When Mark Land, vice president with the Ankeny-based Snyder and Associates engineering firm, pitched the idea to the Perry City Council late last year of joining the newly formed Beaver Creek Watershed Management Authority (WMA), it took him about 10 minutes to convince the members to approve the move and sign the same 28E agreement that most of the other 25 cities, counties and soil and water conservation districts in the watershed had already signed.
A few weeks later, the Woodward City Council was similarly receptive to Land’s recommendation, voting unanimously to join the Beaver Creek WMA after brief deliberations and appointing Woodward City Council member Paul Thompson as the council’s representative to the Beaver Creek meetings.
The Iowa Legislature created the legal basis for WMAs after the disastrous 2008 floods as a way for multiple political jurisdictions to collaborate on solving flooding and water-quality challenges that none could solve alone. The are 57 watersheds in Iowa, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and 17 have so far seen WMAs created to manage their waters. WMA membership is open to any county, city and soil and water conservation district (SWCD) within a watershed.
Of the WMAs formed since the Iowa law was passed in 2010, five are in central Iowa: the Middle-South Raccoon River WMA, Fourmile Creek WMA, Walnut Creek WMA and Mud, Camp and Spring Creeks WMA. The 28E agreement for the Beaver Creek WMA was filed with the Iowa Secretary of State in July.
Land pitched the Beaver Creek agreement to all 26 political entities in the watershed — cities, counties and SWCDs — and his strongest selling point seemed to be the WMA’s lack of authority.
“We joke about it being a watershed management authority,” Land said, “but it doesn’t really have any authority.”
Proposing the agreement to the Dallas County Supervisors in February, Land said the language of the Beaver Creek WMA 28E agreement “was written specifically not to have much authority. The reason is because it’s more important to have everyone around the same table, talking about these issues and planning for these issues, with the idea that anything that comes out of this plan would always come back to the board.”
The Dallas County Supervisors peppered Land with questions for more than an hour on details of the agreement. In the end, they did not sign the 28E agreement or join the Beaver Creek WMA, just as they did not join the Walnut Creek WMA in 2014. Now that the big daddy of Iowa watersheds is beginning to organize itself — the North Raccoon River WMA — the supervisors are again asking themselves whether a place at the WMA table might be in the best interests of their constituents.
“It might be a good idea for us to talk about how we would approach our involvement with all of these watersheds,” Supervisor Brad Golightly of rural Perry said last week to his fellow supervisors, Kim Chapman of Adel and Mark Hanson of Waukee, the board’s current chair. Golightly is the only farmer of the three, and the other supervisors look to him to lead discussions on ag-related issues.
“The conundrum for me,” Golightly said, “is the conversation shifts from flooding issues very quickly to water quality. We forget about what part of that mission is or should be.”
If questions about flood mitigation tend toward consensus, those of water quality tend toward controversy. The phrase “water quality” itself has become a red flag for some county supervisors, who also act as the trustees for the county’s drainage district. They see their fellow county officeholders in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista entangled in a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works that claims the counties are partly responsible for the nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River, and they fear similar liabilities arising from WMAs.
“The importance of supervisors or mayors or council being involved is all going to boil down to any kind of regulation,” Golightly said, “and that’s the part that Iowans don’t want to gear towards. I would be very hesitant to legislate rules for landowners in regards to these things.”
Chapman raised several questions about WMAs, such as whether their issues are being systematically addressed.
“What’s ISAC’s (the Iowa State Association of Counties) position on watersheds?” Chapman said. “Have they done much research into this, and are they recommending one way or another to participate or not participate?”
William Peterson, executive director of ISAC, said in April his organization was “generally not proposing things regarding regulation of agriculture,” noting it is “hard to build a consensus when you have very disparate opinions among the membership and have different constituents fighting each other.” Peterson was not addressing the WMA question directly.
Chapman asked what the pros and cons of WMA membership might be and whether actions taken at the state level on issues of flood mitigation and water quality might be more appropriate.
“The objectives are all the same” in every WMA, he said, “but yet we set up all these separate watershed authorities. There’s limited financial resources set up to deal with these issues, but yet we spread the need out to many rather than approaching it more on a coordinated, consolidated basis. We decentralize the issue, and I think that’s part of the problem.”
Fifteen counties are drained by the North Raccoon River watershed: Boone, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Clay, Dallas, Greene, Guthrie, Madison, Palo Alto, Pocahontas, Polk Sac, Warren and Webster. The watershed also involves 14 SWCDs and nearly 60 cities.
“The North Raccoon is huge,” said Hanson, a dues-paying member of the Raccoon River Valley Association. “With Walnut Creek and Beaver Creek, we’re at the upper end of those, so we haven’t participated.” He said WMAs are forming “because they feel there’s federal grant money to pay for studies and coordinators, but I agree that it’s probably going to be an ante up and anybody that’s part of it contributes if you’re going to be effective. So we’ve stayed away.”
