Out-dated Septic Systems Contaminate Area Streams


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 02-09-2014

Kelle’s Creek, looking upstream from St. Croix Trail

On the south end of Afton just before the road heads out of town, a small stream flows down from the wooded bluffs to meet the St. Croix River below. A little less than three miles long, Kelle’s Creek is groundwater fed and surrounded by mostly undeveloped land. The stream is home to an unusually large number of macroinvertebrate species (insects and other water critters), which is an indication of very good water quality and a healthy, intact biological web. A few years ago, however, the Valley Branch Watershed District and Washington Conservation District discovered a problem in this otherwise healthy stream – E. coli.      

E. coli is a type of bacteria that can sometimes make people sick and is an indicator organism for other harmful pathogens as well. E. coli in our waterways can come from dog and goose poop, manure, or even human wastewater. Across Minnesota, 533 streams and river reaches have unsafe levels of E. coli or fecal coliform (another variant). Along with Kelle’s Creek, eight other creeks in Washington County have E. coli impairments: Brown’s Creek (from Lansing Ave. to Manning Ave. in Grant); Trout Brook (which flows through Afton State Park); Perro Creek (Bayport); Gilbertson Creek (near the Log Cabin landing in Scandia); Swedish Flag (Copas); and three unnamed streams (one running from Boutwell Rd to the diversion structure in Stillwater, one flowing into Big Carnelian Lake in May Twp., and one connecting Bone Lake in Scandia to Birch Lake in Chisago County).

In Afton, the Valley Branch Watershed District has spent the past year conducting additional research to determine where the E. coli is coming from in Kelle’s Creek. In addition to testing water at the existing monitoring station in town near St. Croix Trail, they’ve also collected samples further upstream and at the headwaters of the stream where it begins to flow from groundwater springs. The results show that E. coli levels are high even at the headwaters and even during low-flow conditions, which are both indications that the bacteria is coming from groundwater, not surface runoff. As a result, the district has concluded that outdated and failing septic systems in the area are most likely to blame for the E. coli contamination in Kelle’s Creek.

Septic systems, officially known as subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS), use biological, physical and chemical processes to treat and clean household wastewater.  A typical SSTS consists of a septic tank followed by a soil-based treatment system such as a mound, trench or at-grade drainfield. If designed and installed properly, septic systems are very effective. In many places, however, extra precautions are needed to make sure that they work right. 

In areas with karst topography, present in much of southern Washington County, groundwater is particularly vulnerable to pollution. When there is less than 50 feet of sediment covering limestone bedrock, rainwater gradually cracks the limestone, creating passageways for pollutants on the land’s surface to travel down into both shallow and deep aquifers. As a result, E. coli from septic systems and nitrates from fertilizer can end up in spring-fed streams and shallow wells.

The City of Afton has a large improvement project underway to upgrade roads, flood protection and septic systems in town. As part of the project, the city plans to build a shared sanitary sewer system to replace individual systems within the downtown village. Most of the 160 septic systems in the Kelle’s Creek watershed are outside of the downtown area, however, so this project alone won’t solve the problem. 

This year, Washington County introduced a new program to help homeowners throughout the county replace failing and noncompliant septic systems to protect surface and groundwater resources. Low interest loans are available for anyone and there are grants for low income households as well. To qualify for this assistance, septic systems must be deemed noncompliant by the county or a private inspector. Learn more about these programs at www.co.washington.mn.us or 651-430-6655. 


Grimy, green and gross


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology | Posted on 18-08-2014

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Algae in the backwaters of the St. Croix River near Carpenter Nature Center

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a…hey! What’s all that green gunk hanging off my paddle, and what is that awful smell? Yikes! I think I just saw a Loch Ness monster!

If you’ve explored the lower stretch of Lake St. Croix or many of our inland lakes in late summer, you’ve probably shared a similar experience. Around this time of year, water temperatures are at a peak and algae and aquatic plants grow exponentially. To some extent, the greening of our lakes is a natural, seasonal change, much like the changing colors of tree leaves in the fall. In some lakes, however, high levels of phosphorus amplify this natural process, allowing the algae and plants to grow faster and larger than they would normally.

