Much has changed since the Valley Branch Watershed District was established in 1968. At the time, development had just begun to boom in the eastern suburbs of St. Paul, with new neighborhoods springing up in Oakdale, Maplewood, and the Tri-Lakes area of Lake Elmo. Several years of rainy weather resulted in high lake levels and flooded homes, and in response, 103 residents in the area petitioned the Minnesota Water Resources Board to form a watershed district that could address the issue.
“Our local watershed districts have done such a good job of mitigating flood risk that most people today don’t even worry about flooding,” says Dave Bucheck, a long-time board member with the Valley Branch Watershed District who recently stepped down after 22 years of service. “Now, Valley Branch is directing efforts toward water quality and lake improvement work, as well as maintaining the stormwater infrastructure that we’ve built.”
The Valley Branch Watershed District covers one square mile of Ramsey County and 70 square miles of Washington County, containing more than 1230 wetlands and several high-value recreational resources, including Lake Elmo, Valley Creek, the Tri-Lakes, and Silver Lake in North St. Paul. Running through the backbone of the watershed is “Project 1007,” a $4.25 million flood-prevention project completed in 1987 that links the formerly land-locked lakes in the northwest and central portions of the district to a large storm sewer pipe along Interstate 94 that discharges to the St. Croix River. The intricate system includes five miles of pipe, 60 manholes, two dams, and two miles of open channels designed to provide a safe route for water to overflow without endangering homes and roads.
According to Bucheck, the district has tried to be proactive in planning for future development as well. A few years ago, Valley Branch Watershed District funded a large study to model potential development scenarios in the City of Lake Elmo in order to determine how much stormwater treatment to require from developers. “The cumulative impact of lots of small land-use changes adds up and can result in flooding downstream if we don’t think far enough into the future,” he explained. The district’s rules ensure that new developments include practices that slow down and capture runoff so that there is less chance of flooding and fewer problems with erosion and water quality degradation.
Over the years, the Valley Branch Watershed District has expanded its mission to include protecting water quality within the district’s wetlands, lakes, and streams as well. “We’re so thankful for the partnerships we’ve built over the years,” says Valley Branch board president Jill Lucas. “We have great working relationships with the city staff in our communities and also do a lot in partnership with MN Board of Water and Soil Resources, Department of Natural Resources, and Pollution Control Agency; Washington Conservation District; and the St. Croix River Association.” Examples include monitoring water quality, conducting public education, and identifying and implementing projects to reduce runoff pollution.
The district’s engineering firm, Barr Engineering, recently calculated that water quality improvement projects in the Valley Branch watershed are keeping 1332 pounds per year of phosphorus out of the St. Croix River and district lakes and streams. For perspective, that is equivalent to 333 TONS of algae. Approximately half of the phosphorus reductions can be attributed to creek and ravine stabilization projects. Valley Creek sustains the only naturally-reproducing population of brook trout in the Twin Cities area and the district has focused many of its habitat improvement projects along the creek corridor and near the St. Croix River.
Another 23% of the district’s water quality achievements come from partnerships with private landowners, implemented through the Valley Branch cost-share program. Examples include residential raingardens and lakeshore restoration projects, as well as larger agricultural projects that reduce runoff and erosion.
“We really want to maximize the value for our taxpayers,” explains Lucas, “so we like to focus on projects that give us the best pollution reduction for the lowest cost.” She cites the “Top 50 P!” project as an example. The Washington Conservation District identified fifty of the best locations for runoff-reduction practices to keep phosphorus out of the St. Croix River and then the St. Croix River Association and Minnesota Clean Water Fund provided grant funding to implement those practices. For locations within the Valley Branch watershed, the district provided additional funding so that large projects could move forward.
As board president, Lucas sees education and community engagement as critical to the Valley Branch Watershed District’s continued success. The district’s five appointed board members have been meeting with city councils from the 15 communities they serve and the district recently launched a new website to showcase its projects and programs. In addition, Valley Branch continues to offer cost-share grants for projects to improve habitat and water quality. Interested residents can apply for $500 plant grants to purchase native plants and seeds, or larger cost-share grants ($2500 per pound of phosphorus, up to a maximum of $5000) for projects that provide a public benefit.
“Celebrating fifty years is a pretty big deal,” says Ed Marchan, a Valley Branch board manager from West Lakeland Township. “We’re proud of the work this district has accomplished over the years and hope we can continue to serve our communities well.”
To learn more about the Valley Branch Watershed District, including its cost-share grant program, visit www.vbwd.org.