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“What If?” Planning a Watershed’s Future

The most impermeable surface of all may be the human head. Chester Arnold, NEMO Project Coordinator, Connecticut Sea Grant

What if …we developed a watershed to the maximum extent allowed by its current zoning? What if …asphalt, concrete, and shingles overlaid even more soil and vegetation? Would you still want to drink the water? Would you even have water?

Can your county planners answer these questions? If not, they probably weren’t rubbing shoulders with the roughly 80 government officials, lake association members, community participants, the NEMO team, and their workshop sponsors, including Minnesota Sea Grant, in Superior, WI, earlier this year.

Duluth city street.

City and county planners are gaining new tools to assess the impacts of land development on water quality through the NEMO program. Impervious surfaces, such as this road, can increase runoff into lakes and rivers. Photo by Lee Prohofsky

NEMO, the acronym for Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials, is a national program that has been developing for almost a decade. Its collaborators from the University of Connecticut Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension System are devoted to educating city planners and decision makers about the way land use influences water quality. NEMO relies on a dynamic presentation of data through remote sensing and Geographic Information System technology to illuminate potential surface and ground water quality hazards as broader areas of a watershed become developed.

Interpreting maps of land cover has emerged as an effective way to examine complex land use issues, particularly those related to water resources. Impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roof tops, and roads, block the natural flow of water to the watertable and alter the nature of the water entering streams, rivers, and lakes. As the area covered by impervious surfaces expands within a watershed, the volume of water percolating into the ground decreases and the amount of runoff increases, carrying larger quantities of nonpoint source pollution in its turbid race to a lake or ocean. Pathogens, nutrients, toxic chemicals, and other nonpoint source pollutants with scattered origins defy obvious management strategies, plague water quality, and hurt human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of water quality impairment in the nation, accounting for the degradation of about 40 percent of surveyed waters.

“County and city planning rarely includes thoughts about the watershed, let alone a thorough analysis,” said Glenn Kreag, tourism and recreation extension educator with Minnesota Sea Grant, “but times are changing. I’m optimistic about the number of people who are seriously interested in NEMO.

“By examining the existing impervious surfaces compared to conditions that could be created by a total build-out under current zoning rules, potential problems can be prevented before expensive or damaging development occurs,” said Kreag. “With NEMO, decision-makers can easily assess how additional development will impact water resources. NEMO supports a process that virtually illustrates the consequences of development.”

NEMO project leaders don’t abhor development. They like redefining a current water quality term, “BMP” (Best Management Practice), as “Better and More Planning” as they promote their watershed approach to community development at about 150 workshops nationwide each year. NEMO’s message to municipal officials is that appropriate planning will allow communities to preserve water quality and community character while accommodating economic growth.

According to Kreag, at least three Minnesota regions encompassing several municipalities are serious about taking advantage of NEMO processes and information for urban and small town planning. In Wisconsin, the NEMO effort is being led by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. The remaining question is: “Will municipal officials be willing to adjust local zoning and subdivision ordinances, the blueprints for converting undeveloped land into residential, commercial, and industrial lots, into plans with watershed integrity?”

For more information about NEMO, log onto their Web site or contact Project NEMO at (860) 345-4511. For details on the NEMO activities in Minnesota, call Glenn Kreag at (218) 726-8714 or Julie McDonnell with the MN Pollution Control Agency at (218) 723-4843.

By Sharon Moen
January 2001

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