Duckweed may cover a lake’s surface but it is different than algae and provides important food for waterfowl.

To the casual observer, one grimy, green, gross lake may be indistinguishable from the next, but there are important differences to look for. For example, duckweed is a beneficial aquatic plant that floats on top of the water. From a distance, a duckweed covered pond or lake may look green and slimy, but if you look at the plants up close, you can actually distinguish little tiny leaves floating and little tiny roots dangling into the water. As the name implies, duckweed is a good food source for ducks and other waterfowl. Much of the green that is currently floating on our lakes are duckweed, though there is plenty of filamentous algae as well.

Filamentous green algae, which is commonly found in lakes, is your stereotypical swamp monster type of algae – gooey, blobby, and greenish brown. It’s a recreational nuisance but not toxic. Chara, a form of filamentous algae found in lakes with good water quality, has long, stringy strands and looks more like a plant without roots.

Blue-green algae can make the water look almost phosphorescent.

The biggest concern for human and aquatic health are blue-green algae, which usually look like pea soup or spilled green paint in the water. Blue-green algae exists in all of our lakes and rivers and are a critical part of the aquatic food web, but the algae can quickly multiply into large colonies during the summer, causing blooms that are sometimes toxic to people and animals. The majority of blue-green algae blooms are safe, but it is impossible to tell the difference between a safe bloom and a toxic bloom just from looking at the water.  People and animals may develop skin irritation or upper respiratory problems from exposure to harmful algae blooms, and in extreme cases, dogs and other animals have even died after drinking lake water containing these toxins. Algae blooms are also problematic if they grow large enough to cover an entire lake or pond because the algae consume oxygen during the night to fuel their growth when sunlight is not available. As a result, dissolved oxygen levels in the water plummet and fish die.

Two weeks ago, the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District discovered a small blue-green algae bloom in Carver Lake in Woodbury. Though the bloom doesn’t appear to pose a large threat to the lake, the city is still advising beach-goers to swim at their own risk until the algae has disappeared. Blue-green algae blooms have also cropped up in various locations along the St. Croix River in recent years, particularly along the southern stretch between Stillwater and Prescott.

In freshwater systems, phosphorus acts as a limiting nutrient for algae and plant growth, meaning the algae will keep growing until they run out of phosphorus. All lakes need some phosphorus, but some get way more than they need, due to runoff from surrounding neighborhoods, businesses and farms. Minnesota passed a “phosphorus-free” fertilizer act in 2005 (Wisconsin has one too) as one way to keep the nutrient out of lakes. It is now illegal to apply fertilizer containing phosphorus to a lawn unless you are seeding or establishing new sod. Fertilizer isn’t the only problem, however. Yard waste like lawn clippings, leaves and seeds also contain a lot of phosphorus and can easily be washed into storm drains that connect to our lakes and rivers when it rains. One easy way to help keep lakes from going green is to rake and sweep up dirt and yard waste from sidewalks, driveways and streets throughout the year.

Learn more about how to identify algae and other aquatic plants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Where the Mississippi River Wanders


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 14-08-2014


Native prairie plants in bloom at Schaar’s Bluff in Spring Lake Park

I arrived at Schaar’s Bluff a full two hours early to ensure that I would have adequate time to explore Spring Lake Park Reserve and the surrounding area before the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rulemaking meeting was scheduled to begin. Dozens of times I’ve crossed the Hastings bridge thinking, “One of these days, I’m going to check out that downtown,” but I’d yet to follow through on my intentions to explore the “other side” of the river.

A view from high on the bluff above Lock and Dam #2

I started on bike down a trail that delivered me straight into town, past antique stores, cafes, and thrift shops, and then followed a road into the Mississippi River backwaters until the pavement disappeared. Circling back through Hastings, I took a scenic detour down to Lock and Dam No. 2, where I was delighted to find another trail segment that looped me back up to Spring Lake Park. Trains rumbled along the tracks on the Cottage Grove side of the river and rock cliffs rose majestically along both sides of the water.

