Watershed districts are local units of government that work to solve and prevent water-related problems. The boundaries of the districts follow those of a natural watershed (an area in which all water drains to one point).
Minnesota has 46 watershed districts, most of which are named after the primary lake or river within the watershed. Minnesota's watershed districts do not cover the entire state. They are created through a local petition process.
Laws that affect Watershed Districts are in Minnesota Statutes 103D.
The Minnesota Legislature authorized the creation of watershed districts in 1955, through the Watershed Act, with the idea that water management policies should be developed on a watershed basis, because water does not follow political boundaries.
The statutory purposes of watershed districts are to conserve the natural resources of the state by land use planning, flood control, and other conservation projects by using sound scientific principles for the protection of public health and welfare and the provident use of natural resources. The specific duties of Watershed Districts vary across the state -- some focus mainly on flood damage reduction, while others have a broad range of programs and services to protect and improve water quality.
Each watershed district is governed by a board of managers appointed by the county boards of commissioners with land in the watershed district. Each watershed district is also required to have a citizen advisory committee to provide input to the managers on projects and activities. Many watershed districts have paid, full-time staff; others rely on contract employees, primarily for engineering and legal services.
Watershed districts have been given broad authorities, including the authority to:
- Adopt rules with the power of law to regulate, conserve, and control the use of water resources within the district.
- Contract with units of government and private and public corporations to carry out water resource management projects.
- Hire staff and contract with consultants.
- Assess properties for benefits received and levy taxes to finance district administration.
- Accept grant funds, both public and private, and encumber debt.
- Acquire property needed for projects.
- Acquire, construct, and operate drainage systems, dams, dikes, reservoirs, and water supply systems.
- Enter upon lands within and without the district to make surveys and conduct investigations
- Watershed districts range in size from the Carnelian-Marine District with 43 square miles, to the Red Lake Watershed District with 5,990 square miles.
- Watershed districts are formed at the request of local citizens, county boards or cities by petitioning the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) under the procedures set forth in the Watershed Act.
- The Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts represents Minnesota's watershed districts. The association provides administrative and lobbying services for watershed districts.
Joint Powers Watershed Management Organizations (WMOs)
In 1982, the Minnesota Legislature approved the Metropolitan Area Surface Water Management Act (Minnesota Statutes 103B.201 to 255), which requires local units of government in the seven-county Metro Area to prepare and implement comprehensive surface water management plans through membership in a WMO.
WMOs are based on watershed boundaries, and can be organized in three ways:
- As a joint powers agreement between the cities and townships within the watershed;
- As a watershed district -- a special unit of local government operating under Minnesota Statues Chapter 103B, and concurrently operating under Minnesota Statues Chapter 103D;
- As a function of county government, usually administered by the county planning department.
Watershed management organizations differ from watershed districts in a number of ways:
- WMOs are mandatory, not voluntary;
- WMOs deal only with surface water, whereas watershed districts manage surface water and groundwater (metro area counties handle groundwater planning);
- WMOs do not have individual taxing authority, unless their joint powers agreement specifically grants this authority, and most are funded by the municipalities that make up their membership; and
- WMOs are governed by a board appointed by the member municipalities and townships.
They also have many similarities, including the requirement to conduct their activities according to an approved watershed management plan. In addition to plan requirements in statute, metro area watershed districts and watershed management organizations must also abide by Minnesota Rules Chapter 8410, which spells out detailed plan requirements.