nearly 60 percent of the total tax base, but a much smaller percent of the total land area of the District.
Watershed district managers feel themselves accountable to their appointing County Commissioners, and often consult them out on proposed initiatives or expenditures. However, even though watershed district boards are appointed by the counties, strictly speaking they are independent, can independently set budgets and raise revenues, and independently can decide the purposes to which district revenues are to be devoted.
Interestingly, the converse is true about soil and water conservation districts. Their governing boards are elected. Yet they are strictly county agencies and depend entirely on county boards for their annual appropriations. SWCD’s do not engage in regulation and do not undertake capital projects. They are, essentially, a technical resource for county citizens operating as a unit of county government and as a partner to other resource protection agencies.
Watershed District Powers
Local units of government are fundamentally defined by two things: purposes and powers. The law stipulates the purposes they will pursue, and the powers they have to pursue those purposes. A watershed district has many of the fundamental powers of a city. But whereas the purposes of a city encompass the welfare of its residents in the broadest sense, watershed district purposes are solely to manage water resources to preserve their beneficial uses.
Thus, watershed districts have the most important power of local government, the ability to raise revenue. Each year, a watershed district adopts a budget and informs its counties, which in Minnesota administer the property tax, how much it needs. The counties then are obliged to include the necessary levy on the property tax and, when the proceeds come in, send them to the district. As a point of reference, the annual budgets of districts in the metro area range from $150,000 to upwards of $5 million. If you own a house in the metro area worth $200,000, then each year, depending on where you are, somewhere between $30 and $120 of your property tax goes to your watershed district.
Here there’s one huge difference between metro and outstate watershed districts. Metro area watershed districts do not have a legal limit on what they can budget or levy each year. An outstate district is limited to a general property tax levy of $250,000 per year plus several specific levy authorities limited to a percentage of taxable value within the watershed. For several outstate districts with a sizable tax base, these authorities permit an additional levy of $300,000 to $500,000 per year for identified capital projects, but for most districts the revenue potential is much smaller.
This can have a substantial impact on the ability of a watershed district to undertake a large capital project or a wide-ranging resource inventory or other costly program. Outstate districts can be highly dependent on grants or collaboration with monied partners for bigger projects or must fund projects by applying special assessments to the specific properties that benefit from a project. Watershed districts also may issue bonds to raise money for projects, but due to legal limits on the annual levy amounts of outstate districts, their bonds may be less attractive and therefore carry a higher cost of borrowing.
Otherwise, both metro and outstate districts have most of the tools a city has to accomplish its business. They can hire employees and consultants, enter into contracts, incur debts, sue other parties and be sued by them, buy insurance, acquire and sell real estate, exercise eminent domain, build and operate water management works, collaborate with other governmental and private partners, enter onto private property, and adopt regulations to which property owners within the district are subject.
Activities of districts largely fall into a limited number of broad categories: acquiring and managing land use and water resource data; performing water research; regional water resource planning; engaging in public communication and education; performing work on waterbodies, stormwater, drainage and wastewater systems; financially supporting the resource management efforts of others; acquiring and holding conservation lands, and regulating activities of property owners to prevent water resource impacts.
Regulation and permitting covers a wide range of activities. The following are examples of what watershed districts regulate: erosion control at disturbed sites; stormwater management for development and roads to manage water quality, peak flow and water volume leaving the site, and changes to wetland hydrology; flow diversions; floodplain preservation; wetland protection; structures in waterbodies; bank and shoreline disturbance; dredging; and riparian buffer protection. Also, under state law many watershed districts are responsible to maintain and manage the public agricultural drainage systems within their boundaries. In some areas, the counties carry out this responsibility.
Watershed Management Organizations
I also have referred to what are known as joint-powers watershed management organizations, or WMO’s. These creatures exist only within the seven-county metro area and result from a 1982 legislative compromise. This legislation was for the purpose of bringing all areas of the seven-county metropolitan area under the water resource planning authority of a watershed organization. The 1982 legislation authorized WMO’s as an alternative to watershed districts. These are bodies that are much more closely tied to cities than are districts.
A WMO is referred to as a joint powers body because it is formed pursuant to a state law allowing local units of government to enter into an agreement for the joint exercise of their powers. A WMO is created by agreement among the cities within a given watershed, and is governed by a board comprising representatives from each of those cities. So the Mississippi WMO, for example, which encompasses a stretch of the Mississippi River and has its eastern boundary at the top of slope just west of here, comprises representatives from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, St. Anthony and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Watershed Districts and WMO’s: Contrasts
While WMO’s are doing positive things throughout the metro area, one can suspect what the flaw might be. Because board members are representatives of constituent cities, and are appointed by their city councils, the municipal focus that watershed districts are formed to avoid tends to come circling back.
Further, unlike watershed districts, WMO’s – except for two organizations benefited by special legislation - do not have the legal authority to levy property taxes as a source of revenue. Instead, the joint powers agreement specifies a process by which each year, WMO board members take the WMO’s proposed budget to their constituent cities, and each constituent city has to approve the proposed budget, include its share of that amount in its own budget, levy for it and then pay it into the WMO, all according to a formula set out in the joint powers agreement.
