Battling Floods and Saving Trout – 20 Years of Work for the Brown’s Creek Watershed District

Craig Leiser smiles as he sips his coffee and proclaims jovially, “You’re asking me to share one of my favorite stories!” He then begins talking about never-ending rain in 1996 and how that one wet summer led a group of concerned citizens to form a special-purpose unit of government that is still active today.

Craig Leiser at Browns Creek
Craig Leiser stands in front of Browns Creek in Stillwater.

It all began when Mother Nature dropped more than 10 inches of rain on central Washington County, three weekends in a row. The water kept rising in land-locked basins and dozens of homeowners in Grant, south-western Hugo, and May Twp. soon found their basements, barns and septic systems underwater. Leiser was one of them.

After talking to officials at Grant (still a township at the time), Washington County, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Leiser and his neighbors came to realize that none of the existing entities were set up to address localized flooding concerns. An existing watershed management organization, formed as a partnership between the cities and townships in the area, lacked the funds to take action as well. Eventually, after speaking with a representative at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Leiser learned that Minnesota State Statute 103D allows citizens to petition to form a watershed district in order to address local flooding and water quality concerns. Much like a school district, watershed districts have taxing authority, which gives them the ability to raise funds for projects that benefit the public good.

After months of letter-writing, meetings, and conversations with attorneys, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District was officially formed and Washington County Commissioners appointed five citizens to serve on the district’s board. Leiser, who had begun the year as a guy with a wet basement, now found himself in a new role as a watershed district board member, responsible for identifying and fixing water problems within a 30 square mile area that encompasses portions of seven communities.

The Trout Habitat Preservation Project, the first capital improvement project of the Brown’s Creek Watershed District, was completed in 2001 to alleviate flooding in the Goggins-School Section chain of lakes (Hugo and May Twp.) while protecting Brown’s Creek, a coldwater trout stream. Instead of merely installing a pipe to send floodwater further downstream, the watershed district took a sustainable approach to the problem, routing excess surface water back into the groundwater system near the headwaters of Brown’s Creek through a series of created wetlands and an infiltration basin. The goal was to mimic natural hydrology so that both humans and wildlife would benefit. A similar approach was used to stabilize lake levels and prevent flooding in the Kismet Basin, where Leiser lives. Since then, the watershed district has completed stream improvements and a parking lot retrofit along Brown’s Creek Trail, planted a streamside buffer at Oak Glen Golf Course, built raingardens at Stillwater Country Club, and installed neighborhood raingardens near Long Lake and Brown’s Creek.

The Trout Habitat Preservation Project helped to alleviate flooding and protect Brown’s Creek.

Next year, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District will celebrate its 20-year anniversary and Leiser, the guy with a now-dry basement, is still working hard to prevent flooding and protect lakes and streams throughout the watershed. In addition to completing dozens of projects over the years, the district has also established rules to guide new development so that local waters are protected from erosion and stormwater runoff. Its new 10-year plan (2017-2026) outlines several additional goals, including continuing efforts to restore Brown’s Creek, Long Lake, and South School Section Lake, improving the recreational value of water resources in the district, and studying the ways that climate change might impact local waterways and stormwater infrastructure.

Craig Leiser, Brown’s Creek Watershed District’s board president, dishes up ice cream at a celebration event in Brown’s Creek Park.

Leiser finishes his story and sets down his coffee cup. “I want to leave our environment in better condition than I found it,” he says. “The work we’re doing now will make things better and more manageable for future generations.”