Muskingum Watershed assessment talks continue

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SALEM, Ohio – The issue of proposed assessment fees in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District has been a hot topic in recent months, with watershed residents and leaders weighing in on both sides.
More than 40 public meetings have been held to discuss the assessment fees, which are part of an amendment to the conservancy district’s official plan. The district has proposed a 20-year maintenance plan for flood reduction and water quality improvement in the Muskingum River Watershed.
Money matters. The proposal’s cost is $270 million, which would be collected through a yearly assessment of $12 per parcel for residential and agricultural property located within the district. An estimate for commercial and industrial parcels has not been developed.
The assessment fees have been controversial, causing an uproar among many watershed residents.
“In general, no one likes the idea of an assessment, regardless of its amount or purpose,” said John Hoopingarner, Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District executive director.
He said, however, there is a keen awareness among local leaders and professionals that water quality issues are important and something must be done to restore the district’s reservoirs.
To neglect that responsibility by not doing any maintenance on the dams would be “absolutely irresponsible,” he added.
Important. Larry Gearhardt, Ohio Farm Bureau director of local affairs, said the issue has been huge for the Farm Bureau, partly because of early uncertainty about the definition of a parcel. The district’s definition of a parcel has a big impact on how much farmers and other landowners will have to pay.
Officials estimate there are 700,000 parcels in the district.
According to Hoopingarner, the district’s working definition of a parcel is “one or more contiguous (adjoining) tracts of land with the same property use code and the same owner of record, as determined by the county auditor’s records. Such parcels may be divided by a public or private road(s) or a stream(s) and still be considered one parcel under this plan.”
Gearhardt said the definition is good news.
“It’s a favorable definition for landowners,” he said.
Karl Gebhardt, of the natural resource and land use consulting firm Teater-Gebhardt and Associates, has been working with the conservancy district for six years. According to Gebhardt, some residents have likened the assessment to being taxed without their consent.
Unfamiliar. He said part of problem has been due to unfamiliarity with the law regarding assessments and general wariness toward assessments. He said, however, the situation is improving.
“I think, in the long run, it’ll be much better,” because people will have a better understanding of the process, Gebhardt said.
The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District covers 18 counties and it is the largest of 21 conservancy districts in Ohio. It is believed to be the only active district that does not collect an assessment for facility maintenance, Hoopingarner said.
In comparison, the Maumee Conservancy District assesses a fee of $13.26, the Miami Conservancy District assesses a fee of $86 and the Hocking Conservancy District assesses a fee of $126.

Previously published in Farm and Dairy:

Area residents say watershed district’s plan still vague, Aug. 25, 2005

Public meeting Feb. 16

* There will be a public meeting at 1 p.m. Feb. 16 at the McDonald/Marlite Conference Center, 143 McDonald Drive S.W., New Philadelphia. The district’s board of appraisers will explain the methodology of the assessment and allow public comment on the plan.

About the MWCD plan update

The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District was established in 1933 to carry out flood control and water conservation projects in the Muskingum River Watershed. The district is also responsible for securing financial resources from property owners and local, state and federal governments.
In 1934, the district’s Conservancy Court approved an official plan for the district. This plan included the construction of 14 dams and reservoirs in the main tributaries of the Muskingum River: Walhonding River, Tuscarawas River and Wills Creek.
Updating the plan. The district recently proposed an amendment to the official plan, which has not been changed since 1935. The amendment identifies maintenance needs at the reservoirs and throughout the watershed. Preliminary estimates indicate a yearly assessment of about $12 per parcel for residential and agricultural property within the district. Commercial, industrial and other nonresidential parcels will be assessed based on size, property use code and estimated contribution to runoff to the watershed.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has pinpointed about $500 million in required safety improvements at the dams. As a federally mandated sponsor of the projects, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District will provide 3.45 percent of the total repair costs.
The district has been operating on revenue generated from recreational activities and programs within the reservoir system.
The costs stated in the amendment to the official plan were calculated based on a 20-year time period beginning in 2007 with a basic level of inflation factored in. The total cost for all projects involved is estimated at $269.2 million. The full text of the amendment can be found online at www.mwcd.org.
Proposed improvement and maintenance projects include the following:

Dam safety/flood control

* The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to make improvements to dams in the Muskingum Watershed. The total cost for these projects through 2013 is approximately $155 million. The amendment estimates the district’s share of the cost at $5.5 million.
* There are plans to implement an early flood warning system for the watershed by installing 10 steam gauges. ($3.6 million)
* The district will help identify culverts and bridges near the reservoirs in need of repair. ($4.3 million)
* The district will establish a program to identify debris and removal options. It would also create a response plan and handle debris removal. ($7.99 million)
* The district will serve as a partner in identifying relocation and elevation increases for roads in the watershed. It will provide planning assistance and a portion of the project funds, if necessary.
* It will provide financial help for flood mitigation projects. ($15 million)
* The district will assist with cleanup in flooded communities. ($3.2 million)

Sediment removal

* Approximately 50,000 cubic yards of material will be dredged from reservoirs annually. ($27.6 million)

Shoreline protection

* Erosion will be reduced by stabilizing sections of shoreline. ($9 million)

Water quality improvements

* The district will assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with hydrogen sulfide issues and provide local matching funds for the projects. ($5.3 million)
* It will assist local with wastewater treatment solutions. ($20 million)
* It will also participate in programs to provide solutions to acid mine drainage issues and employ an environmental education specialist to conduct environmental outreach programs.

Watershed management

* A planning department will allow the district to develop projects that improve quality of life in the watershed. ($3.8 million)
* The district will support farm conservation and forest management programs by providing matching funds and it will establish coordinators in the five regions of the Muskingum Watershed.
* The district will establish a basinwide geographic information system in order to develop accurate mapping of the watershed region. ($7.8 million)
* The district will help property owners protect water quality. ($4.3 million)

Reservoir operations

* The district will regularly inspect the reservoirs. ($4.7 million)
* The district will perform special maintenance projects. ($10 million)

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