How’s the Water Minnesota? (Part 1 – Lakes)

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 18-12-2014

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Lakes in northern Minnesota are doing well, but most in the southern and western portions of the state are not meeting water quality standards.

For years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has been compiling water quality data for lakes, rivers and streams, wetlands and groundwater resources around the state. Now, in a newly developed web feature, the agency is sharing this information with the public in a format that is simple and easy to understand.

Minnesota may be the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but the quality of these lakes varies widely from one end of the state to the other. In general, lakes in northeastern Minnesota are looking pretty good. The ecoregion is dominated by forests, wetlands and lakes, with very little farming or development, and 92% of the lakes meet water quality standards for swimming and recreation. The water is clear, algae blooms are almost non-existent, and few places have been infested by invasive species.

Meanwhile, in southern and western Minnesota, only 18% of the lakes are clean enough to swim in. Land that was once prairie has been converted to farmland, wetlands have been drained, and most farms use drain tile to quickly drain water out of the fields and into nearby waterways. Unlike the lakes up north, those in southern and western Minnesota are naturally shallow as well, so they are less resilient to pollution from excess sediment and nutrients.

Here in the metro, lake quality varies considerably. Deeper lakes fare better than shallow ones, and the lakes in less developed portions of the metro are doing better than those in cities or adjacent to farms.  About half of the metro area lakes are meeting water quality standards, while the other half suffer from algae blooms due to excess phosphorus. Invasive species are cropping up in many metro lakes because they are so heavily used. In addition, chloride levels from road salt are increasing in local lakes and streams and could become a major problem in the future.

Lakes in Washington County mirror trends in the rest of the metro. The jewels of the county like Square Lake, Big Marine and Lake Elmo are deep lakes with minimal development surrounding. In contrast, many of our shallower lakes like McKusick in Stillwater and Colby in Woodbury are inundated by runoff pollution from nearby neighborhoods. Curlyleaf pondweed and Eurasian water milfoil have taken hold in many lakes in the county, even some with otherwise good water quality.

The good news is that overall lake quality trends have stabilized over the past two decades, which means that most of the lakes in Minnesota are at least holding steady instead of getting worse. However, the MPCA has come to the frightening conclusion that, “Even if all existing laws were followed to the letter, lakes would still be subject to unacceptable levels of nutrients and other contaminants.” Furthermore, they believe that voluntary projects alone will be inadequate to protect and restore Minnesota lakes.

Happily, we have local examples in Washington County of water improvement efforts that have succeeded. During the 1990’s, the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District worked hard to improve water quality in Tanner’s Lake in Oakdale.  They built stormwater treatment ponds, improved surrounding wetlands to better filter runoff pollutants, installed an alum treatment device to remove phosphorus from stormwater flowing into the lake, and restored native vegetation along some portions of the shoreline. As a result, there are less algae blooms today and the lake is now safe for swimming. Water quality in McKusick Lake has been improving as well due to multiple efforts of the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization, City of Stillwater, and local residents, which include wetland improvements, shoreline projects and neighborhood raingardens. As a result, the MPCA removed McKusick from the list of impaired waters.

Elsewhere in Washington County and the metro area, several other lakes have also benefited from local government efforts to improve water quality and manage invasive species, though some of these efforts are too new still to have resulted in measurable improvements.

 

Wearing high heels in the winter and other things you shouldn’t do

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 11-12-2014

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One night recently, I had an experience that most women will be familiar with – a fashion crisis. I was scheduled to be a panelist at a roundtable discussion the next day and struggling to find an outfit that would be professional, look good, and yet still allow me to wear flat boots that would keep me warm and upright while walking several blocks from my car to the building the next morning. After watching me try on about a dozen different outfits, my husband asked me what I had worn every other time I needed to look professional during the winter. After all, I’ve had this job eight years. Thinking a moment, I responded, “Well, every other time I’ve just worn something that looked good and then slipped around on the ice the whole way to and from the building.”

Rule of thumnb: If this much salt is left over after the ice melts, you’ve used too much.

