Get involved and make a difference for Earth Day and Arbor Day

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Partners and Updates | Posted on 22-04-2015

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Toward the end of March, I heard my first redwing blackbirds of the spring calling from the cattails. By early April, frogs were trilling in the wetlands. The strawberry leaves have begun to green-up in the garden and tulip and daffodils are emerging throughout my neighborhood. Though winter struggles mightily to hang on, spring steadfastly marches on, bit by bit, day by day. This week, community events planned in honor of Arbor Day and Earth Day will give people the opportunity to get outside, celebrate the spring, and make the world a little bit better.

Arbor Day is an annual celebration of trees first observed in Nebraska in 1872. Today, Arbor Day is celebrated across the United States on the last Friday in April. “The simple act of planting a tree represents a belief that the tree will grow and, some day, provide wood products, wildlife habitat, erosion control, shelter from the wind and sun, beauty, and inspiration for ourselves and our children,” says the National Arbor Day Foundation.

The first Earth Day, held in 1970, brought 20 million Americans out into streets, parks, and auditoriums across the country to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, is credited for initiating the event after witnessing the impacts of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. Nelson reached across political divides to convince national and state leaders that protecting the environment was in the nation’s best interest. Today, the Earth Day Network coordinates Earth Day events around the world, and thousands of community groups organize their own activities as well.

Locally, Great River Greening and the South Washington Watershed District will bring together more than 200 volunteers on Friday, April 24, to plant 3,000 oak trees in the South Washington Conservation Corridor between Woodbury and Cottage Grove, in part as a celebration of Arbor Day. The South Washington Conservation Corridor connects open space between Colby Lake in Woodbury, Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, and the Mississippi River. Within the corridor, the Watershed District has built a regional stormwater infiltration basin to help recharge groundwater and prevent flooding in Woodbury and Cottage Grove, and has also worked with both cities to manage stormwater runoff from new development. The 80-acre parcel in which the planting event will take place will provide critical native habitat for south-central Washington County and will be the site of future recreational trails.

The next day, on Saturday, April 25, Mahtomedi will be holding its 9th annual RITE of Spring Earth Day event, 9am-noon at the Mahtomedi District Education Center (1520 Mahtomedi Avenue). Mahtomedi’s RITE of Spring is a free family-friendly event sponsored by Mahtomedi Community Education, Mahtomedi Garden Club, City of Mahtomedi, MAGI (Mahtomedi Area Green Initiative), community volunteers and local churches. Events and activities will include a Bike Safety Check and Rodeo for the kids, a room full of hands-on water activities, composting workshops, electronics recycling, and a drop-off for unused medications. As a bonus, people who attend can register to win a free water efficient toilet. For questions, call 651-426-3344.

In addition to these and other local community events, the Washington Conservation District and Recycling Association of Minnesota will be distributing pre-ordered trees, rain barrels and compost bins at the Washington County Fairgrounds on Friday April 24, 8am-8pm and Saturday, April 25, 8am-noon. Extra stock will be sold on a first come, first served basis at the event.

Your Lawn Care Personality, Decoded

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 13-04-2015

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Healthy lawns are safe for wildlife and pets.

Healthy lawns are safe for wildlife and pets.

Which of the following best describes your relationship with your yard? A) Most days, I’m just hoping to get out the door wearing a clean pair of pants and matching socks on both feet. I would like to spend the least amount of effort possible on my yard to avert public scorn and avoid poisoning children and small mammals. B) I don’t want to spend a ton of money, but I really do want my lawn to look nice. Though I’d like to be as environmentally conscious as possible, I’m not about to crawl around on my hands and knees picking crab grass and dandelions all day. C) I envision my yard as an oasis where my family and I can frolic and relax while joyfully providing nectar and habitat for passing birds and butterflies.

Early in the 20th century, the Garden Club of America encouraged uniformity in the suburban landscape, calling for tidy lawns “with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” Today’s modern society values diversity, however, so it’s more realistic to expect that our yards will reflect, rather than conceal, our different personalities, preferences and lifestyles.  Furthermore, we live busy lives nowadays. Though we may like the idea of lush green grass in theory, the reality is that most of us aren’t willing to spend the time or money necessary to actually achieve a “perfect” lawn. In addition, we’re more aware of the potential impacts our yards can have on our health and the wellbeing of the environment. We want lawns that are safe for our kids and pets, and we also want healthy landscapes that support pollinators, birds and wildlife. We’re worried about the St. Croix River and local lakes, and also want to ensure that groundwater resources remain plentiful for future generations.