The purposes of the WMAs, which have no taxing authority or power of eminent domain, seem fairly straightforward. They were created in order to:
1. Assess the flood risks in the watershed.
2. Assess the water quality in the watershed.
3. Assess options for reducing flood risk and improving water quality in the watershed.
4. Monitor federal flood risk planning and activities.
5. Educate residents of the watershed area regarding water quality and flood risks.
6. Seek and allocate moneys made available to the WMA for purposes of water quality and flood mitigation.
Section 319 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act lists a number of flood-control and water-quality practices eligible for federal funding. Most of the practices are well known in Iowa and have been used on a small scale for many years. WMAs will seek the federal funding in order to increase their use.
The funded practices include cover crops, grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, water and sediment control basins, nutrient management, tile line bioreactors, tile outlet terrace systems, prescribed grazing, residue and tillage management, pasture and grassland management, riparian buffers, wetland restoration, streambank protection and shoreline protection.
“I guess the other reason we’ve stayed away a little bit,” Hanson said, “is we still are trustees for drainage districts, and there is the lawsuit stuff that is happening, if that makes a difference one way or the other. The landowners themselves are in control of their own circumstances.”
A further cause holding back the supervisors from taking a leadership role in the WMAs is a once-bitten-twice-shy attitude left over from the fallout of the 2006 scandal the rocked the Iowa Workforce Development’s Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium (CIETC). Dallas County was left on the hook for about $40,000 at the end of that episode, Hanson said.
Some of Dallas County’s top administrators also have a big stake in the supervisors’ decisions about WMA patricipation. Shelley Horak, director of the Dallas County Public Health and Home Services Department, and Barry Halling, Dallas County Emergency Management coordinator, make the health and safety of the residents of Dallas County their prime objective.
Horak said floods pose an obvious risk to public health, and she noted water quality was among the health needs cited in her department’s most recent Dallas County health needs assessment. She encouraged the supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting to participate in the WMA meetings.
“Walnut Creek was wanting more involvement from the county,” Horak said. “You guys know that.” She said regular attendance at WMA meetings by county officials, such as Environmental Health Director Ted Trewin and Environmental Health Specialist Toby Welch, would keep the board informed and send a signal to the community that the supervisors take flood control and water quality seriously.
“For community members, just knowing we are listening in would be very important,” Horak said. “To the degree that we act or are involved beyond listening right now is totally up to you, but I think it would be good to listen.”
For his part, Halling sketched out a “zombie apocalypse” scenario in which the Des Moines water supply could be poisoned by blue-green algae and leave 500,000 central Iowans without water for a month.
“You can’t boil it out,” Halling said of the algae blooms that produce a toxin so deadly the U.S. military tried to weaponize it. “You can’t get rid of it. So there is a huge problem. It’s not just the Raccoon River. It’s a statewide problem.” The negative affects on schools, restaurants and other businesses relying heavily on the local water supply would be immense, he said.
“I think it would pay us to be in on the conversation and share some ideas,” Golightly said, “but I’m really hesitant to want to cough up funding for all of them.”
Land addressed this common aversion to spending when he proposed the Beaver Creek WMA to the board.
“The key point is that with all of these jurisdictions,” Land said, “there can never be any obligation that your representative on this board would obligate the board to unless it came back to this board, and this board authorized any expenditure of time, money or whatever. Whether it’s a project, staffing, those kind of things, it would always have to go back to the board, to the council, to the commission to get approval for any type of expenditure.”
Land said all the members of the Beaver Creek watershed face tight budgets. Eligible entities for membership were Boone, Dallas, Greene, Polk and Webster counties, with their corresponding SWCDs, along with the cities of Beaver, Berkley, Bouton, Boxholm, Dallas Center, Dana, Des Moines, Grand Junction, Granger, Grimes, Johnston, Minburn, Ogden, Perry, Urbandale and Woodward.
“The key thing for most of them was the idea of not having any costs,” Land said, “because, quite frankly, most of them wouldn’t join if there was. If you look down the list, you realize what the resources are for some of these. So you’re probably wondering what’s the idea. Well, it’s very important to create a watershed plan for the watershed and the hope is that by forming this within the next year, an application could be made, very similar to Four Mile Creek, Walnut Creek and many others, to obtain a watershed planning grant that in those cases provided 100 percent funding to create the plan.”
The supervisors took no action at that time. Golightly compared the board’s cautious hesitation in joining the WMAs to swimming. “If you came to a river, would you just jump right in?” he said. “Or would you maybe stick your toe in first?”
If it were an Iowa river, one might hesitate even to risk one’s toe. On the other hand, if there were already two dozen people splashing around in the water, one might suppose it was time to take the plunge. The Father of our Country advised us to avoid entangling alliances, but he also said, “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”
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