Now that we are back in the icy grips of winter, it is hard to acknowledge the fact that we must allocate extra time in our already busy lives to get to work on time and to shovel the driveway and sidewalk every time it snows. At the same time, however, we have a growing problem in Twin Cities area lakes, streams and even wells that is almost entirely caused by the 365,000 tons of salt we are putting down on roads, parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks each year. Based on monitoring data, 40 lakes and streams in the Twin Cities metro area are set to be listed as “impaired” due to too much chloride, and an additional 40 lakes and 41 streams are listed as “high risk,” meaning their chloride levels are increasing and just under the threshold for impairment. In these lakes and streams, unhealthy levels of salt have built up over the years until reaching a point at which some species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are no longer able to survive. There are impacts below ground as well; the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) notes that 30% of private wells in the metro area have too high of levels of chloride.

In the east metro, Battle Creek, Judicial Ditch 2 (Sunrise River) in Forest Lake, and an unnamed stream in Oakdale/Woodbury are impaired, as are Battle Creek, Carver, Kohlman and Tanners Lakes. Wakefield Lake in Maplewood and Lake Gervais in Little Canada are on the high risk list.

Part of the problem with salt is that there is no known technology to take it out of lakes, streams and groundwater once it is in there, nor is there any good way to filter the salt out of runoff before it gets into our waterways. The only way to keep this problem from getting worse is to use less salt during the winter.

The Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project, led by the MPCA with involvement from the MN Department of Transportation (DOT), counties, cities, watershed management organizations and other stakeholders, is currently finalizing a plan for how to reduce salt use and protect water resources in the metro area without compromising public safety. Already, the DOT and many municipalities have started reducing salt use on their own by calibrating their equipment and using technology to determine which combinations of pretreatment, salt and other deicers will work best in different scenarios. At the same time, however, they are met with the challenge of protecting people like you and I.

We all know that we should drive slow when the roads are snowy and icy, but when we don’t, the plow drivers feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t get into accidents. Most of us realize we shouldn’t wear dress shoes in the winter, but when we don’t, the contractors clearing the mall and grocery store parking lots feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t slip and fall. When we get home at the end of a long day’s work, we know that we should really shovel the driveway before the snow turns to ice, but sometimes it just seems easier to sprinkle a bit of salt down and hope that does the trick. (As an aside, salt doesn’t work when the pavement temperature is less than 15°F anyway.)

This winter, I’m putting out a low-salt, clean water challenge to us all. Let’s build up our arm strength with our shovels, allow a little more time for safe travels, and tuck the fancy shoes (which will just get salt stains on them anyway) away in the closet for a while.

To learn more about the Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project and get tips for applying salt and other deicers at your home or business, go to www.pca.state.mn.us/roadsalt.

Creating an outlet to the Mississippi River in southern Washington County

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Partners and Updates | Posted on 01-12-2014

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In a county hemmed on both sides by the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, it may come as a surprise to some people that much of central Washington County is actually landlocked. In fact, most of our local Watershed Districts were originally formed not to deal with water quality issues, but to build infrastructure that carries water away from homes and businesses in landlocked areas during exceptionally wet years.

The Carnelian-Marine Watershed District, which later merged with the Marine Water Management Organization, formed in 1981 to address flooding concerns around Big Marine, Big Carnelian and Little Carnelian Lakes. The district constructed outlets and pipes to create an overflow pathway to the St. Croix River so that homes around these three lakes would no longer get flooded when lake levels rose. The Valley Branch Watershed District, established in 1968, spent its first 19 years completing a massive flood relief project that connects Silver Lake in North St. Paul, the Tri-Lakes, Lake Elmo and many smaller lakes in Lake Elmo and West Lakeland to the St. Croix River via a large pipe that travels alongside Hwy 94. Now, the South Washington Watershed District is midway through with a colossal project that will provide flood relief for southern Woodbury and northern Cottage Grove as those two communities continue to develop.

The Central Draw Storage Facility in June 2014. Often the area is completely dry.