Similarly, under the joint powers agreements with which I’m familiar, any substantial project of the WMO must be approved by a supermajority of its members. Often city councils don’t see the wisdom of taxing their residents to pay for projects in another city, with the result that capital projects tend to be constructed and paid for by the city in which they occur, and WMO’s don’t tend to get involved in too many of them.
Finally, whereas the law requires that watershed districts adopt and apply permitting regulations, for WMO’s it is voluntary. Since some cities see watershed regulation as duplicative and an unnecessary intrusion on city authority, most WMO’s don’t engage in regulation or permitting with any great degree of vigor. How the difference between watershed district and WMO structures plays out in the types and levels of activity in which they engage is an interesting case study for a student of public organizational theory.
In summary, WMO’s tend to involve themselves more in programs such as public education, demonstration and cost-sharing projects with homeowners, and collaboration with other resource agencies, and less in matters seen as a greater infringement on the prerogatives of cities.
Comparing Metropolitan and Outstate Watershed Districts
Next, let’s turn to differences between metro area and outstate watershed districts. Already I have noted a major difference: metro watershed districts have an unlimited property tax levy, whereas outstate districts do not. A metro district also can persuade one or more of its counties to issue long-term general obligation bonds to provide immediate funds for a project or program, whereas an outstate district does not have that ability.
Metro districts also can operate more efficiently. Much of the law governing outstate districts is older and based on the paradigm of a limited number of landowners engaged in agricultural pursuits, or lightly populated towns. Fewer landowners, fewer people and unincorporated areas all mean more direct involvement of individual property owners. There is, then, a lot of process specified for approving projects or obligating watershed residents to pay for them. In recognition that this paradigm does not hold in developed areas, the law governing metro watershed districts grants watershed managers more discretion to make these decisions without the same layers of process. The procedures that are required to engage the citizenry operate more through cities, as representatives of their residents, than through individual residents.
Finally, another huge difference between metro and outstate watershed districts is the leadership a metro district can exercise through the watershed planning process that is peculiar to metro districts. Outstate districts are obligated to prepare watershed plans, but they govern the activities of the district only, and can be subsumed into general water plans prepared by outstate counties. Within the metro area, conversely, watershed district plans must be prepared at least every ten years and, within two years of adoption, all of the cities and towns within the watershed must prepare their own local water plans that are consistent with district plans and approved by their district or districts.
Metropolitan Watershed District Role in Municipal Water Management
In theory, this gives a watershed district a basis to significantly influence how water is managed by its cities and towns. For example, one metro district currently is exploring a plan revision that follows a TMDL format, setting water quality goals for receiving waters in subwatersheds, determining pollutant reductions required for each receiving water to meet those goals, and allocating to cities responsibility to achieve a specified portion of those reductions through their own local plans and tools such as development regulation, road maintenance and so on.
As other examples, cities can be required to inventory all their wetlands, develop classification systems for them and manage them in accordance with standards appropriate to those classifications. They can be pressed to incorporate in their zoning and land development regulations low-impact site design principles consistent with sound stormwater management. They can be required to manage salt piles and snow stockpiles so that they don’t contribute to runoff pollution.
This is not to say that watershed districts can simply dictate to their constituent cities and towns. Districts have substantial legal authority. At the same time, despite being around for 50 years, they still are in the eyes of many the “new kid on the block.” Some cities may not be prepared to grant watershed districts a full dose of legitimacy or may not be pleased by a district’s suggestion that the city spend money to maintain stormwater ponds rather than hire more policemen or firemen. Many ordinary folk have never heard of watershed districts. Cities tend to have the ear of their county commissioners, who in turn have the ear of the watershed board members they appointed.
And, in the arena of natural resource management, there are stakeholders across the spectrum, the environmental groups and duck hunters, legislators, public works departments, developers and property rights advocates who are paying attention and not shy about their feelings. So broad legal powers and unlimited tax levy authority are always leavened by the desire of board members to avoid late-night calls from concerned county commissioners, and in general the need to husband political capital and maintain the credibility needed for long-term effectiveness.
The Architecture of Water Resource Management
I’d like to step back again just a bit and look at things from a more conceptual level. Hopefully the thoughts I’ve just offered will serve as a little meat on the conceptual bones.
Here are two simple principles for allocating water resource management authority. First, different water resource management activities are optimally done at different levels of government. Second, if you split up water resource management responsibilities among different levels of government, you’ve got to have mechanisms to reintegrate them. You thus end up with a variety of inefficiencies, duplications, coordination costs, and conflicts. One way to think about public policy is to think about how to best exploit the ability of different levels of government to do certain things well without fragmenting water resource management so much that your coordination suffers.