It occurred to me recently that you can categorize most healthy lawn care practices in one of three ways: 1) Simple changes that are free and don’t take extra time; 2) Low-cost, low-effort actions that can give you a better looking lawn and might save money in the long run; and 3) Bonus projects that will take a little more work, but will help to turn your yard into an oasis. Coincidentally, these categories line up well with the three lawn care personalities I described previously.

A "perfect" lawn? Or perfect for your family?

A “perfect” lawn? Or perfect for your family?

If, for example, you work full time, have two school-aged children and run 5K races on the weekends, you probably don’t have time to do more for your yard than occasionally mow the lawn. Even so, you can have healthier grass that needs less water and is more resistant to weeds, simply by setting your mower blade higher to three or four inches (3-4in tall), instead of one or two. Mow less frequently or skip it altogether during long, dry spells in the summer, and leave the grass clippings on the lawn to act as natural fertilizer. If you have an automated sprinkler system, turn it off so that you aren’t wasting water when it isn’t needed and turn the sprinklers on manually only if the lawn really needs it.

If you have a little more time on your hands and really want a vibrant lawn, look for low-cost options that will improve the health of your grass without impacting the environment. Get your soil tested before applying fertilizer to ensure that you’re applying the correct type and amount for your yard’s conditions ($17 for a test by the University of MN, http://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu). Install a rain sensor or soil moisture sensor on your irrigation system and program it to give your lawn no more than one inch (1in.) of water per week, including rain. Aerate your lawn once per year to help break up compacted soil. Avoid “weed and feed” mixes or broadcast applications of herbicide across the entire lawn; instead, spot treat weeds as needed. If you’re hiring someone else to do the work, download “What to ask for from your lawn care provider” (www.mnwcd.org/lawn-care) as a guide.

Last, but not least, if you are a nature-lover or gardener at heart, you probably already have hopes that your yard will one day be more than just a lawn. Challenge yourself to begin gradually removing the parts of your lawn that you don’t use and replace them with trees, shrubs, gardens and native plantings. Instead of attempting to transform your yard in one summer, try to do one new project per year and start with the areas that currently give you the most heartache. For example, plant a shady groundcover under a tree instead of killing yourself trying to grow grass in the shade. Over time, these plantings will bring multiple benefits to your yard, including adding beauty, improving habitat for pollinators and wildlife, reducing water runoff, and creating visual screening. To learn more about landscaping with native plants, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/gardens/nativeplants or www.BlueThumb.org or contact the Washington Conservation District (651-330-8220) to schedule a free site visit and learn about grants for clean-water planting projects.

To learn more about healthy, beautiful lawns for busy people, come to one of two upcoming Healthy Lawn Workshops, Tue. April 21, 6-8pm at Central Park in Woodbury or Tuesday, April 28, 6-7pm at Hugo City Hall. Details at: www.mnwcd.org/events.

St. Croix River: Changing Climate, Changing Times

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Partners and Updates | Posted on 01-04-2015

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St. Croix River at St. Croix State Park

St. Croix River at St. Croix State Park, MN

How would you describe the St. Croix Basin if you were speaking to a visitor from another part of the country? Would you talk about the charming and vibrant small towns along the lower stretch of the river, where restaurants are plentiful and arts and culture abound? Or would you talk about the cabin culture in the northwoods around Hayward, WI, where the summer days are endless and everyone has a boat? Perhaps you would speak of the fertile farm land in Western Wisconsin or the dense woods in Minnesota’s St. Croix and Nemadji State Forests?

Within the 7760 square miles of Minnesota and Wisconsin that comprise the St. Croix Basin, you can find a National Park, National Forest, and National Refuge, portions of two National Scenic Trails, three National Historic Landmarks, 12 State Parks, eight State Trails, six State Historic Sites, 10 State Forests, 65 State Natural Areas, more than 150 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the St. Croix Scenic Byway, and resources associated with four Ojibwe bands that have tribal lands within the watershed. Though the landscape and communities within the basin are diverse, the St. Croix River brings them all together.

