By Janet Kubat Willette
AUSTIN, Minn. — Jack Heather says people are spending time with their tax statements this year and when they see a line item for a special assessment they want to know more.
He was talking with another Blooming Prairie resident who asked him about the $18 special assessment.
Heather, who serves on the Cedar Watershed District public advisory committee, told him about the watershed district.
The district was established in 2007 to address flooding and water quality issues throughout the Cedar Watershed. Its first task is to develop a 10-year plan. The plan will identify challenges throughout the watershed and identify conservation practices and other best management practices to address those challenges.
A watershed district, unlike a Soil and Water Conservation District, has the authority to levy taxes. The CRWD levied $250,000 for administrative funds and $60,000 for start up funds payable on 2008 taxes. The levy is applied according to market value.
"Hormel pays, everybody pays," said Bev Nordby, CRWD administrator.
The levy has angered some taxpayers.
"There is no benefit to us in Dodge County … but it will end up costing a lot of money," said Darrel Trom, a Blooming Prairie farmer.
Trom spoke at a ditch meeting last week in Westfield Township where Nordby and district treasurer Mike Jones of Blooming Prairie answered questions.
Trom said he pays 9 cents per acre for all costs associated with a ditch running through his property and an average of 47 cents per acre for the watershed district — and that’s just for administrative costs.
Trom also wanted to know why there wasn’t a direct mailing filled with information before the watershed was formed.
"They found my name and address to send my tax statement," he said.
A petition to form a watershed district was submitted to the Board of Water and Soil Resources by the Mower County Commissioners on Nov. 7, 2006. After that, the Board of Water and Soil Resources took over the process, Nordby said.
There was a public comment period and notices regarding the petition for establishment of a watershed district were printed in four newspapers, said Jon Fure, BWSR communications director. About 100 people attended a meeting at Ellis Middle School in Austin on Jan. 10, 2007, to voice their opinion on formation of a watershed district, he said. Written comments were also submitted.
BWSR weighed the comments and granted the petition to establish a watershed district.
The Mower County commissioners submitted the petition for a watershed district, though there was disagreement among them whether a watershed district or a joint powers board was the way to proceed. Commissioners voted 3-to-2 to form a watershed district after a motion to form a joint powers board failed on a 3-to-2 vote in June 2006.
Commissioner Dick Lang of Austin voted in favor of forming the watershed district.
"For the past 20 years nothing else worked," Lang said. "We need to try something different. Something has to change."
Lang, who said he’s been in business for 50 years, said if something doesn’t work, he needs to make changes.
He saw forming a watershed district as a way to get a different view on what has happened over the past years and see if changes can be made.
"Everybody’s kind of blaming the others," said Jim Gebhardt of Waltham. "It really is everybody’s problem and we all have to work together to try to correct it."
Gebhardt, vice president of the CRWD board of managers, farms with his brothers and is paying taxes on every acre he owns. He said he sits on both sides of the fence, not wanting to pay any more taxes than he has to, but knowing the challenges facing the watershed.
The watershed is flat, lacking much pitch or grade, so when hundred year flood events strike, it doesn’t take much to flood the whole area, he said.
"Everybody’s kind of in the same boat in this watershed," he said.
Austin sits where the Cedar River, Turtle Creek and Dobbins Creek converge and when there’s a big rain, everything ends up there.
There’s not one big overall fix to save the watershed, said Dan Regner of Austin, chairman of the Cedar River Watershed District.
"Everybody has to be responsible for their water and what they do with it," he said.
Regner intends to install a rain garden to treat his water and said many people making small changes like that throughout the watershed would make a big difference.
One reason flooding has become a greater issue is because of changes in the watershed.
Farming practices have changed, with farmers tilling acres that would have formerly been in pasture or set aside, said Steven Lang, Austin’s assistant city engineer. There’s also more tiling, though its impact on flooding is debated.
Austin is criticized for building in places that were formerly lowlands, but Lang said the city is one of the top two in the nation for controlling building in the flood plain.
"It’s something that we take very seriously because when we do have a flood it’s such a big impact to the entire community," Lang said.
He can’t correct what was done 40 to 50 years ago, but today they are working to keep buildings out of the flood plain.
Now, the city is in the process of building walls and berms from the Cedar River Dam at Fourth Avenue Northeast in Austin north to Interstate 90 to protect commercial property.
It was more favorable to do acquisition in residential areas, Lang said, but in commercial area where property values are higher, flood berms and flood walls are more economical.
"It’s not Austin against everyone else," Lang said. "Anyone that lives along the river is affected by flooding, not just Austin. There’s people downstream of Austin that flood … The goal is that everyone would benefit from the watershed district being formed, not just the city of Austin."