The final stretch

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This area behind Jerry's Other Place will be part of a project to help stop flooding of the Cedar River using a wall and spill area. - Eric Johnson/

Despite fears of added costs, the CRWD could approve its rules Wednesday

Two items between the Cedar River Watershed District and city of Austin have loomed for months. Those issues could come to an end Wednesday.

A much debated rule about snow storage in the floodplain and a thoroughly researched project to stop flooding in Austin have been topics at nearly every CRWD meeting for the past year.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the future of those two topics may be set. The CRWD Board of Managers will vote to pass the watershed’s rules which, among snow storage within the floodplain, contain information about water body alterations, construction projects in floodplains and events that require permits before taking place. Yet city and CRWD officials still debate what to do with one of Austin’s snow dumping sites more than any other rule.

Snow storage

This file photo from this past January shows the close proximity of the massive snow pile behind Marcusen Park to the Cedar River. - Herald file photo

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Rule 6, Subd. 5, of CRWD’s final draft rules states, “Snow storage from any off-site location is prohibited in the shoreland area and within 300 feet of any open ditch or public drainage system. Snow storage from any off-site location is prohibited between 300 to 500 feet of any shoreland area or any open ditch or public drainage system, unless such storage is performed utilizing district-approved best management practices.”

This rule sparked several CRWD workshops and several presentations from the city to the CRWD board. The city of Austin’s concern is that the 300-foot aspect to the rule will require Austin to dump its snow somewhere other than Marcusen park. The Cook farm, outside of Austin, has been considered a feasible storage site.

Though city engineers have protested the rule, at least one city official is on board with CRWD recommendations.

“I’m always concerned about the environmental issues,” said City Councilwoman Marion Clennon. “We not only have to worry about the salt, but cars leak all kinds of fluids so all of that is in the snow.”

Moving the snow piles to a different area feels right to Clennon, as she’d rather move them now than have someone deal with runoff effects in 10 years. She said there’s still plenty of research to be done about snow pile placement, as cities like St. Paul have similar issues with snow piles next to major waterways.

One of the city’s most ardent arguments against the 300-foot rule is the extra costs moving the snow to different sites would bring if the snow storage rules were enacted. City Engineer Jon Erichson has argued such a move could cost the city anywhere between $150,000 to $250,000 in previous board meetings. Clennon disagrees with the cost estimate.

“Austin isn’t that big,” she said, referring to the extra distance snow would have to be moved.

Though CRWD board members who were on the rules committee (those who listened to advisers before drafting any rules) may stick with the wording of the rule, their decision hasn’t been easy. Employing a new rule that could potentially change the structure of the city’s snow removal is a tough decision, CRWD board members said.

“I agree with a lot of points that Jon Erichson makes,” CRWD Board Manager Steve Kraushaar said. “That’s what makes it hard to really put in a rule.”

CRWD Board Manager Jim Gebhardt agrees.

“I think it does put pressure on you,” he said. “I know if you have never been a board member, it can be overwhelming. I’ve been a board member on the Soil and Water Conservation District for 21 years, so I guess I’m kind of used to it. You have to deal with the public in a professional manner. You still have to do your job and your mission.”

Gebhardt added he doesn’t want to step on the city’s toes, but he points out the CRWD Board was made by the county to carry out one task: fix the Cedar River Watershed’s problems.

“This watershed district was petitioned to be formed by the county board,” Gebhardt said.

He added even though the city may have some changes and incur costs, it’s CRWD’s job to carry out the reason why it was formed: improve the watershed. Gebhardt pointed out Minnesotans voted for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment last term, which added three-eighths percent of a cent to Minnesota taxes. So according to him and the numbers (Mower County’s majority also voted to pass the Legacy Amendment), people are willing to pay for clean water.

Furthermore, CRWD looked to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for answers. Though there is no law for it, MPCA is not fond of storing snow in the floodplain.

“They don’t have a rule prohibiting, but they sure don’t recommend it,” Kraushaar said. He added a Minnesota nuisance conditions law could fine the city if a flood spread garbage from a snow storage site across the city.

Gebhardt and other board members also say the current rule is a good compromise from the previously revised rule, which called for no storage in the floodplain whatsoever.

“We got a lot of input from a lot of members, and I just hate to not use that input,” Gebhardt said about advisers and agencies like the MPCA. “I think it was good input, and I think we did come up with a good compromise for the rules on that storage.”

The CRWD has complimented the city of Austin several times on its efforts to prevent the snow melt from entering the river, as well.

“I commend them for what they did in Marcusen Park,” Kraushaar said. “It was certainly in response of the watershed.”

At Wednesday’s 7 p.m. meeting at the Hormel Nature Center’s Ruby Rupner Room, the CRWD board will take a look at several other options for altering the rule.

One option, which Erichson previously said would work better for the city, is a one-year review process. Under these terms, CRWD would lay guidelines for the city’s dumping procedures and urge improvements each year for a set number of years.

Other options included limiting snow dumping to outside of the 10- and 25 year flood events.

The north main flood mitigation project

CRWD members have said the North Main flood mitigation project has seemed more controversial than it actually is.

According to board members and city officials, the wait was more of a double-check than anything. CRWD and the city of Austin waited for both of their engineers, Barr and SEH, respectively, to reach similar conclusions. Those conclusions detail how new walls along portions of the Cedar River will affect flow rate, peak flows and discharge outside of town.

“I’m just hoping myself that they have really done their homework,” Gebhardt said about the engineers on the project.

The city of Austin and CRWD reached an agreement last week, which stated CRWD won’t restrict work on the North Main project, as the project’s inception came well before CRWD began the rules process. Furthermore, the city of Austin will be responsible for any mistakes the flood mitigation projects may cause

Erichson was not available for comment.