Back in the park, with half an hour to spare, I threw on my running shoes and took to the woods. A young deer leaped away as I loped down a dirt path that wound and curved around trees with knobby roots poking out of the earth. Around another bend I began to see enticing glimpses of the river valley down below. Then, at last, a small break in the trees appeared at the edge of a dramatic rock bluff. “If only I had brought rappelling gear,” I thought with a grin, as I snapped a selfie from the top of the ledge.

Sheer rock cliffs line the Mississippi in Spring Lake Park Reserve

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has spent nearly seven years attempting to update the rules that govern development along the Mississippi River in the seven county metro. Established in the mid 1970’s, the rules are intended to protect habitat along the river corridor, preserve bluffs and other special features, and reduce erosion and runoff pollution to the river. In 2007 and then 2009, the Minnesota Legislature directed the DNR to prepare a report on the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area and then develop new updated rules that would better protect vegetation, habitat and soil resources; reduce administration costs for state and local governments due to vague language and complex administrative procedures; and make it easier for communities and private landowners to re-develop and invest in areas suitable for development. After a long process, temporarily abandoned in 2011, the DNR has now resumed the rule update effort. The agency has spent the past year working with local units of government to develop draft rules and they are now seeking additional input from citizens who live on and love the Mississippi.

The public meeting at Schaar’s Bluff on Aug. 24 was one of three held along the river. At the meeting, people living on the Mississippi River in Dakota and Washington Counties came to learn more about the rules update process and share their opinions about proposed changes. I sat in the back of the room listening to people give heartfelt testimonies about living on, fishing on, and growing up exploring along the river and it was clear that everyone in the crowd cared deeply about protecting the Mississippi, whether or not they agreed on the rules.

Sunset over the Mississippi from Schaar’s Bluff

Though there are no more public meetings scheduled for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rule revision process, the DNR is still accepting comments from the public until 4:30pm on Friday, Aug. 15. The DNR is interested in hearing from people who recreate on and along the river, as well as those who own land within the corridor and is looking for specific feedback on the draft standards. What doesn’t work and why? What needs clarification? What specific changes do you recommend?

The meeting ended as the sun slid down the sky and into the river. Standing outside the Schaar’s Bluff gathering space, I drank in the view of the Mississippi River Valley below, awash in pink and gold.

To learn more about the draft rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area visit http://dnr.state.mn.us/input/rules/mrcca. Submit comments via email, mail or fax to Daniel Petrik at mrcca.rulemaking@state.mn.us; MRCCA Rulemaking Project, Minnesota DNR, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4032; or Fax: 651-296-1811

Monarchs in the Trees


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Wildlife, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 06-08-2014

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Within a shimmery, pale green gown, delicately trimmed with a miniature string of jewels, she (or is it he?) prepares for a grand entrance. Hidden from view, he (or is it she?) is silently exchanging a bumpy body, slimy skin and youthful stripes for golden wings of grandeur. Not a single movement alerts passersby to the incredible transformation that is happening within. Until one day…

Bonnie Juran places a newly emerged monarch on a milkweed leaf

“This one’s a male,” explains Bonnie Juran as she deftly reaches into the aquarium to catch a newly emerged monarch butterfly. She points out the dark spots and thin veins on its hindwings before making a quick notation in her journal. We head outside into her front yard, and Juran gently places the butterfly onto the pink flower of a milkweed plant. He pauses for a second, stretches his wings, and before I can focus my camera, flutters up and away, into a tree.

Juran, a Master Gardener, has surrounded her home in Lake Elmo with native plants for birds and butterflies, including cup plant,  black-eyed susans, and especially milkweed. Monarch populations have plummeted in the past few years due to a couple of harsh winters in Mexico where the insects overwinter, as well as habitat loss in the northern U.S. where they spend their summers. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants and the caterpillars rely on milkweed as their only food, but urban development and new farming practices are wiping out milkweed and other native plants in many areas. To help provide habitat for the butterflies, Juran has incorporated common milkweed, marsh milkweed and butterfly weed into her gardens. She’s also begun rearing monarch caterpillars in her home to ensure that they get the best shot possible at survival.