St. Croix River at the Log House Landing, Scandia

St. Croix River at the Log House Landing, Scandia, MN

The 2015 St. Croix Summit, scheduled for Wednesday, April 29 at the Water Street Inn in Stillwater, will be an opportunity for citizens, scientists, policy makers and local implementers from throughout the basin to engage in a full day of learning and collaboration. This year’s Summit will be a re-invention of the St. Croix Basin Conference that has been held annually for 15 years, thanks to an enhanced partnership between the St. Croix Basin Team, an intergovernmental partnership, and the St. Croix River Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting, restoring and celebrating the St. Croix River. Though the conference will still retain an emphasis on protecting the river and improving water quality, this year’s speakers will also discuss some of the many other factors that impact humans and ecosystems in the St. Croix River Basin. In addition, the St. Croix River Association will hold its Annual Gathering in the evening, allowing people who wish to attend both events.

Titled Changing Climate, Changing Times; Reaching New Audiences, the St. Croix Summit will feature a keynote presentation by Mark Seeley, climatologist with the University of Minnesota, along with several shorter presentations about the ways that climate change may impact water resources, forests, and city stormwater and flood planning in the St. Croix Basin.

St. Croix River in Stillwater

St. Croix River in Stillwater, MN

Presenters will also offer suggestions for how public entities and nonprofit organizations working to protect and improve the river can better engage the public. Afternoon keynote Ryan T. O’Connor, Ramsey County Policy and Planning, will talk about the changing demographics in the upper Midwest and strategies for ensuring that our outdoor parks and spaces are as vital to our communities tomorrow as they are today. There will also be examples from around the Basin of the unique ways that people connect with the river, including kayaking with the Lac Courte Oreilles Boys and Girls Club, an initiative of the National Park Service; New Light Under the Surface: Underwater Photography and The Healing Power of a River; and the St. Croix River Valley Art Bench Trail, an ongoing community art project that engages local groups in designing, locating and creating art installations in public spaces.

In the evening, Wisconsin author Bill Berry will talk about his book “Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way”, an inspiring story about average citizens who joined with scientists to wage one of the first and most important battles to the modern environmental era.

St. Croix River, just north of the confluence with the Mississippi River in Prescott, WI

St. Croix River, just north of the confluence with the Mississippi River in Prescott, WI

A sign that this year’s St. Croix Summit is evolving from a professional research conference into an event with broader appeal are the arts elements that will be woven in throughout the day. In the morning and early afternoon, local artist Susan Armington will introduce the importance of art in connecting across differences and the role of words in bringing a community together to envision a future for the St. Croix. At the end of the afternoon, a team of local improv actors will wrap up the day with a hilarious and thought-provoking original improv sketch. The goal is to create an event that will appeal to all attendees, whether citizen, scientist, policy maker or implementer.

To learn more or register for the 2015 St. Croix Summit, go to: www.stcroixriverassociation.org/event/st-croix-summit/. Daytime presentations will take place at the Water Street Inn in Stillwater. The St. Croix River Association Annual Gathering and evening presentation will be held at the Loft @ J Studio, also in Stillwater.

Local farmers adapt to improve soil health and the St. Croix River

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 24-03-2015

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Scandia farmers' breakfast

Scandia farmers’ breakfast

On a chilly morning in March, 30 local farmers gathered at the Scandia Community Center to meet staff from the Washington Conservation District and learn about new funding available for conservation projects on farms in the St. Croix Valley. During a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and cinnamon rolls, District Manager Jay Riggs explained how elevated phosphorus levels in the St. Croix River are creating unhealthy conditions and what farmers can do to address this problem.

The Conservation District was established in 1942 in the wake of the dustbowl. Over the years, it has encouraged a variety of conservation farming practices, including using cover crops to hold the soil in place during the winter, building sediment basins that temporarily hold back runoff water and allow sediment to settle out, planting buffers of native or perennial plants along lakes and streams, creating grassed waterways in high-flow areas of farm fields, and planting trees to improve wildlife habitat and reduce wind erosion.

Five years ago, the Washington Conservation District received a grant from the St. Croix River Association to identify the “Top 50” locations in southern Washington County where conservation projects could most help to keep phosphorus and sediment out of the St. Croix River. Staff looked at potential projects identified in previous watershed plans and ravine inventories, in addition to conducting field assessments and site visits with land owners to identify new opportunities. Using modeling software, they estimated how much sediment and nutrients could be captured at each location and prepared a cost-benefit analysis of different structural and nonstructural practices that could be used. Then the district began reaching out to landowners.

