Friday, April 17, 2015

Reflections from Retirement - Chapter 4

by Cliff Aichinger

What are the Future Challenges for the District?

Watershed management is a constantly evolving “science” and “practice”. The evolving “science” informs us about new issues and new approaches that can be used to address the issues and solve problems. The “practice” is the art of management and government relations side of watershed management. Districts, and all local governments, should be striving to find more cost-effective and efficient ways to implement programs and projects called for in the local plan (the District’s Watershed Management Plan). But they are also required to respond to new state and federal laws, rules and regulations. These are the ongoing challenges facing all levels of government.


Focusing on Internal and External Challenges

There are also internal and external challenges. We would all like to be able to focus our efforts on our own family or business (internal focus), but the fact of life is that there are other people, programs and agencies that can have a significant influence on how we manage our affairs (external influence). 

Government agencies are no different. We would like to focus on our own programs and looks for ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs, but there are other rules and laws that require the District to implement new programs and prepare new plans and rules. Sometimes these laws may seem unnecessary for us, but compliance is still required.

Two Federal/State programs that have recently impacted our cities and watersheds are the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) and the Impaired Waters programs. These two programs have forced local governments and Watersheds to complete detailed assessments of any waters that did not meet state standards for surface waters and implement efforts to maintain and improve the storm sewer systems that exist in our communities.

The objective for both these programs is to improve the management of stormwater and reduce the levels of nutrients reaching our water resources. Even though the District supports this objective, we have been making significant advances over the past 25 years without these two programs. This is a “one-size-fits-all” type program that requires all impaired waters and all urban cities and watersheds to comply with one set of rules. These programs have resulted in significant additional costs for the watershed and our cities.

The District has promoted a more efficient “Watershed-Based Approach” for the implementation of these programs, but this has not been supported by the state. The ongoing challenge for the District will be to meet the requirement of these programs while also prodding the state to allow local watersheds the option of a more efficient approach.


Reducing Nutrient Pollution in Urban Areas


Fertilizer, grass clippings, leaves and soil that wash onto
hard surfaces and then into our water bodies through
storm sewers contain phosphorous, a nutrient that has
negative impacts on water quality and aquatic life.


A major challenge for all urban water management organizations is the increasingly difficult challenge of reducing nutrient pollution in urban areas. In 2005 the District completed a study that showed about 70% of the phosphorus loading to our lakes is coming from the impervious surfaces (approximately 37% of our land cover). We also found that we have very limited land area to use for conventional stormwater treatment.

The only way we are going to make substantial reductions in phosphorus loading is to reduce stormwater runoff volume and provide for much improved maintenance of the impervious surfaces that currently exist.
 
There are only two options available to make substantial reductions in the volume of stormwater runoff and resulting nutrient loading:

 
Maplewood Mall before the retrofit
















 

Retrofit Existing Impervious Areas

We demonstrated this with the Maplewood Mall Project. Even though we know how to implement these improvements, they are very expensive relative to other water management practices. The District will need to work with private landowners and communities to identify opportunities for collaborative projects. The District will need to develop a program to identify possible projects, establish priorities for project funds and develop some type of incentive for private landowners to work with the District and make improvements needed that result in pollutant reductions.
 


Fifty-five rain gardens at Maplewood Mall filter about
nine million gallons of stormwater runoff in a typical year.

Reduce the Amount of Impervious Surface in the Watershed


The Maplewood Living Streets Project was implemented
in 2012 to reduce the amount of runoff from streets
thanks to the city's adoption of the Living Streets Policy.


This can only be accomplished with a long-term program of reducing roadway widths (as demonstrated by the City of Maplewood and the District with the Living Streets program) and reducing parking space requirements for retail and commercial businesses. The only problem with this approach is that it will take 30-50 years to have an impact on most residential streets and commercial areas. Change can only happen when the street or parking lot needs to be replaced. This will only happen if the local community is supportive of the approach and willing to make innovative change. Recent discussions with the cities in RWMWD have shown a reluctance to adopt the Living Streets approach and a resistance to reduced streets widths. The challenge will be to make convincing arguments to local officials to gain their support and develop appropriate incentives for public and private participation.
     