Between Colby Lake in Woodbury and the Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, acres of farmland are quickly giving way to new roads, neighborhoods, buildings and businesses. But, there is not always enough room in every new neighborhood to absorb all of the runoff from rain and melting snow without flooding buildings and roads, especially during very wet months, like the spring and early summer of 2014. To address this problem, the South Washington Watershed District built a regional infiltration basin, called the Central Draw Storage Facility, which straddles the border between Woodbury and Cottage Grove. During spring snow melt and very heavy rains, the basin fills up with runoff as well as overflow water pumped from Baily Lake. It is capable of soaking up 1500 acre feet of water, which is enough to fill 740 Olympic sized swimming pools. Once Woodbury and Cottage Grove are fully developed, however, even this basin won’t have enough capacity to handle all of the runoff.

Matt Moore, SWWD District Administrator, shows the Washington County Water Consortium where new pipes are being laid for the overflow project.

Recently, South Washington Watershed District completed the first phase of a long-term project to eventually connect the Central Draw Storage Facility to the Mississippi River in southern Cottage Grove. Capitalizing on the opportunity to install stormwater pipes below ground during the realignment of Keats Ave., Military Road and 70th St. S, the district connected the existing infiltration basin to the Cottage Grove stormwater network and constructed a 6-foot diameter pipe leading to a new stormwater infiltration basin. Eventually, the watershed district plans to connect these new areas to Cottage Grove Ravine Lake, which overflows to East Ravine, a perennial stream that passes through 3M property to the Mississippi River.

Due to the massive scale of South Washington’s flood prevention project, they are completing their work incrementally, as development happens in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The District is also coordinating with city and county parks and green space plans. The long-term vision is to link together trails, parks and other planned green spaces in southern Washington County and to allow water to flow overland, as it would in a perennial stream, in as many places as possible. The District also plans to work with Washington County Parks, 3M, and local non-profits to improve habitat and reduce erosion within Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park and the East Ravine.

Finding peace by the water’s edge

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 25-11-2014

Macy and Charlie at Loon Lake

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Our cat Lucy, who I adopted as a kitten when I was in college 16 years ago, died the morning before Halloween. A good friend’s father lost his battle with lung cancer, and then last week, we said goodbye to our dog Macy, affectionately referred to as our “crabby old lady.” The winter cold and snow has set in about a month earlier than expected and it’s hard not to see it as a symbolic reflection of life loved and lost.

Just before the weather turned this fall, I took Macy and my son Charlie hiking at Pine Point Park. The two of them tromped along happily in the woods, though never in the same direction or at the same pace. I was worried we’d walk too far for Macy that day – by then her legs wobbled after only a few blocks – but the woods had restorative power it seemed. She strode on without faltering, her hazy eyes and deafened ears attuned to the flutter of a bird’s wings, the snap of a twig underfoot.

A ways down the trail, we found a small path leading to the edge of Loon Lake and the water called to us alluringly. Tripping over one another, Charlie and Macy raced to the edge of the lake, pulling me with them in their haste. Then, it was not enough to look at the water or be near the water; we had to touch the water. Macy tromped in first, lifting her paws high and tossing water off her nose like a puppy. Charlie would have followed in her footsteps if I’d let him, but instead reluctantly agreed to entertain himself by dangling leaves and sticks in the water to watch the ripples they made. Even I reached out to touch the water, despite the chill in the air. If I had let them, we might have spent the rest of the day in that spot, paying no heed to the setting sun or the tendrils of cold spreading round us.

Water gives life, both literally and figuratively. When we are born, as much as 73% of our body weight is water – 65% once we’re adults. Most people can survive several weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Though less tangible, water is also important for our mental health and spiritual wellbeing. Water is prominent in myths and folklore across many cultures and plays a central role in the world’s major religions as well. We are drawn to water, whether it’s a lowly pond or the endless sea. Like Charlie and Macy, we long to see, touch and immerse ourselves in the water.

Sometimes when troubled, we find peace by the water’s edge. The surface ripples, the current flows, and the waves continue to crash day after day in the lake, the river, the ocean that is older than any of us are or ever will be. Other times, water brings us joy. Many a happy memory is created fishing in the early morning, splashing around at a water park, lying on the beach, or paddling down a river. The lure of a lake calls the child in us all to roll up our pant legs and wade in the water, enjoying the precious gift of life while we’re here.