High in the tree, he folds his wings gracefully above his body, pausing to consider his next move. He’ll need to find a female, that much is clear, but nectar from a flower would be wonderful as well. Either way, he has only a few short weeks to make his mark on the world before turning over the fate of his species to a younger generation.  

An arbor leads the way to the “grandchildren’s garden” at Sandy and Denny Grabowski’s home.

Just down the road, Denny and Sandy Grabowski are striving to be harmonious with nature as well. After attending a gathering that Juran hosted several years ago, the couple got in touch with staff from the Washington Conservation District and Valley Branch Watershed District and worked with them to install raingardens around their home that capture and clean rainwater from their rooftop before it runs downhill into a pond in the backyard. Their yard also features a small native prairie, as well as newly installed ground-mounted solar panels.

And then, there was only here and now with the wind on his wings and the earth below. From over a hill and beyond the lake, a tree called, flowers beckoned, and he spread his golden wings and flew off into the great unknown.

Two monarch butterflies perch on a milkweed plant in the Juran’s yard.

On Thursday, Aug. 7, 6:30-8pm, the Jurans and the Grabowskis will open up their yards to neighbors and other members of the local community who are looking for ideas and inspiration for how to transform large lots into outdoor living spaces that are attractive, family-friendly, provide wildlife habitat, and help to protect nearby water resources. Sponsored by the City of Lake Elmo, with support from the East Metro Water Resource Education Program and Minnesota Master Gardeners, the event is a casual, open-house style affair, dubbed “An Evening in the Big Backyard.” People are encouraged to stop by anytime between 6:30 and 8pm to walk through the yards and visit with Conservation District staff and Master Gardeners about trees and shrubs, landscape design, planting for pollinators, and managing drainage issues. The Jurans’ home is located at 9784 57th St. N. and the Grabowskis are at 9652 55th St. N, both in Lake Elmo. Look for the flowers in their yards and the monarchs in the trees.

Introducing the new Clean Water Geocaching Trail


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 21-07-2014

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From Jenn Radtke

Have you ever pretended to be a pirate, placed a patch over your eye and held a map in your hands with a big X on it? The X, of course, marks the spot of buried treasure! Well, this summer you don’t have to pretend anymore! The East Metro Water Resource Education Program is sponsoring its first ever Clean Water Geocaching Trail. Geocaching is a real-world outdoor treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices. Simply enter in the GPS coordinates and then attempt to find a hidden geocache, or a container of some sort, that is hidden at that location. The patch is, of course, optional.

Our Clean Water Geocaching Trail takes you to some of the most beautiful parts of the East Metro Area of the Twin Cities where you will find one of the most precious treasures of all – clean water. From raingardens to cleaner lakes, stabilized ravines and fish barriers, you can grab your swim suit, fishing pole or hiking shoes along with a GPS device or smartphone for an outdoor adventure along the way.

How to Play:

Visit each of the 9 clean water sites around the East Metro Area of the Twin Cities and find the secret letter to reveal a message. The first 10 people to complete the trail can stop in at the Washington Conservation Center for a prize – a nature book of your choice! Plus there are other cool prizes to find along the way! Simply enter the coordinates into a personal GPS device or download the FREE OpenCaching App on your iPhone or Android smart phone.

This is what you’ll be looking for.

There are 5 large geocaches to find, and they are contained within a plain white Nalgene bottle with an “Official Geocache” sticker. When you find it there will be a description of the clean water project (with the secret letter), a log book to sign, and a small treasure that you may take. The remaining 4 locations are mirco-caches with log books; at these locations, you will have to find the secret letter from interpretive signage at the location.