Maintaining a Healthy Collaboration

As mentioned above, any new approaches to water management requires working with cities, counties and the state on the management and replacement of existing infrastructure. The fact is, almost all the District programs and projects over the past 30 years have involved collaboration with other units of government and private landowners. It will be an ongoing challenge for the District Board and staff to maintain healthy collaborative relationships with all the necessary partners. These collaborations take time (and often times some economic incentive) to develop and maintain.

The evolution of the “science” of watershed management involves a number of issues, including climate change, relationships between water quality and other area of environmental study (fisheries, wildlife, hydrology, social science, etc.), surface water/ground water interactions, effects of chloride on surface waters, best management practice performance, new technologies and more.

Just being a part of these discussions and monitoring the research is a major challenge. District staff cannot be experts in all these areas. They need to have good advisors, consultants, and be connected to professional groups that can provide information that can be used to advise the Board of Managers.



Scientific and Research Challenges on My Radar

  • Climate change and its impact on water resources – both surface and groundwater. This is an issue of understanding what is happening, as well as an issue of what can we do as individuals and agencies to have an impact on the changes. The public is crying for action, but research is needed to identify strategies that will have an effect.

  • Complex interrelationships in our environment – it seems that every year we learn more about the relationships between elements of our environment that we previously thought of as separate and distinct, e.g. carp and water quality, carp reproduction and pan fish, groundwater and lake levels, drinking water use and impacts on groundwater levels and natural aquatic organisms that can make us sick or die. All these issues require continued research and new issues continue to surface. Government agencies at all levels need to support the research that is needed to understand the problem and identify practical and affordable actions to manage the problems. As one example, the District investment in Carp research was key to identifying a key strategy for improving water quality and identifying practical approaches to controlling Carp populations. Much of the needed research should be paid for at a regional or state level, but the support is currently lacking.

The District has partnered with U of M researchers for
more than five years to study the movement of carp
through the Phalen Chain of Lakes and upstream
wetlands and reduce their impacts on water quality.


Jim Levitt, DNR Specialist,
stocks blue gills at Casey Lake
to lessen the carp population in
the nursery wetland for Kohlman,
Gervais and Phalen Lakes.


  • Communications among our diverse resident populations – we appear to have just surpassed a milestone in our urban population where minority cultures now make up a majority of our residents. Understanding cultural norms and values are often different for each group. Our educational messages may mean different things to each group or our messages may not be reaching these individuals. How do we best communicate with our residents? Do we need a different communication approach for each ethnic group?


    • Social marketing is the new strategic communications vehicle – how can the District use this vehicle to better connect with our residents?

    The District currently relies upon the social media channels
    of Facebook, Twitter, its website, RWMWD.org, the monthly
    blog, The Ripple Effect, and more to reach the community.

    • New technology is providing new challenges – can street sweeping be the most cost effective pollution reduction practice for the District? If so, how do we work with our communities to properly and efficiently implement such a program?

    • What is the proper role for the Watershed District on issues like toxic blue green algae or other water born organisms?

    High temperatures, coupled with rainfall washing excess
    nutrients into the water can combine to create harmful
    blue-green algae in lakes. This type can be
    harmful to pets, livestock and even people.

    • How does the District implement an ongoing program to control common carp populations in our District lakes?


    Developing a District Watershed Management Plan that Evolves

    The “internal” challenge will be developing a District Watershed Management Plan that can evolve with time, adapt to these new challenges and prioritize action plans to address the critical issues and new technologies, while maintaining the attention needed for ongoing activities. The budgetary challenge will be to establish priorities for staffing and spending. All government agencies face the challenge of more demands for service than can be reasonably funded through property tax levies.

    The District will be completing its new Watershed Management Plan over the next year and will be asking for your input on these tough issues. Participate in this process and help establish the District goals, strategies and program priorities.


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