Exploring the new Brown’s Creek Trail

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Local Achievements, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 18-11-2014

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Let it be known that I did not go out on the new Brown’s Creek Trail before it was officially open even though I really, really wanted to. As soon as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a “soft opening” at the end of October, however, I was literally ready to roll. A short section of the trail within downtown Stillwater is still under construction, but the rest of the 5.9 mile route is paved and ready to explore from the old Stillwater Depot to where it intersects with the Gateway Trail in Grant. During the winter, the DNR plans to groom the trail from the Brown’s Creek Nature Preserve to the Gateway Trail for cross-country skiing.

A view of the old stone arch bridge from the new Brown’s Creek Trail

I made an inaugural bike ride along the trail just before the weather turned cold and towed my son along in a Burley trailer, which meant that I spent half of the ride calling out interpretive features at the top of my lungs as we pedaled by. From downtown, the trail heads north alongside Hwy 95 until just south of Hwy 96, at which point it crosses the road and runs parallel to Brown’s Creek. The segment between Hwy 95 and Stonebridge Trail is absolutely beautiful. The trail hugs the side of a steep, wooded gorge, with the namesake Brown’s Creek babbling down below. Just after passing under Stonebridge Trail, there is a small pull-off where one can get a view of the historic stone arch bridge that once carried travelers over the creek before the modern road was built. Immediately to the west of the bridge, trail users might also notice a gently sloped area between the trail and the creek that is currently covered in tannish-colored landscape fabric. This is one of two major stream improvement projects completed by the Brown’s Creek Watershed District in conjunction with the creation of the trail.

When the original rail line was built in 1870, it was quite a challenge to lay the track rising out of the St. Croix Valley along a steep and winding path. According to the Minnesota Transportation Museum, “It climbed 299 feet on its way out of the St. Croix River Valley. The first four miles had an average 1% grade, with short stretches exceeding 2%. Half the six miles were on curves, some as sharp as 7.5 degrees.” Over time, the reach of Brown’s Creek alongside the tracks dug deeper into the earth, becoming separated from its natural floodplain, and as a result, unstable. During stream inventories, the Watershed District concluded that this section was one of the most degraded segments of the creek. Converting the rail bed into a walking and biking trail created an opportunity to correct some of the historic damage by pulling the trail away from the edge of the creek to provide space for the water to overflow during the spring and early summer. This change will improve trout habitat and reduce erosion along the steam banks, as well as slow the water down so that it causes less damage to the historic stone arch bridge. Until interpretive signs are added next year, however, the only sign of this work is the erosion control fabric and newly planted vegetation between the trail and the creek.

Continuing westward, the trail stays close to Brown’s Creek as it passes through the Oak Glen Golf Course and Brown’s Creek Park and Nature Preserve. Between McKusick Rd. and Neal Ave., another major stream improvement project is visible alongside the trail behind Countryside Auto. Here, the Watershed District installed an underground water quality unit capable of trapping 80% of the sediment and 37% of the total phosphorus from rain runoff before it enters Brown’s Creek. The project was partially funded by a grant through the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment Fund. Once again, the only visible sign currently is a patch of erosion control fabric on the ground beside the trail.

After Brown’s Creek Park, the trail and creek diverge, with the trail continuing west, roughly parallel to McKusick Rd., and the stream’s course leading northwest to its headwaters up in Withrow. A few miles past Manning Ave., the new trail finally meets up with the Gateway Trail in the woods, just south of Hwy 96.

Arriving at the intersection of the Brown’s Creek and Gateway Trails a few weeks ago, I had the strange sensation of entering an alternate universe where people travel by bike and skis instead of car, surrounded by woods, like members of a nomadic forest tribe. Glancing back, I noticed that my son was fast asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of his trailer, not unlike the gentle rocking of the trains that once rolled through these same woods. The early November air was still mild and I decided to keep on riding, just a little bit further.

In Search of Hardwood Creek

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Outdoor Adventures, Partners and Updates | Posted on 10-11-2014

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We finally found Hardwood Creek off a dusty country road in Hugo.