Successful geocaching adventures take a little planning to keep things safe and fun. Make sure you have the things on this list while out and about:

  1. GPS Device or smartphone
  2. A parent or friend
  3. Hiking shoes
  4. Sunscreen & bug spray
  5. Flashlight w/ extra batteries
  6. Pen & notebook
  7. Camera
  8. Plenty of water
  9. Snacks
  10. Appropriate clothing

Geocaching is an activity done “at your own risk.” The East Metro Water Resource Education Program is not liable for accident or injury.

For questions, directions, and hints visit www.mnwcd.org/geocache or contact Jenn Radtke at the East Metro Water Resource Education Program: 651-330-8220 x.44 or jradtke@mnwcd.org. 

Find Inspiration at the FamilyMeans St. Croix Valley Garden Tour – July 12-13


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 07-07-2014

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Marilee Tangen can’t remember why she decided to reinvent her yard, but thinks that she was probably influenced by living in the Seattle area before moving to Minnesota. “I think I was aware of the Blue Thumb website and maybe read something about [grants for conservation projects] in the local paper,” she says. Somehow, though, the Lake Elmo homeowner got in touch with a natural resource specialist from the Washington Conservation District, who connected her with cost-share funding through the Brown’s Creek Watershed District as well as a landscape designer at St. Croix Valley Landscaping. Now the Tangen’s property stands out in the neighborhood. They’ve taken out more than half the lawn in the backyard and replaced it with native prairie landscaping leading down to the edge of a small lake, and added hillside gardens and a raingarden as well.

Ellen Johnson, also of Lake Elmo, tells a similar story. When she built a new prairie-style home a few years back, she and her sister envisioned a landscape with minimal lawn that would reflect the character of the house. She also wanted the home to be as environmentally friendly as possible, so she worked with the Washington Conservation District and the Valley Branch Watershed District to create a plan for their site that would ensure that all of the rainwater that falls on their rooftop, driveway and yard soaks into the ground instead of running off into the street. After attending a Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water workshop in 2009, Johnson received a cost-share grant from the Valley Branch Watershed District to establish a native planting in their backyard and also worked with All Weather Services, and later St. Croix Valley Landscaping, to build several raingardens that capture and infiltrate rainwater.

On July 12 and 13, both the Tangen’s and the Johnson’s will showcase the fruits of their labors during the 22nd Annual FamilyMeans St. Croix Valley Garden Tour. This year’s tour will include eight fabulous gardens in the Stillwater and Lake Elmo area, giving people a chance to ogle gardens of all different sizes and styles. Some of the gardens feature landscaping with Minnesota native plants, but there are also shade gardens, veggie gardens, and even a garden with a model train. Typically 800-900 people participate in the tour, and many make it an annual tradition, traveling from Redwing, Austin and other Minnesota cities to enjoy a weekend in the St. Croix Valley with beautiful scenery and inspiring gardens.

The St. Croix Valley Garden Tour is a fundraiser for FamilyMeans, a local non-profit that offers financial and bankruptcy services and education; family counseling and mental health services; collaborative divorce services; caregiver support services; youth enrichment programs; and an employee assistance program.  Tickets cost $15 in advance or $20 on the day of the tour and can be purchased on-line at www.familymeans.org or in person at the FamilyMeans office on 1875 Northwestern Ave. in Stillwater.

For more information about native plantings and raingardens, as well as cost-share grants for conservation projects, visit www.BlueThumb.org or www.mnwcd.org.

A plea for sane lawn watering


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Water Conservation, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 02-07-2014

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Remember back in grade school when the kid in front of you at the drinking fountain would slurp away for what seemed like an eternity until finally someone screamed, “Save some for the whales!?”

What about me??

Well, I’m betting that kid grew up, bought a house with a big lawn, and programmed his automatic sprinklers to go off every other day, regardless of whether it is raining or not. He’s probably sitting in his living room right now, watching the rain slide down the window panes as the sprinklers rhythmically pulse outside, and thinking, “Ain’t no one going to tell me to turn off the water now.” I mean, there has to be a logical explanation for people who water their lawns in the rain, right?

Isn’t the grass wet enough already?