During 2012 and 2013, the Washington Conservation District worked with five landowners in Afton and Denmark Twp. to install sediment basins on their properties in order to slow down rain runoff, reduce erosion, and filter out pollutants like sediment and phosphorus. A sediment basin is essentially a large, shallow bowl with a berm to hold back water from rain and melting snow, allowing time for suspended sediments to settle out. Pipes are built into the sides of the berms, allowing the water to flow through slowly so that it doesn’t cause erosion downhill or downstream. All five of the sediment basins were built upstream of eroding gullies that were previously sending large amounts of sediment and nutrients downstream to the St. Croix River. Together, these five projects will keep 163 pounds of phosphorus out of the river each year, which is the equivalent of 81,500 pounds of algae.

Now, the Conservation District has additional funding from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, through a Legacy funded Clean Water Grant, to install additional conservation projects on farms near the St. Croix River in both southern and northern Washington County. By pairing state funds with local Watershed District funds, the Conservation District will be able to complete these projects at little to no cost to the farmers that own the land.

Though this particular grant is short-term, Riggs made it clear to the group in Scandia that the Washington Conservation District is interested in establishing long-term relationships with area farmers and landowners and in doing more than just one-time projects. No-till farming and cover crops are two additional conservation farming strategies that have been getting a lot of attention in the Midwest lately because they help to improve soil health so that farmers can achieve greater yields with less chemical fertilizers, thereby increasing profit margins. No-till and cover crops also result in less erosion because there is less bare soil during the year, which translates into less pollution for nearby lakes and rivers – a win-win situation for everyone.

To learn more about funding and technical assistance available for conservation farming practices and projects in Washington County, contact 651-330-8220 or go to www.mnwcd.org.

Local residents stampede fairgrounds during rain barrel and tree sale

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 18-03-2015

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9:30am, Saturday, April 25 – Lake Elmo area police are called to the Washington County Fairgrounds after a crowd of local residents swarms Conservation District staff during their annual tree and rain barrel sale. Witnesses report that a woman in a tan station wagon leapt out of her car yelling, “No more winter, ever, ever again!” Shortly thereafter, people began jostling one another as they raced to scoop up bundles of trees, rain barrels and compost bins. One man tripped over a weed wrench as he rushed to ask a Master Gardener about emerald ash borer, and in the ensuing confusion, a rack of informative brochures was knocked to the ground.

Well, perhaps that won’t really happen, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, people in Minnesota seem to go bonkers about rain barrels, trees and all things gardening come April. I understand the excitement when a long, dreary winter finally gives way to spring – I myself have already been Googling garden arbors in anticipation – but it’s almost as if we’ve all been on a diet since October and just discovered the rain barrels are filled with chocolate frosting.

The Washington Conservation District began its tree sale in 1978 as a way to provide low-cost trees to local residents for habitat plantings, farm shelter belts, wind breaks, and home landscaping. Last year it sold more than 18,000 trees. The tree orders start trickling in over the winter, and by the end of March, the phone is ringing off the hook with people anxiously inquiring if they’re too late to get their trees. Already this year, Balsam Fir, Wild Plum, Paper Birch, Norway Spruce, Sumac, Common Choke Cherry, White Pine, White Spruce, Basswood/Linden, and White Oak are sold out, and the sale doesn’t even end until April.

For around ten years, the Washington Conservation District has been offering rain barrels during their spring sale, and this year, the District will partner with Recycling Association of Minnesota to offer both rain barrels and compost bins.

Rain barrels are popular because they enable gardeners to make use of a resource that would otherwise go to waste. By collecting rainwater from rooftops, they prevent the water from flowing off down a driveway or into a storm sewer. Later, this water can be used for trees and gardens in the yard, instead of relying on city water or pumping new well water out of the ground. Compost bins also help gardeners to turn waste into a resource. The bins convert leaves, grass and kitchen scraps into nutrient rich compost that can be used to boost flower and vegetable gardens. This helps to keep food waste out of landfills and also provides free fertilizer.

To learn more about the Washington Conservation District spring sale, go to www.mnwcd.org. Trees are available in bundles of 25 for $35, with a special bird-friendly packet of 30 trees for $53 available as well. The rain barrels hold 54 gallons of water and cost $69. They come with all of the necessary hardware, as well as a screen on the top to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs inside.  Compost bins hold 82 gallons and cost $55. All items must be pre-ordered and picked up at the Washington County Fairgrounds on Friday April 24, 8am-8pm or Saturday, April 25, 8am-noon.