My decision to seek out Hardwood Creek was made impulsively one evening on the drive home from work. How could it be, I wondered, that I had worked in Washington County for eight years, traipsed back country roads from Cottage Grove to Forest Lake, reviewed dozens upon dozens of technical studies and water monitoring reports for local lakes and streams, and yet never seen the infamous creek with my own two eyes?

Classified by Washington County as one of the top ten priority conservation areas in the county, the Rice Lake wetlands and hardwood swamps surrounding the upper portion of Hardwood Creek (east of Hwy 61) form the largest complex of native habitat remaining in the county. Unique plants and animals that have long since disappeared from our area due to farming and development still find home in the groundwater fed wetlands surrounding the creek. There are fernleaf false foxglove, kittentails, creeping juniper, and American ginseng; red-shouldered hawks, blanding’s turtles, eastern hognose snakes, American brook lampreys, milk snakes and Louisiana waterthrush. Despite the natural diversity near the upper portion, however, Hardwood Creek’s health deteriorates as it heads west toward Lake Peltier in Anoka County. Downstream, only a few hearty species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are able to survive due to sedimentation and low dissolved oxygen levels.

There are high quality woods in the Paul Hugo Farms WMA, blessedly buckthorn free.

I began my search from Hardwood Creek at Paul Hugo Farms Wildlife Management Area. The creek, also known as Judicial Ditch #2, originates south of Rice Lake, before flowing through the WMA and then north across farmland in Hugo and Forest Lake.  My two-year old chattered happily at my side as we ambled down the access road, which passed through restored prairie, glowing red in the late day sun, before entering a beautiful stand of woods.  I felt a bit uneasy as Charlie collected a rainbow assortment of shotgun shells along the way, but was nonetheless amazed by the patchwork quilt of native woodland flowers, ferns and shrubs we found. The road finally ended in a massive cattail swamp where Rice Lake used to be. Disagreement over which government entity is to blame for the lake’s low water levels is just one of many controversies surrounding Hardwood Creek.

After hiking back to the car, Charlie and I drove north along dusty country roads, chasing the winding path of Hardwood Creek. I finally found the stream where it passed through a culvert under the road, pulled over, and snapped a few photos in the setting sun.

Another view of Hardwood Creek from another dusty country road.

The upper two-thirds of Hardwood Creek have been maintained as a ditch since 1908. Along the lower creek (west of Hwy 61), there are many places where the stream banks are eroding and dirt has filled in gravel beds needed by fish for spawning.  In 2002, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added Hardwood Creek to the official list of impaired waters due to low dissolved oxygen levels throughout the length of the creek and limited fish diversity in the lower portion.

Two years ago, the Rice Creek Watershed District used federal grant funding to stabilize eroding stream banks, restore the original meandering path of Hardwood Creek along a 1800 foot path in Anoka County that was straightened when Interstate 35E was built, and connect 500 feet of the creek to a floodplain area. Additional voluntary efforts by local landowners, such as building fences to keep livestock out of the creek and establishing buffers of native plants or perennial crops, at least 50-100 feet wide, along the edge of the stream, would help to nurse Hardwood Creek back to good health as well.

Imagine how it could be

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 06-11-2014

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This little boat was our home for 7 days when my husband and I visited the Galapagos 10 years ago.

The stars were beautiful on my morning run today. Orion was particularly lovely. It reminded me of other beautiful skies I’ve seen over the years (my mind tends to wander with my feet). The stars up north are so much brighter than those down here in the cities, especially in the Boundary Waters where there are no lights for miles to compete. Without a doubt, however, the most amazing sky I’ve seen was in the Galapagos Islands on my honeymoon. From the deck of our tiny, ramshackle boat we would sit and gaze at an uninterrupted 360° panoramic view of the galaxy. It turns out that the night sky isn’t even black; it’s mottled purple, black and gray, and the Milky Way is a giant swath of stardust. You don’t realize that you’re missing out on something until you see how it could be.

During the heyday of the modern environmental movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, our country responded to environmental catastrophes with major legislation and reform. “Smog episodes” in New York City killed hundreds of people in 1953, 1962 and 1966. An oil well blowout spilled 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean along California’s coastline on January 28, 1969. June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire and flames reached five stories into the air. The bald eagle, our national symbol, almost went extinct. Over a span of twenty years, the U.S. Government passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Wilderness, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts, along with other revolutionary measures.