Last month, the City of Woodbury reported that they pumped 9.3 million gallons of water to residents and businesses on Saturday, June 14, a day in which we received two inches of rain. That is more than twice as much water as Woodbury pumps on a typical winter day, indicating that irrigation, not indoor water use, was to blame.

The problem doesn’t just happen in Woodbury, however. Drive around any city in the area, and you can see sprinklers going in the rain or folks watering already water-logged lawns. I doubt people are doing this on purpose, but as in-ground automatic sprinklers become more common, the problem will continue to grow.

Since most people have their sprinklers set to go off early in the morning, going outside to manually turn them off on rainy days isn’t always a popular option. Rain sensors can be installed on sprinkler systems so that they automatically turn off whenever it is raining. There are a variety of models available for as little as $25-35. In fact, the City of Woodbury requires all new watering systems (except for single-family residential properties) to be equipped with rain sensors.

Soil moisture sensors are more expensive ($100-150) but the best technology for ensuring that lawns only get watered when they need it. Program the irrigation controller with your lawn’s moisture requirements and a sensor will allow the irrigation system to turn on when the soil is dry, but not when it is already wet.

No need to water the golf course today folks.

In addition to installing rain sensors or soil moisture sensors, residents and businesses can reduce the amount of water they use by following lawn watering guidelines established by the University of Minnesota Extension and other turf maintenance experts. In general, lawns in Minnesota need no more than one inch of water per week. In rainy times, such as these, this usually means you won’t need to irrigate at all. When there is no rain, dividing the watering up will help to ensure that the water can all soak into the ground instead of running off. Shoot for ½ inch of water, two times per week, during the spring and fall and ¼ inch, every other day, during the hottest summer months. A typical pop-up spray head takes 20 minutes to apply ½ inch of water, while a typical rotor-type sprayer will take 40 minutes. On compacted soils, aerate once per year around Labor Day (20-40 holes per square foot) to help break up compaction over time so that the grass’s roots can grow deeper and water is better able to soak into the soil.

Being smart about lawn watering helps to protect our groundwater drinking supplies for future years and means a cheaper water bill and healthier grass as well. So, save some water for the whales, hey?


Safe passage for turtles near Big Marine Lake


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Wildlife | Posted on 23-06-2014

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A snapping turtle crosses the road in Washington County.

The year after my husband and I bought our first home, the city built a new road between our neighborhood and a small lake just north of us. Within a couple of weeks, the road had become a popular short-cut for drivers looking to avoid busy Hwy 42. One day, early in the summer, I spotted an enormous snapping turtle slowly making her way across the new road toward a scrubby grass area opposite the lake. She was so big that I couldn’t pick her up even after I went home to grab thick gloves; it eventually took three of us, heaving and hauling to get her out of the road and up over the curb so that cars could pass. I think about that turtle often, when I see other turtles crossing roads, and how bewildering it must be for them to head off to lay their eggs in the spring in the same place where they have always laid them, only to find a giant swath of asphalt suddenly in their paths, or a house and lawn, where a gravelly field once stood.        

Scientists estimate that painted turtles can live as long as 40 years in the wild, while Blanding’s and snapping turtles can live more than 70. Female turtles often travel relatively far distances to find suitable habitat to lay their eggs (up to half a mile for snapping turtles and as far as one mile for Blanding’s) and after the young hatch out of their eggs, they complete the reverse journey from upland nesting sites back to the water. Most turtles will return to the same nesting locations year after year, but as the metro area continues to grow, there are more and more obstacles in their paths. Many are hit and killed by cars along the way and species numbers are declining as a result.

A newly installed turtle crossing south of Big Marine Park will help to protect threatened Blanding’s turtles.

This year, Washington Conservation District (WCD) and Washington County are working together on a project to improve habitat for turtles, as well as other reptiles and amphibians, in Big Marine Park Reserve. The part of the project getting the most attention is a special tunnel, just installed under Hwy 4, to provide turtles with a safe passage in the spring when they move from their wintering homes beneath the ice near Big Marine Lake to their nesting areas in the wetlands south of the highway. The tunnel is part of a $50,000 research project funded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the University of Minnesota, the Herpetological Society and Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District. 