No stampeding is allowed, even in the name of conservation.

Spring Melt and Battling Mud

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 12-03-2015

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Don't let mud reach the storm sewer! They connect to lakes, rivers and streams.

Don’t let mud reach the storm sewer! They connect to lakes, rivers and streams.

The long awaited spring has finally arrived. Goodbye snow and icy roads, dreary days spent indoors, and abundant layers of clothes. Hello…mud. I took a walk in the Tamarack Nature Preserve over lunch today and I saw a guy in the parking lot basking in a lawn chair next to his car as if it were the middle of summer. Luckily for me, there are wooden boardwalks crossing the wetlands in the preserve because there was still a fair amount of ice on the trails and where there wasn’t ice, there was mud. Meanwhile in my own backyard, the lawn is more like a quaking bog than a play space.

Mud is an inevitable part of spring, but it can be a big problem for local lakes and streams when it doesn’t stay put on the land. Active building sites can be particularly problematic, even when they’re relatively small. In Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) requires a permit for all construction sites disturbing an acre or more of soil. These permits require that the land owners and developers install erosion control measures to keep mud from washing off into nearby lakes and streams, especially during spring snow melt and heavy rains. If the site will remain inactive for 14 days or more, such as during the winter, permit holders must stabilize all bare soil and stockpiles of soil with mulch, staked sod, riprap, erosion control blankets, or another material that prevents the soil from eroding.

Erosion control requirements are more stringent near wetlands and other water bodies.

Erosion control requirements are more stringent near wetlands and other water bodies.

Oftentimes the local Watershed District or city may have erosion control requirements that are even more restrictive than the MPCA. For example, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District requires permits for all projects that move more than 50 cubic yards of soil or remove vegetation from 5000 square feet of land. Also, the MPCA and local watersheds have additional provisions in place for building sites located near lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Though permit systems are in place, mud still slips through the cracks in many places, especially during the spring. Erosion control materials can get knocked down or beat up during the winter, which makes it all the more important for builders to get out on site at this time of year to repair things before the dirt starts washing into waterways or clogging up storm sewers. Oftentimes, small residential projects can be a problem because they aren’t large enough to require a permit. People who are doing a little landscaping or home remodeling don’t always think about erosion control, but the dirt can wash off of small sites just as easily as large ones.

Mud and dirty runoff can smother fish eggs and ruin water quality in lakes and streams.

Mud and dirty runoff can smother fish eggs and ruin water quality in lakes and streams.

One thing to look for in your own neighborhood is trails of dirt or mud leading to storm drains in the streets. Tracing backwards it is usually pretty easy to see where the mud is coming from; if it is a small area in the yard or boulevard, a few bags of mulch or a small roll of erosion control fabric from the local hardware store might be enough to fix the problem. Mud coming from larger building sites should be reported to the city or the local watershed district. In addition, the MPCA has a Stormwater Hotline at 651-757-2119.

If you own a larger track of land, such as a farm, the Washington Conservation District can offer advice and sometime funding assistance to reduce mud on your property and prevent erosion from washing away valuable pastures and crop land, polluting wetlands, lakes and streams in the process. To schedule a free site visit, contact 651-330-8220.

Chasing the Spring

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Partners and Updates, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 04-03-2015

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Coming back from a frozen run.

Coming back from a frozen run.

The temperature hovered 1° above zero, though the wind made it feel much colder. As we ran, my dog Molly kept pausing and looking back as if there were someone else behind us. Who, I don’t know, as we did not see one single person outside of their homes or cars in our entire six-mile loop. I suppose she figured that the only reasonable explanation for why we would be outside running on such a miserable day would be if someone or something were chasing us. Then again, perhaps she was right, and the Abominable Snowman or possibly Old Man Winter himself was following us the whole way.

This is the time of year in which I am most likely to doubt that Minnesota will ever be warm again. Yet, we are now tantalizingly close to March 20, the official first day of spring. Before we know it (please let me be right), the snows will begin to melt, the bitter wind will lose its sting, and the trees and plants, long dormant, will come to life again.