When it comes to air, water, and ecosystems, however, change happens slowly. To our advantage, this means that the earth’s environment is resilient enough to tolerate much of our poor behavior. By the same token, though, it can take years and years to nurse these systems back to good health once they become degraded. Furthermore, our shared vision of what a healthy ecosystem looks like tends to change over time as well. Children are born, people move to new places, and each new generation comes to see the way things are at that time as normal. Once upon a time, a night sky like the one I witnessed in the Galapagos was the norm. Now it is an exception.

A group of neighbors gathered at the Lily Lake Association (Stillwater) picnic this fall to talk about cleaner water.

When change happens slowly, there is a danger in becoming complacent. Thanks to the sweeping legislation of the modern environmental movement, rivers in the U.S. no longer catch on fire. Mats of raw sewage no longer float down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the same time, many of our local lakes and streams have gradually degraded over the years due to development and urbanization. As a case in point, Lily Lake in Stillwater was one of the clearest and deepest lakes in the metro area in the 1960’s – so clear that people even scuba dove in it. Since then, years of stormwater pollution from area streets have gradually degraded the water quality with regular doses of sediment and nutrients; today the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lists the lake as impaired for mercury in fish tissue and excess nutrients in the water. In recent years, the city, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization and local residents are working hard to reverse the damage by improving existing stormwater treatment ponds, retrofitting neighborhood roads with raingardens to catch stormwater, and stabilizing eroding shorelines as well. Water quality monitoring results from 2013 indicate that Lily Lake might be improving, but it will likely be years before we’re able to enjoy the benefits of our restoration efforts today.

How clean do we need our lakes and rivers to be before we’re satisfied we’ve accomplished our goals? Is it enough that they don’t catch on fire, or do we hold the bar a bit higher? Early in the morning, beneath a blanket of stars, it’s easy to dream big and imagine things as they could be.

The fallest fall ever

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 22-10-2014

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If there is anything Minnesotans can agree on, it is that fall is our favorite season. I’m not talking about the days when it’s gloomy and rainy or the stretch at the end of the fall when all of the leaves are gone but the snow hasn’t yet fallen and the world is ugly and gray. Those are merely non-fall exceptions to the way fall ought to be. What I’m talking about is the time right now when the leaves are changing colors, the mornings are crisp and the afternoons sunny, and Minnesotans descend upon apple orchards and pumpkin patches like a plague of hungry frugivores. Pull out your cable-knit sweaters and riding boots folks, because the fallest time of fall is now.

The view from the lookout tower at McDougall’s Apple Junction

We Hong’s are no exception to the fall mania sweeping our state. Two weeks ago we visited not one, but two St. Croix Valley apple orchards. We started at Whistling Well Orchard, just south of Afton in Denmark Twp.. Owner Charlie Johnson was chosen as Washington Conservation District’s Outstanding Conservationist last year and we wanted to meet him, as well as his dog Emmy. While there, we picked pumpkins, bought apples, ate kettle corn and cider soaked hot dogs, chased chickens (at least my son Charlie did), listened to a bluegrass duo, and watched Charlie get his face painted like a green-eyed, pink clawed monster (little Charlie, not farmer Charlie). Even after that, we still wanted more fall apple action, so we headed a few miles down the road to McDougall’s Apple Junction. There we rode on a wagon pulled by a tractor, climbed a fire tower to get a view of the St. Croix Valley down below, and ate apple donuts in quick succession while we watched Charlie play on wooden tractors and trains. As if that day wasn’t a big enough fall stereotype, we followed it up on Sunday at the Stillwater Harvest Fest where we cheered with the crowd as a crane dropped a stack of three giant pumpkins onto the ground below – splat!