In the course of my comments I’ve mentioned most of the things that are involved in a water resources program. To list them:
- Inventory resources
- Perform monitoring and sampling
- Perform research on matters such as water quality science and water treatment or management methods
- Create plans to manage resources
- Inform the public, educate the public, receive public input and provide financial assistance for projects
- Provide training to citizens and professionals
- Construct works for managing water resources such as regional water quality basins, flood retention structures, wetland restorations, channel stabilization or remeandering, basin outlets and agricultural drainage systems
- Acquire and manage buffers, conservation easements, and other land rights
- Manage recreational uses of water
- Regulate land use and enforce permits
What are some of the features of a unit of government that would be relevant to its ability to perform any of these tasks well and cost-effectively? I’ll name a few:
- Access to technology
- Familiarity with water resources
- Access to the community and responsiveness to it
- Resistance to “capture”
Roughly speaking, expertise, money and technology correlate to higher levels of government. Familiarity with the landscape, its resources and its engineered features, community access and responsiveness to the community correlate to more local levels. These, of course, are generalizations.
Another relevant feature is whether the task in question is one that enjoys economies of scale or for which uniformity is desirable. If it is, this would recommend placing responsibility for that task at a higher level of government.
Take, for example, researching toxic effects of chemicals or developing hydrological models to be used for watershed planning. These are efforts that benefit from economies of scale, in that they are useful to everyone. Uniformity is desirable so that modeling outputs and modeling methods required by overlapping regulations are consistent. They generally require a cost and level of expertise beyond the capacity of many local units of government. All of these suggest that these sorts of tasks best would be performed at higher levels of government.
On the other hand, water resource planning requires knowledge of the local landscape, how to adapt models to the landscape, and the development plans of local communities. It requires a sense of the interests and priorities of local citizens, and lots of public meetings. These suggest that water resource planning is best performed at a local level.
Capture is the phenomenon in which a government agency diverges from objectivity and an independent sense of mission to align itself with a set of interests that it exists to oversee or regulate. Capture is an issue for regulation and permitting, and also may be relevant to activities such as research, standard setting, and expenditures on capital projects. Other things being equal, some suggest that local government is less able to resist powerful development interests or industrial employers. However, local interests opposed to these powerful interests may also be able to exert strength at the local level, where they might be shut out at the state or federal level.
Resistance to capture also is a function of an agency’s expertise and focus. Without expertise, an agency will tend more to rely on the experts put forward by the more powerful stakeholders. The expertise of a local unit of government like a watershed district, and its separation from economic reliance on its stakeholders, may make it less resistant to capture than units of government at both higher and more local levels.
Watershed Districts: The Keystone
When we look at the architecture of water resource management in Minnesota, it does seem that in view of these sorts of considerations a pretty good job is done of setting responsibilities at suitable levels. The bigger issue is the other side of the coin, the coordination. Key here, I think, in both respects are watershed districts that can focus on water and, crucially, make it possible for the decisive shift we are seeing to watershed-based management. Watershed-based organizations can make it a priority to inventory local resources; are close enough to the ground to understand and accurately model local hydrology; can conduct watershed-based planning; and can identify water resource management priorities on a watershed basis.
Consider a program like the TMDL program. The federal government declares only that by a certain date, states must establish plans to return waters to a fishable, swimmable condition. The state government sets the quantitative standards for fishability and swimmability, and oversees monitoring to identify waters that don’t meet the standard. The rest of it is all local watershed-based activity: identifying point and non-point sources, modeling the watershed to establish the relation between load reductions in the drainage area and water quality improvements in the receiving water, bringing stakeholders together to allocate reductions, and bird-dogging the implementation of these load reductions by cities, towns and private landowners.
Cities and counties are fundamentally challenged in TMDL undertakings in that their boundaries don’t conform to watersheds and they therefore don’t have the jurisdiction to bring all of the stakeholders together. Further, their priorities lie in a variety of realms, resulting in a type of “capture” that can draw focus and commitment away from optimal resource management. And they vary greatly in size, sophistication and resources, so that reliance on cities and counties to implement water resource programs delegated from above can lead to inconsistent outcomes across the state.
At the same time, a water resource management program only succeeds when it has an adequate level of support, or at least tolerance, among those who pay for and are affected by it. And cities and counties remain the local units of government with the most legitimacy among residents, many of whom have not heard of watershed districts. So you will tend to find districts very solicitous of city interests.
City support frequently means resident support, and city opposition means resident opposition. Often, city government will give quiet support to a watershed district, particularly in matters like regulation of development, where the city feels constrained as to how strict it may be, but is happy for a watershed district to be the “bad cop.” And despite their reservations about watershed districts, a city usually is ready to partner with another unit of government that is prepared to bring additional funds to the table.
In summary, in Minnesota the bigger question about the architecture of water resource management is not whether authority resides reasonably well at the proper levels, but whether authority resides in so many places that coordination costs are excessive. The challenge, then, is architectural: effectively connecting and coordinating the many public bodies and levels of government with expertise and authority in water resource management so that this crucial element of the public good is both well and cost-effectively managed.