Bonne Femme Watershed plan approved

Wednesday, December 5, 2007 | 8:07 p.m. CST; updated 11:02 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA ­— The Bonne Femme Watershed contains several worlds within a 93-square-mile swath of land in southern Boone County: farmland, woodlands, suburbs, parks and dark, dank caves.

The watershed is a system of creeks and streams that functions as a drain for the area. It also boasts some of the most ecologically diverse and sensitive habitats in the state — especially the karst areas characterized by sinkholes and limestone caves. Devil’s Icebox cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park ranks third in the state in terms of its biodiversity, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. The pink planarian flatworm calls this dark, wet world its home.


Here are a few of the goals and recommendations in the Bonne Femme Watershed plan.

GOAL: Encourage low-impact development as a way to maintain or improve water quality. Recommendations: - Revise local governments’ development regulations to promote environmentally sensitive design and maintenance. - In Columbia, the level of service (following Columbia’s storm-water manual and ordinance) will be more restrictive in more vulnerable areas. Local governments will adopt similar, compatible storm-water ordinances. -Create economic incentives to encourage developers to implement low-impact development. GOAL: Have policies that boost jobs, retail, tax base and local economics. - Locate retail to areas that will allow the most efficient use of infrastructure and the least hazard of stream pollution. - Consider reduction in fees and other expenses paid by developers of commercial property, instead of special transportation districts. - Exempt agricultural land from restrictions and stream buffers to maintain and enhance maximum economic opportunities for farmers and related agricultural activities, as well as to keep land in agricultural use. GOAL: Maintain clean water without unnecessarily restricting property rights. - Give detailed design information to developers and engineers to assist in controlling runoff quality and quantity from development. - Use voluntary zoning changes to direct density, and therefore higher runoff, to the most appropriate areas. - Revise local governments’ ordinances and design manuals to enable reductions in impervious surface by allowing flexibility in street width, sidewalks. GOAL: Conserve recharge and karst areas with special protections. - Storm-water manual and ordinance will be more restrictive in karst and recharge areas than in other areas. - Local governments will adopt similar, compatible storm-water ordinances and design manuals. - Transfer of development rights should be established countywide with sensitive areas being primary sending areas, enabling the city and county to have “joint program reciprocity.” - Conduct a more scientific study to determine further karst and other sensitive areas, and identify sources of contamination.

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But the watershed is home to another species: humans. Eighty-eight percent of the land in the watershed is privately owned. Farmers grow crops and keep livestock. Most of the watershed is rural, but urban development is stepping up on the fringes of Columbia and Ashland. The population in the watershed has grown faster than the rest of the county for the past six years.

With increased development comes increased worry about water quality because paved surfaces allow storm water to carry chemicals, trash and the general detritus of civilization directly into streams.

All this leads to an overwhelming question: Can we protect our creeks, streams and sensitive habitats without encroaching on property rights or halting urban development?

The Bonne Femme Watershed plan says it can be done, but the plan offers no specific strategies. Instead, it provides only general goals and recommendations. After more than four years of preparation, the Boone County Commission and the city councils of Ashland and Columbia have approved the document.

The 157-page plan offers ideas for protecting local creeks and streams as the watershed continues to urbanize. It was sponsored by a $727,000 grant, including $320,000 in cost-share funds, from the Environmental Protection Agency. It was drawn up by stakeholders who included developers, property owners and environmentalists.

As the Columbia City Council deliberated over the plan Nov. 19, Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala called it an “opportunity for intergovernmental cooperation.” Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said it was “a foundation for making good decisions.” Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade referred to it as a “foundational set of data,” a good example of “how to build quality information upon which to enact policy.”

The councilmembers’ words are fitting because the plan has been approved as a set of nonbinding recommendations. Although the plan has been adopted, it will not change the way the cities and county do business. Residents won’t see any effects soon.

As a next step, the county will conduct a half-day planning meeting with representatives of Columbia, Ashland and Pierpont to figure out which goals and recommendations to pursue first.

There’s about $300,000 left over from the grant’s cost-share program; this money is available for local governments to use if they choose to enact the recommendations, said Georganne Bowman of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Goals and Recommendations

The plan is driven by the stakeholders’ vision for the watershed in 2030. It’s a region where “quality of life and economic vitality are fostered by maintaining or improving the current conditions of the water resources, having a mix of land uses and development types, and maintaining thriving agricultural activities.”

That’s a tall order, indeed.

The plan breaks this vision into goals and recommendations. Major goals include preserving the sensitive karst area; encouraging low-impact development and “best management practices” for developers; maintaining clean water without disrupting property rights; and encouraging economic development.