Leaf peeping with Charlie

Yes, fall is pretty awesome, but just like in all the other seasons, there are fall chores that need to be done in between eating apples and smashing pumpkins. Raking leaves is one of these chores. Now, I’m by no means a perfectionist when it comes to raking my lawn. I’m more inclined to run over the lawn a few times with the mower and resort to raking only when I encounter piles too deep to pulverize. I don’t really care if the lawn is leaf-free when I’m done, as long as there is enough breathing room for the grass to survive the winter and come up next spring. When it comes to leaves in the road in front of our house, however, I try hard to remind myself that raking is a community service, not just something that keeps my own yard looking nice.

There are two main reasons to rake leaves out of the street while you’re out doing your fall chores this year. The first is that when it rains, the leaves turn into a goopy wet mess that tends to pile up on top of storm sewer grates. As a result, giant puddles build up in the street whenever it rains. Come spring, the problem gets even worse after sand and grit from the winter accumulate on top of the leaves as well. The second problem is that leaves release phosphorus as they break down, which is picked up by rain and melting snow that runs into the storm sewers. The storm sewers empty

All aboard the pumpkin train!

into nearby wetlands, lakes and rivers, adding a pulse of sediment and nutrients to the water in the fall and spring. In our waterways, the nutrients feed algae, which can turn the water green. Raking leaves out of the street in the fall is one way we can all do our part to keep lakes and rivers clean next summer.

In between my autumn chores, I’m going to keep on riding this year’s fall train as long as it will let me, and I mean literally. This past weekend we hopped aboard a scenic train ride out of Osceola dubbed the “Pumpkin Train.” We feasted on fall colors, tractor rides, a hay-bale maze, live music and kettle corn, among other things. It was a dream come true for a Minnesotan who loves fall.

The Most Beautiful Race

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 20-10-2014

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Resting post race.

In the days leading up to this year’s Twin Cities Marathon, I chewed my finger nails down to nubs, twisted my stomach up in knots, and grew progressively more and more nervous about the upcoming race. By Saturday, I was already preemptively depressed about how poorly I would run the next day. I reminded myself never to sign up for another marathon ever, ever, never again.

Given my state of mind, one might have assumed it was my first marathon, not my eighth, but a string of bad-luck over the past five years really knocked down my self-confidence. The gods of running have sent a plague of heat waves, chest colds, and injuries upon me, ruining one race after another.

Then, race day morning, the sunrise spread pink and beautiful through a tangle of construction towers at the future Vikings Stadium. The air was crisp, the bells of the Basilica were ringing, the crowds were cheering, and the runners were running, and running, and running.

They call it the “Most Beautiful Urban Marathon” in the United States. From downtown Minneapolis to the Capitol in St. Paul, the course visits all of the best parts of the cities – the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Creek, the West and East River Roads along the Mississippi River Gorge, and the mansions along Summit Ave. That the Grand Rounds Scenic byway exists today is a testament to urban planning that happened in the late 1800’s when city leaders envisioned a park system that would reconnect residents with nature. In 1911, a channel was built to connect Lake of the Isles with Lake Calhoun and folks in Minneapolis celebrated the creation of the Minneapolis Park System. During the next five years, a canoe craze swept the city and people flocked to Harriet and Calhoun to paddle and lounge.

As is the case with many urban water bodies, the Chain of Lakes gradually worsened over time as sediment and phosphorus poured into the lakes from streets in surrounding neighborhoods and commercial areas. Unlike in many other places, however, area residents and local units of government eventually worked together to accomplish one of the largest urban lake restoration projects in the United States. Starting in 1990, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, the Minneapolis Parks Board, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local community groups began installing clean water projects above Cedar Lake and down through the rest of the chain. They constructed sedimentation basins, wet detention ponds, and artificial wetlands to keep sediment and nutrients out of the lakes, restored shoreline areas to control erosion, improved street-sweeping practices around the lakes, and initiated a major education and awareness effort to convince local homeowners to reduce their use of fertilizers and pesticides. Today, all of the lakes have improved dramatically. Calhoun and Harriet receive “A” grades from the Metropolitan Council and only Lake of the Isles is still considered impaired for having too much phosphorus. Meanwhile, restoration and improvement efforts continue downstream along Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River as well.

