A closer look at a watershed district

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 28, 1999

While the Lake Restoration Committee will hold informational meetings about its proposal, the public will have two other ways of weighing in on the issue.

Sunday, November 28, 1999

While the Lake Restoration Committee will hold informational meetings about its proposal, the public will have two other ways of weighing in on the issue. One involves creation of a watershed district; the other involves reacting to the district’s decisions.

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The next step sought by the lake committee will be a petition to the state Board of Water and Soil Restoration. That petition is being drafted by attorney Kurt Deter of St. Cloud, who has helped create three other watershed districts in the state.

According to Deter, the petition must take one of four different configurations in order to be considered valid for consideration.

First, the petition must be representative of half the counties contained in the district. Since the proposed watershed district encompasses Freeborn County only, the first criteria is met.

Second, the petition would be valid if the petition came from a county with over half of the territory contained in the proposed district. Again, the proposed district involves only one county, so this would be considered valid.

The third test for validity would be if the petition was representative of a majority of cities contained in the district.

Fourth, as a minimum test for validity, the petition must contain the signatures of 50 or more resident landowners within the district.

Once a valid petition is made, the BWSR board would hold a public hearing, with a civil court judge presiding over testimony.

Citizens from the community would be invited to present evidence for, or against the creation of a watershed district. Some hearings last for several days, others can only be a day long.

Depending on the outcome of the public hearing, the judge would make a recommendation to the BSWR board.

If the recommendation is in favor of creating the watershed district, BWSR would appoint three to nine managers who would manage the district. The managers would then seek state and federal grants to fund the district, and would have authority to levy a tax as a last resort to pay for lake improvement, Deter said.

The managers would serve rotating 3-year terms and following the first appointments, the county commissioners would have the authority to appoint replacement managers.

Cathy Rufshus of the Lake Restoration Committee told city and county officials that their plan to clean up Albert Lea Lake would cost $1.7 million annually, with a total cost of $17.3 million if all of the details of the proposed plan are adopted.

The lake committee’s plan has six goals: improve the lake’s recreational quality, improve wildlife habitat, improve fishery, protect the shoreline, and establish and manage aquatic plants.

One-third of the cost would be shouldered locally and may come from foundation grants, donations and fund-raisers. Two-thirds of the cost would be from state and federal sources, she said.

Decisions made by the watershed board of managers could be opposed by the community through a normal appeal process or through civil court, Deter said.

&uot;We generally want to appoint people from different areas of interest as the first group of managers,&uot; Deter said. &uot;This is to ensure that the best interests of the community are being served as they should be.&uot;

The watershed district could also be abolished at any point by the public if it felt the district was no longer serving a purpose, Deter said. A petition to abolish the district would come to the BWSR board, which would again appoint a civil judge to hear the testimony and make a recommendation, Deter said.

County commissioners – who would make subsequent appointments to the district – who heard the lake committee’s proposal were generally positive about it, but said they needed to hear more.

&uot;I admire these people and the work they’ve done,&uot; said Commissioner Bob Berthelson. &uot;I’m just not educated enough on the details and on what happens next.&uot;

County Chairman Brian Jordahl said he was impressed with the plan, but said that more information needs to be put out that can only be done at a public hearing.

Second district Commissioner Dan Belshan said he has not decided either way on whether to support the plan.

&uot;I have reservations about the creation of a watershed district, specifically on how much power of the managers for taxation,&uot; Belshan said. &uot;I’ll have to read up on it.&uot;

State Representative Dan Dorman said he would support a plan to revitalize the lake. State Representative Pat Piper said she is interested in a revitalization plan, but added that she would like to hear more details.