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.

Explore Ravine Lake and the wetlands of Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park – Sept. 18

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 11-09-2014

Cottage Grove Ravine Park

In the midst of smart phones and video games, over-scheduled kids, and nature-deficit disorder, I am pleased to report that there still exists a place in the world where kids ride their bikes down to the local pond to go fishing. Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park is nestled in a deeply wooded ravine on the southernmost end of Washington County. Though a new trail system connects Ravine Park to Cottage Grove City Hall and the county’s South Service Center, the 515 acre park remains more of a hidden gem than a popular recreation destination. Nonetheless, its many charms include easy fishing access from both a dock and the entrance road, good opportunities to watch ducks and migratory birds, and challenging cross-country skiing in the winter.

The South Washington Watershed District (SWWD) prepared a lake management plan for Ravine Lake in 2003 and, though the lake is still listed as impaired for too much phosphorus,  its health has been steadily improving. Parking lot raingardens at the South Service Center and extensive stormwater management features at the new Cottage Grove City Hall both help to keep pollution out of the lake and prevent erosion within the ravine. Along with improving water quality, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began stocking Ravine Lake in 2002 and the lake now has good numbers of walleye, bluegill, crappie, and largemouth bass. More recently, in 2012, Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) began working to improve habitat within the park by removing invasive species such as buckthorn, black locust, garlic mustard, honeysuckle, Kentucky bluegrass, reed canary grass and smooth brome that have crowded out the native oak savanna and prairie species once plentiful in the hills and woods.

On Thursday, September 18, 6-7:30pm, SWWD and FMR will team-up to host a family-friendly event for people interested in exploring and learning more about the lake and wetlands at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park. I will be co-teaching along with FMR ecologist Karen Schik. Learn about the plant life in and around the wetlands — aquatic, amphibious, and terrestrial — and the important role these plants play in providing habitat and filtering pollutants from our waters. We’ll also use dip nets to get a closer look at macroinvertebrates living in the marsh, and discuss what these tiny creatures reveal about water quality. It will be an easy hike, mostly along a paved trail and fishing dock, though participants should wear outdoor and pond muck friendly shoes and clothes.

This is a free event, but registration is limited. Please contact Amy Kilgore at 651-222-2193 x31 or akilgore@fmr.org to reserve a spot. Go to the FMR website to learn more and see photos from last year’s hike and pond dipping.

A refresher course on how pipes work

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 05-09-2014

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Where will the ball go?

We have a very simple display at our office that I sometimes bring along with me to community events. It has a short length of plastic pipe screwed onto a backboard with a cartoon sketch of a street near a river and the words, “Your street connects to lakes and rivers.” Now, there’s nothing overly complicated about the pipe system on the display, and no hidden surprises either. It’s sized just right so that you can drop a bouncy ball in one end and watch it roll out the other. Yet, this display has the strange ability to capture and hypnotize children of all ages. Over and over, they will drop the ball in and then watch it roll out the other end. Over and over and over, and nothing different ever happens.

Pipes are pretty simple technology but, even so, there is a bizarre human tendency to stuff all sorts of things into them in the hopes that the pipes will make these things magically disappear. Take storm sewer pipes as an example. Way back when, if you wanted to build a street, you just lay a bunch of cobblestones in a row and… presto, a street!  The only problem was that every time it rained, the low spots in the streets would fill up with water and people’s houses often got flooded too. So, to solve this problem, cities started installing storm drains and storm pipes in their streets. Now there are drains in the streets in low spots and pipes underneath carry the water away, just like in a bathtub. The only problem, of course, is that the pipes have to come out somewhere.

In most communities built before the late 1970’s, storm pipes carry water from streets directly to nearby wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, most storm pipes connect to the Mississippi River. In Stillwater, some storm pipes travel to the St. Croix River, while others go to Lily, McKusick or Long Lakes. In neighborhoods built after the 1970’s, storm pipes usually connect to stormwater ponds first before emptying into nearby waterways. The ponds allow some of the dirt and debris to settle out and also slow the rate at which water flows out so that there is less flooding downstream.  In general, however, the concept is the same as in my rinky-dink educational display. Things that go in one end of a storm pipe eventually come out the other.

While staffing the “Storm Drain Goalie” booth at the Minnesota State Fair last week, a man bee-lined over to me to ask an important question, “Is it okay to dump antifreeze into my storm drain?” I gave him the simple answer, “No.” Were I a teacher responding to a question from a fourth grader, however, I probably would have coaxed him into answering the question like this:

Student: “Is it okay to dump antifreeze in the storm sewer?”

Me: “Where does the storm sewer pipe go?”

Student: “I dunno…the St. Croix River?”

Me: “Yep. Would you pour antifreeze in the St. Croix River?”

Student: “No. That would be icky and gross and might kill a fish or a bird.”

Me: “So, the answer is no. Don’t put stuff in the storm drain that you don’t want in the river.”

Along with antifreeze, there are a lot of other things that shouldn’t go into our storm drains – used engine oil, paint, cement wash water, soapy water from carpet cleaners, pool water, zebras. Some of these things, such as soapy water or wash water from paint brushes and rollers, can be safely poured into a drain connecting to the sanitary sewer (ie. a kitchen sink or utility sink.) Other items require more care. For example, it is illegal to put antifreeze, lead acid and sealed lead acid batteries, oil, oil filters, tires, and transmission and power steering fluids in the trash, onto the ground, or into drains or storm sewers. These items are considered household hazardous waste and should be dropped off at the Washington County Environmental Center in Woodbury (4039 Cottage Grove Dr.). Cement wash water should be dumped into a concrete washout facility; once the water evaporates, the remaining solids can be removed and recycled. Swimming pool water can be emptied into a storm drain, but only after the water has been de-chlorinated. Zebras should be returned to the zoo; they tend to get stuck in the storm pipes and don’t belong in the St. Croix either. 

Out-dated Septic Systems Contaminate Area Streams

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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

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

Tags: , ,

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.