It was somewhere around Mile 19 of the Twin Cities Marathon, crossing over the Franklin Ave. bridge from Minneapolis into St. Paul, that I started to believe this race might be different. Though my legs were starting to ache, the air was still cool, the leaves on the trees still green and gold, and I was still able to enjoy the beauty of the Mississippi River Gorge down below. Two miles later, when we finally turned away from the river and headed towards the Capitol, the crowds surged, the bands played, my legs burned, and still I ran on. Five miles later, one last crest of a hill and then the gold dome of the State Capitol building appeared, gleaming in the sun. Now, the bells of the Cathedral were ringing and I felt like singing because the end was in sight and I was finally, finally after so many tries, ending the race before the four-hour mark.

It was a beautiful day to run the most beautiful urban marathon in the USA.

Getting to know your neighborhood uncommon fish

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Wildlife | Posted on 18-09-2014

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When it comes to endangered species protection, most people picture a panda, not a tiny little fish in the St. Croix River that only comes out at night. In the conservation world, the term “charismatic megafauna” is used to describe popular animals like elephants, lions and whales that people yearn to protect from extinction.  There are eight species of fish in Washington County that are considered threatened or special concern species by the State of Minnesota, and only two – the lake Sturgeon and paddlefish – could, perhaps, be considered charismatic megafauna. Meanwhile, the other six – blue sucker, crystal darter, gilt darter, least darter, pugnose shiner, and southern brook lamprey – are likely doomed to anonymity.

A quick comparison of these eight uncommon fish species shows that they have many similarities in terms of habitat needs and survival threats. The least darter and pugnose shiner, both tiny minnow-sized fish, prefer crystal-clear streams and lakes with an abundance of native aquatic plants such as eelgrass, Canadian elodea, pondweed and muskgrass. The pugnose shiner has disappeared from lakes in Minnesota and other states where people have removed native aquatic plants and scientists suspect that invasive Eurasian milfoil could threaten other populations as well.

The other six rare fish species in our area live in clear-water rivers and streams with sand, gravel, or rubble bottoms. Blue suckers, crystal darters, sturgeon, and paddlefish can be found in both the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, whereas crystal darters and southern brook lamprey have only been found in the St. Croix and a few of its tributaries.

Our local rare fish are a strange and varied bunch. The crystal darter is primarily nocturnal and buries itself in sand and gravel with only its eyes protruding while it waits to catch passing midge larvae, mayflies, caddisflies, water scavenger beetles, and nematodes. Minnesota DNR biologists have observed and photographed this species a number of times at night using scuba gear in the St. Croix River downstream of Taylors Falls. The paddlefish has a long paddle-shaped snout, a shark-like tail, and virtually no scales on its body. They live for at least 20 years. In contrast, the southern brook lamprey, which is no more than six inches long when full-grown, spends most of its life in a larval state, known as an ammocoete. When they are three to four years old, they gradually transform into adults, spawn, and then die. During their short-lived adult life, they never eat.

Siltation, sedimentation and turbidity are major threats to threatened and special concern fish species in our area, especially the ones that need clear sand and gravel to lay eggs, find food and hide from predators. Erosion along stream and river banks can bury sandy and gravely areas in shallow water and send dirt and silt further downstream as well. Sediment also washes into streams and rivers from farm fields, construction sites and stormwater pipes. Silt is especially problematic because it is so fine that it can clog the gills and breathing parts of fish, as well as the invertebrates and zooplankton they eat.

Other human changes to local rivers and streams have made it difficult for fish to survive as well. In order for blue suckers, sturgeon or paddlefish to return to historic habitats in the Mississippi and St. Croix River basins, for example, we would have to remove dams or install fish passage features like ladders or lifts. Since the Sandstone Dam was removed from the Kettle River in 1995, lake sturgeon have returned to portions of its upper river. Similarly, streams that have been straightened, realigned or ditched for agriculture and development no longer provide the right habitat for common and uncommon fish. Conservation projects on some of our local streams have helped to recreate rocky riffles and deeper, faster moving water, as well as more natural, meandering pathways some fish species need.

Though they may lack the charisma of a dolphin or a rhino, rare fish species also play an important role in the web of life and their disappearance is emblematic of habitat changes that threaten other plants and animals as well.

To learn more about rare species in Minnesota, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg/index.html.