A major theme involves storm-water ordinances, which regulate the quality of runoff during and after construction projects. The plan recommends that within the karst and other ecologically sensitive areas, developers should be required to improve the quality of runoff after development, not just maintain it, said Ben Londeree, co-chairman of the stakeholders’ committee. It also recommends that agriculture be exempt from stream buffer ordinances.

Columbia’s storm-water ordinance was enacted earlier this year. It features a “design manual” of practices developers can use to help manage the impact of their projects on runoff. Developers must achieve a certain “level of service” related to the quantity and quality of the runoff, but it’s up to them to decide how to achieve this standard.

Meanwhile, while the county continues working on its own storm-water ordinance, developers in unincorporated areas are governed by state rules.

The plan’s recommendations are general because stakeholders wanted to give local governments flexibility.

The plan stops short of recommending several specific policies endorsed by the consulting group, Applied Ecological Services. For example, the consultants suggested the county establish an environmental stewardship fund, financed by a countywide real estate transaction fee of 0.02 percent to 0.05 percent. Proceeds could help private owners participate in land preservation programs. The consultants also proposed that all developers be required to complete a Natural Resource Inventory before building.

Londeree said the need for compromise was a big reason the consultants’ ideas aren’t in the plan in their purest form.

“It’s tough to get agreement with a diverse group,” Londeree said. “It took a long time just to get to the point where people trusted each other. It was really touch-and-go the first year or so.”

“If we got any more detailed, it would have been more difficult for the parties sitting at the table — parties who in some cases were throwing barbs at each other, at first,” said Londeree. “Getting everyone to agree was an accomplishment.”

Tensions in the Plan

Two of the goals seem odd bedfellows: promoting economic development while protecting the health of the watershed. Even the text of the plan concedes some goals are complementary and others contradictory.

Bill Florea of the Boone County Planning and Building Department thinks it’s possible to grow economically and to protect the environment. He cites the example of cities such as Seattle, where there is a “high environmental ethic” and a strong economy.

“You’ll see places around the country where they are doing smart growth,” he said. “You see people start to demand that kind of growth; they demand that low-impact development, and developers will respond.

“Just getting the plan approved was a big step,” Florea said. “If we get to five or six of (the recommendations) in the next 10 years, I’d be happy with that. It’s not something you’re going to take a huge bite of at first.”

At the Nov. 19 Columbia City Council meeting, Dee Dokken, a volunteer water-quality monitor and Columbia resident, called the plan a “good first step.” She added a cautionary note, however.

“The idea to have economic development and protect water quality — that’s something that’s yet to be seen,” Dokken said. She cites research saying it’s impossible to protect a watershed unless impervious surfaces such as concrete are limited.

Another tension in the plan is the fact that some recommendations do not promote water quality, such as the recommendation that agriculture be exempt from stream-buffer ordinances.

Water-quality tests found that the watershed’s creeks and streams are “not acutely contaminated,” although fecal bacteria is widespread. Ten sites were monitored for more than three years. At seven sites, fecal bacteria levels exceeded the state standard 40 percent of the time.

Robert Lerch, a soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, tested water quality for the project. He said agriculture is a major contributor to fecal bacteria in water. The text of the plan states that the Fox Hollow monitoring site, which was downstream of a pasture where cattle enjoyed unrestricted access to the creek, had the highest levels of fecal bacteria.

Recommending that agriculture be exempt from stream-buffer ordinances was Lerch’s biggest disappointment with the plan, “because it’s letting the biggest polluters off the hook,” he said.

But Lerch also said he takes a “realistic” view, recognizing that because the stakeholders were citizens with many interests, compromise was inevitable.

“Where would we be if a bunch of technical experts wrote the plan, imposed it on the community, and people voted it down? At least this way, some things will probably get done.”

Bowman, of the DNR, said the DNR thinks the $727,000 grant was “absolutely” well spent.

“The group has been able to do things that haven’t been done in the state,” she said. “It was an all-citizen committee that directed the plan; it’s usually top down, usually government officials and experts doing it. It was a really unique situation.

“As an environmentalist, I’d like to see it much more strict, but that probably wouldn’t have received as much support,” Bowman said. “They had to make something everyone can get on board with.”

In terms of which goals government should tackle at its upcoming planning meeting, some recommend the preservation of sensitive areas should be a first step.

“The recommendations about preserving the cave and karst resources is a priority in our mind,” said Roxie Campbell, a naturalist at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

“There was surprisingly good agreement that sensitive areas need to be protected,” said Londeree.

In the end, Londeree sees the cooperation that took place as a victory in itself.

“The report provides guidance,” Londeree said. “I think the committee ended up with a pretty good report. If you’d asked me three years ago if we’d come up with a report people would accept with a wide range of interests, I’d be pretty skeptical.”

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