County Parks and WCD staff expect many kinds of turtles to use the new road crossing at Hwy 4, but local biologists are especially interested in protecting Blanding’s turtles because of their threatened species status.  Blanding’s turtles rely on a mixture of intact wetlands, lakes, grasslands and sandy, rocky open areas for breeding and nesting.  Northern Washington County, including Big Marine Park Reserve, contains this special mix of habitat types and, therefore, is one of the few places in the state where Blanding’s turtles still roam. Other reptiles of conservation concern in the park include snapping turtles and the eastern fox snake.

If you are interested in helping to protect turtles, here are some suggestions:

  • If you live in a rural area, minimize road ditch mowing until late summer as turtle species often nest on roadsides and may be traveling through the road ditch.
  • If you live on a water body, leave fallen logs in place to create basking locations for turtles. Also, consider completing a shoreline restoration project to improve habitat. Visit www.BlueThumb.org/shorelines for more info.
  • If you see a turtle crossing the road, carefully help it across in the same direction it is traveling, but only if it is safe to do so. You can also download an app to your phone to help track locations where turtles are frequently crossing roads in the metro area. Data collected will be used to generate maps that can be used by conservation agencies and highway departments in the Twin Cities area to prioritize and develop safer crossing areas. Go to www.herpmapper.org/content/pdf/mn-turtle-and-roads-announcement.pdf for more info.

Stopping the Nitrogen Super-Highway


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 19-06-2014

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Boarding the Magnolia Blossom at Watergate Marina

Down the creaky metal walkway we bounced before climbing aboard the stylishly retro Magnolia Blossom docked at Watergate Marina on the Mississippi River. Each year, the Metro WaterShed Partners, a coalition of more than 60 public, private and non-profit entities in the Twin Cities, sponsors a “floating workshop” to help members connect with one another and learn more about issues impacting the water resources we work so hard to protect. During this year’s tour, WaterShed Partners chose to travel upstream on the Minnesota River to provide a backdrop for discussion about nitrogen in our water and agricultural policy in Minnesota.

Last year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released a study of nitrogen conditions, trends, sources and reduction strategies for streams and rivers in Minnesota, based on monitoring results from 50,000 water samples collected at more than 700 sites. During our boat tour, Dave Wall, lead author and coordinator of the nitrogen study, shared some of the key findings.

Nitrogen is an organic, naturally occurring nutrient that is also added heavily to croplands to help plants grow bigger and faster. The amount of nitrogen flowing downstream in the Mississippi River has doubled since 1976 and nitrogen levels are increasing in about half of the other rivers and streams in Minnesota as well.  The implications for our groundwater drinking supplies, aquatic stream life, and the Gulf of Mexico are alarming. Excess nitrogen in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River ends results in a hypoxic zone, better known as the “dead zone,” where fish, shellfish, shrimp, crabs and other marine animals aren’t able to live due to lack of oxygen. In 2013, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science found that the dead zone covered at least 5,800 square miles of sea floor, or about the size of the State of Connecticut. Meanwhile, here in Minnesota, Wall and other researchers are concerned that nitrogen may be affecting aquatic life in our streams and rivers as well. Nitrogen concentrations in the Minnesota River are 7 – 8 mg/L, and research has shown that nitrogen can become toxic to aquatic life at concentrations of 4 – 14 mg/L. In southern Minnesota, many drinking wells have also been contaminated with nitrates, making the water unsafe for infants and pregnant women to drink.

Dave Wall talks about nutrient sources and reduction strategies.

The majority of nitrogen in our rivers comes from groundwater beneath agricultural fields and tile drainage, which is installed in agricultural fields to help them dry out more quickly in the spring. The MPCA study found that 3 billion pounds per year of nitrogen enter the water supply from fertilizer and the soil itself, while an additional 1 billion come from manure and leguminous, nitrogen-fixing crops. Minnesota is responsible for 6% of the nitrogen reaching the Gulf of Mexico and our state, along with others in the Mississippi River Basin, has set a goal of reducing nitrogen by 45% in order to shrink the Gulf’s dead zone.

