Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reflections from Retirement - Chapter 3

Former District Administrator Cliff Aichinger welcomes the crowd
at the Rainwater Extreme Management Makeover Grand Opening
at Maplewood Mall in September 2012.

Reflections on my greatest accomplishments

By Cliff Aichinger

Another month has gone by already. When I first began this new phase of my life, it was difficult for me to imagine not working every day (and thinking about it when I was not at work). However, as many have counseled me, there are many things that you find you can now do that you never had time for previously. I have found this to be very true.

What I have recently found is that vacations (they’re really not vacations any more, just trips) are even more relaxing and fun. Gone is the urge to plan every day and make the most out of the limited time you have away from work. If my wife and I want to take a couple more days to explore a city or take a slower route, we have the time and can relax doing it.

However, I recently found that I’m getting the urge to get back involved in watershed management. It’s hard to have a profession for 43 years and not want to keep tabs on what’s happening in the field and stay involved in some initiatives that held my passion for years. I have several ideas and I’m talking to people about options. We’ll see what pans out and how much time I want to dedicate.

This month I’m reflecting on my greatest accomplishments. This was a tough topic. Not that I couldn’t think of specific accomplishments, because there were many that made me proud. The problem was trying to decide which accomplishments shaped me as a person and influenced the direction and reputation of the District.

Cliff is honored with the "Grand Award" for the Maplewood Mall project
from the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) with
Barr Engineering partners, Erin Anderson Wenz and Matt Kumpka.

A reputation built on excellence

The accomplishment that makes me most proud is not a single project or program. What makes me most proud is developing the reputation of Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District as one of the best Districts in Minnesota. This accomplishment is not due to me alone. It is due to the long-term actions of the Board, staff and consultants. I tried to always look toward innovative and scientifically supported approaches to improve water quality and manage our limited natural resources. In reflecting on this more, one of the basic water management planning principles I have preached for years is to identify all water management issues in the District during the early stages of planning without focusing on financial concerns. This approach has resulted in the pursuit of programs and projects that may have eluded our attention in the past. Some of these approaches, like volume reduction, are now a major part of the District’s program. I think another measure of our success has been our ability and interest in collaborating and partnering with our communities on projects and programs. Our willingness to finance many of these efforts has opened the door to further opportunities.

A strong staff team and positive work environment

A yearly fall tour for staff and Board, initiated by Cliff,
has become a tradition that highlights key
projects and initiatives in the Watershed.
I am really proud of developing a strong
staff team and providing a workplace environment that has resulted in long staff tenure and job satisfaction.
I have had a couple of staffing problems during my time with the District, but they have  been few and far between. 

I am proud of my approach with staff, allowing them enough flexibility to be creative and innovative. I have always appreciated this opportunity in my past jobs and worked hard to pass this on to others.

The Spent Lime Stormwater Treatment project near Wakefield Lake tests the effectiveness of using spent lime in order to reduce levels of phosphorus in runoff before it reaches lakes and streams. Stormwater management groups may be able to use these results to design and implement low-cost innovative technology to reduce phosphorus from stormwater runoff.

Grant-supported innovative approaches

Moving in new and innovative directions can be a challenge. Boards and Councils will often oppose these programs because they are unproven and may not have been a published approach to the issue being addressed.

One way to move forward on these programs is to get a grant to support the effort and develop research and monitoring data to support further implementation. The District has been very successful at securing grant awards to support these innovative approaches. The grant program often built the support for an approach that led to long-range programs funded by subsequent District’s budgets.

Out-of-the-box thinking

The tree trenches installed at Maplewood Mall use a design adapted
from Stockholm tree specialists to treat stormwater. They are part of
a large-scale stormwater retrofit project that is designed to infiltrate
or filter the runoff from 90-percent of the mall's parking lots.
As mentioned above, I am really proud of the completion of several major innovative projects. Many of these projects have received statewide and some national attention. As mentioned most of these have received major grant awards. The recent Maplewood Mall Project and the Living Streets Project are two projects that are major water management and engineering accomplishments that drew significant attention.

These were also major collaborative projects with significant financial and construction management elements. These were not easy projects. The Maplewood Mall project involved almost two years of coordination with Simon Properties before the four-year construction program began. The Living Streets project began as a planning program with North St. Paul and was completed as a construction demonstration project three years later in Maplewood. Several Barr Engineering staff managed both these projects with considerable involvement by a number of District staff. Other innovative projects I am proud of include the iron enhanced sand filter demonstration project, the Phalen shoreline restoration project, the Kohlman TMDL and implementation, the Carp research project, the Fish Creek project and enhancements and more.

WaterFest, a free May celebration of clean water, has become
a popular annual public education event for the Watershed District.

Successful in-house programs

I am extremely proud of the successful in-house programs including watershed education, wetland inventory and management, volume reduction cost-share program, natural resource and habitat restoration, the use of GIS in natural resource and watershed management, volume reduction rules and regulations, just to name a few. The District was a leader in many of these efforts.

Maplewood Mall's east and west entrances incorporate artful design
in the stormwater features (cistern, Rainy Day mural, Water-is-Life
interactive sculpture) and signage created by the District.

Art in the Watershed

Another accomplishment that I am happy to have initiated is the concept of “Art in the Watershed.” Art is a personal passion and I was glad to be able to incorporate this interest into my work.

Beginning with the District Office construction, I wanted to incorporate some elements of public art into the building. Shortly after the construction of our building we began a process with St. Paul Public Art to study the concept of watershed-based pubic art and initiate an “Artist in Residence” program in collaboration with Capitol Region Watershed District. This was a very interesting process and we learned much. The Maplewood Mall mural, cistern and the “Tree of Life” installation were a by-product of this effort. I hope that future projects will incorporate public art features.

District office demonstration site

The Watershed District office demonstration site features multiple
rain gardens, native planting areas, a pervious asphalt parking lot,
pervious pavers and a green roof on the garage.
A final major accomplishment I need to mention is the construction of the District office building. The Board and I knew that our role in watershed management was not going to diminish in the foreseeable future and that we needed to be more visible to our residents and communities. We anticipated that our own facility would give us increased credibility and presence, as well as an appropriate and efficient work place for our programs. The results were far beyond all our expectations. This project was another example of the District doing something original. Several Districts have now completed or are beginning their own District office projects.

This was a major endeavor by the District Board, but our justifications and the financial benefits were clear. One bonus was being able to incorporate innovative stormwater management practices into the project to demonstrate these approaches to others. This element alone has generated considerable attention for the District. We have given countless tours of our facility to local governments, state agencies, construction and engineering firms, student groups, and citizen groups, and others. Individuals and groups from as far away as Sweden, Australia and Uzbekistan have toured our building. It is hard to believe, but the District building will be 10 years old this coming November. We are still receiving attention for our innovative landscaping and the innovative stormwater BMPs (porous asphalt, green roof, rain gardens and native landscaping). There have been several changes to the building and site, but the original design and function remains. It created a great work environment for staff, good facility for meetings and activities, and a good education site for youth and adults.


I know I have left out a number of other activities and projects that some of you may feel particularly attached to. I would be happy to elaborate on other projects, programs, or events in future articles. Please comment below if you have particular interests.

Next month I plan to comment on my thoughts on significant future challenges for the District and watershed management.

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