A Little Government Goes a Long Way

Employees at the Washington Conservation District like to joke that the District is the best-kept secret in the county.  Their mission, “to enhance, protect, and preserve the natural resources of Washington County,” is hardly controversial. After all, who doesn’t like clean water and a scenic countryside? Fans of small government can also appreciate the fact that the Conservation District employs only thirteen staff, doesn’t collect any taxes and achieves significant conservation achievements solely through engaging private property owners in voluntary projects. The biggest problem for the Conservation District is not that it garners enemies, but rather that many people don’t know it even exists.

 The WCD is not the only local unit of government that suffers from an identity crisis. The land within Washington and Ramsey counties is divided into several different watersheds, all of which are managed by separate watershed agencies. Although most of these are Watershed Districts, which do have taxing authority, the majority have only one or two employees and all operate on a streamlined budget. As is the case for the
Conservation District, people generally support the Watershed Districts’ goals, which include preventing flooding in local communities, monitoring surface water quality and reducing water pollution. That is, I’m guessing they would support these goals if only they knew that their local Watershed District existed.

The fact that people remain blissfully unaware that the Washington Conservation District and eight watershed management agencies are operating in Washington County may help to avoid controversy, but it also makes it quite challenging for these local government units to get their work done. Two years ago, voters in Minnesota approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment with the expectation that a portion of their sales taxes would be used to protect clean lakes and streams and restore dirty ones. Most of this work is done at the local level by cities, watershed agencies and conservation districts, not by the state or federal government. Without cooperation from people who own houses, businesses and farms, however, local government agencies are only able to implement a fraction of the projects needed to truly protect our water.

So what does the Conservation District and your local watershed agency want you to do? To begin, they want you to make a few simple changes at home and on your land to conserve groundwater resources and prevent stormwater runoff from polluting both groundwater and surface water resources. For example, if everyone in the east metro took five minutes this fall to sweep grass clippings and leaves out of the street in front of their houses, there would be several thousand fewer pounds of phosphorus washed into local lakes, rivers and streams during the spring snow melt. Given that one pound of phosphorus can produce 500 pounds of smelly, green algae, this one simple act could translate into dramatically cleaner waterways next summer.

Unfortunately, large and complex problems rarely have quick and simple answers. Resources managers know that runoff from houses, farms and businesses is the number one polluter of the St. Croix River, Mississippi River and 100 or more lakes in Washington and Ramsey Counties. Non-point source runoff pollution is a massive problem that won’t be solved by sweeping and raking alone.  This is why partners in the East Metro Water Resource Education Program, which is comprised of the eight watershed agencies in Washington County, along with seven cities, the county and the Conservation District, invest so much time and effort into helping private property owners make much bigger changes on their land. Using a combination of financial and technical assistance programs, education and outreach, and changes to the regulations governing new development and redevelopment, the partnering agencies are pushing people to install raingardens, porous pavement, buffer strips and grassed waterways. They’re keeping dirt from farms and construction sites out of lakes and streams, and using native vegetation to create habitat for wildlife and soak runoff water into the ground. Their goal is not to help a few people plant a few raingardens; their goal is to restore the natural hydrological functions of our landscape so that 90% of all rain and melting snow is infiltrated into the ground, absorbed by trees and plants, or evaporated into the air. To achieve this massive goal, they need just about every person in the east metro with a house, farm or business to make some kind of change to his or her land. 

Fortunately for you, these local government agencies have a range of incentives to offer. Whether you own 40 acres with a pasture and horses or ¼ acre with nothing but lawn, you can contact the Washington Conservation District (www.mnwcd.org or 651-275-1136) or the Ramsey Conservation District (www.ramsey.mn.us/cd/index.htm or 651-266-7270) to request a free site visit at your property. Conservation District staff can help you to troubleshoot drainage and erosion problems, suggest locations for raingardens and other planting projects and even design the project for you.

Does a free site visit sound too good to be true? If you live near a priority lake or stream, your local Watershed District might even pay you to plant a raingarden, install native shoreline landscaping or fix an eroding ravine. Because cost-share grant programs are so popular, some watershed agencies have already spent their available funds for 2010. Such is the case for the Middle St. Croix Watershed, which covers downtown Stillwater and the riverfront communities south to Afton. If you live near Silver Lake in North St. Paul, however, you are in luck. The Valley Branch Watershed District wants more raingardens near the lake and they’ve got a blank check with your name on it.

Few people know that Conservation Districts and Watershed Districts exist, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Get in on the secret by visiting www.mnwcd.org/cleanwater to find out which east metro watershed you live in, what you can do on your land, and if there are grants or other services available. If you’re looking for big government, you’re certain to be disappointed. With your help, though, a little government can go a long way towards protecting our land and water.