The top three strategies for reducing nitrogen in Minnesota all focus on changes in farming practices. Wall and other researchers have estimated that optimizing fertilizer management on farms across Minnesota could reduce nitrogen in our water by 13%. This includes testing soil to determine how much fertilizer is needed, as well as applying fertilizer at the right time so that plants are best able to absorb the nutrients. Installing practices to help remove nitrogen from tile drainage will cut nitrogen by 5%, and utilizing cover crops and other vegetation to help take up nitrogen during the winter will take away another 12%. Even if these practices are implemented statewide, however, we will still be only two-thirds of the way towards our goal of reducing nitrogen flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 45%. What then? Says Wall, “That’s when research and development comes into play. We need folks at the University of Minnesota and other institutions to continue researching new cover crops and new ways of farming.” Otherwise, the nitrogen super-highway will keep on flowing.

For more information, read the MPCA Nitrogen Study.

Beware the Grecian Foxglove


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 12-06-2014

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Over the course of several internships and summer jobs while studying zoology in college, I acquired a dubious claim-to-fame. I have been bitten, scratched, clawed or defecated on by more North American animals that anyone I know. I’ve been munched on by a prairie dog, a groundhog, a pig, a kestrel, both a fox and a fox snake, a baby bear and even a sea lion. I’ve been scratched by baby raccoons and baby lynx, angora rabbits and painted turtles. To this day, I still can’t look at an opossum without cringing and thinking about poop. Never-the-less, it is purely coincidental that I spend more time now working with native plants than wildlife (or maybe not).

Grecian foxglove growing in a field.

Until recently, there were few plants to fear in Minnesota other than poison ivy and stinging nettle. Now, however, non-native species like wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and Grecian foxglove (Digitalis lanata) have begun to invade our state, and the damage they can cause is much more serious than burning skin or an itchy rash. If you get the juice from a wild parsnip on your skin, it can react with sunlight and can cause large blisters and boils. Still more frightening, Grecian foxglove is toxic to humans, farm animals and wildlife, even after the living plant parts have dried up in the fall. People can die from eating even small amounts of the plant and you can also get digitalis poisoning from handling the plant with bare hands, resulting in nausea, vomiting, severe headache, dilated pupils, problems with eyesight, and convulsions.

Close up of flowers on Grecian foxglove.

Because of these dangers, Grecian foxglove is a prohibited noxious weed on Minnesota’s “eradicate list,” which means that property owners who find it in their yards or on their land are required by law to destroy the plant and its roots. Grecian foxglove has been found in Minnesota in Dakota, Wabasha and Washington Counties. In Washington County, there are known infestations in several locations along St. Croix Trail, especially in and around Afton State Park and near the intersection of Hwy 96 and Hwy 95 just north of Stillwater. The plant prefers sunny areas such as yards and grasslands; it forms a basal rosette the first year and sends up a flowering stalk, two to five feet tall, in subsequent years with pretty, pinkish-white tubular-shaped flowers.

In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, together with the University of Minnesota Extension and Conservation Corps Minnesota, received funding to begin a statewide project on public and private lands for outreach, survey and control of Grecian foxglove. Part of the project provides funding to assist private property owners who are dealing with extensive infestations of Grecian foxglove. If you suspect you may have Grecian foxglove on your land: 1) Note the exact location and, if possible, take digital photos of the leaves, vines, and fruit that can be emailed for identification; 2) Contact the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at arrest.the.pest@state.mn.us or 888-545-6684.

This summer, the Washington Conservation District will also be hosting two workshops to provide local residents with information about identifying and controlling Grecian foxglove. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, June 18, 7-8pm at Stillwater Township Hall. The second is on Thursday, June 19, 7-8pm at Afton City Hall. For more info & to RSVP contact Wendy Griffin at wendy.griffin@mnwcd.org or 651-275-1136 x.24.