Though the thermometer might not show it, one sure sign of spring is the Master Gardeners’ spring landscape workshop, scheduled for this coming weekend, March 7, at the Oakdale Discovery Center. The “Beyond Beautiful” workshop is a free event, open to the public, with opportunities for people to talk one-on-one with Master Gardeners about their own gardening projects, as well as to enjoy presentations on Conserving Monarch Butterflies, Landscaping for Birds and Bees, and Lawn Care and Pruning Tips.

The next weekend, March 14, St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Woodbury will hold an Environmental Fair, another welcome sign of spring. Dozens of local organizations and community groups will be featured at the event, with information and family friendly activities about raingardens and planting for clean water, composting, solar and wind energy, rain barrels, and more.

Meanwhile, local watershed management organizations are planning for another round of clean water projects in 2015. The Brown’s Creek Watershed District was recently awarded a $200,000 Clean Water Grant from the Board of Water and Soil Resources to retrofit the gravel parking lot at Brown’s Creek Park in Stillwater to reduce sediment pollution and cool runoff water flowing into the trout stream.  Also in Stillwater, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization received a $142,000 Clean Water grant to install up to 16 small-scale practices in areas that drain directly to the St. Croix River in order prevent 8lb of phosphorus and 2 tons of sediment from washing into the river.

In northern  Washington County, the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District will receive $108,431 for projects to improve Goose Lake, and $98,200 to reduce stormwater runoff in the City of Marine. In addition, the Ramsey – Washington Metro Watershed District was recently awarded a $150,000 Clean Water grant from the Board of Water and Soil Resources to work with faith-based communities in the local area on projects such as parking lot retrofits and raingardens that help to reduce runoff pollution.

This spring, local watershed organizations will continue to offer mini grants to homeowners to help defray the costs of raingardens, shoreline plantings, and other similar projects that help to protect rivers, lakes and streams. The Washington Conservation District will also continue to offer free site visits for homeowners and property owners and to help design many of these clean water planting projects.

To get a jump start on planning for spring and summer projects at your own home, check out the Master Gardener Spring Workshop (Saturday, March 7, 8am-noon at the Oakdale Discovery Center, 4444 Hadley Ave. N.) or the St. Ambrose Environmental Fair (Saturday, March 14, 1-6pm at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, 4125 Woodbury Dr.).

To learn more about cost-share grants for raingardens and shoreline plantings contact the Washington Conservation District at 651-330-8220 x.35.

Until then, keep your eyes fixed ahead, and your feet moving swiftly, away from the winter towards spring.

Stormwater Detective

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 23-02-2015

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Minnesota Conservation Corps volunteers stencil a storm drain near the St. Croix River with the message "Do not dump, drains to the river."

Minnesota Conservation Corps volunteers stencil a storm drain near the St. Croix River with the message “Do not dump, drains to the river.”

My husband gets all the attention when we meet new people. His job as a forensic electrical engineer has him traversing attic beams, sifting through fire debris and kicking down doors in burnt up homes in a quest to discover the causes of fires. People’s eyes grow wide as they ask him if his job is a real-life version of the hit TV show CSI. He’ll nod and smile sagely, conveniently leaving out the part about the long monotonous drives to small Midwestern cities, the all-too frequent pig barn fires, and the hours spent shivering in the cold while investigating a fire in some arctic outpost in North Dakota.

In comparison, a job in water resources management doesn’t sound very intriguing.

“So what do you do for a living Angie?”

“I’m a stormwater educator.”

“That’s really, umm, interest…zzzzzzz.”

Well, I am here to set the record straight that the world of stormwater management can be seedy and sordid indeed. Take illicit discharge detection and elimination as an example. I’m sure you have no idea what that phrase means, but it sure sounds scandalous doesn’t it?

When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it did not specifically address runoff pollution from city streets, commonly known as stormwater runoff.  Overtime, however, research showed that the water emptying out of storm pipes into rivers, lakes and streams was filled with many contaminants. Because these pipes collect rain and melting snow from streets and parking lots, the water is often filled with a gruesome mix of litter, dirt, grass, leaves, fine particles from car exhaust, road salt, lawn chemicals, and even dog poop. Even worse, some people intentionally pour toxic chemicals into storm drains near their homes, mistakenly believing these pipes flow to treatment facilities instead of straight to the river. Not too long ago, it was common for people to dump used engine oil into storm drains, instead of taking the oil to an auto repair store or their County Environmental Center. Even now, contractors frequently empty dirty wash water from carpet cleaning or wash cement off of tools straight into storm drains that connect directly to the lakes and rivers we swim in and fish from. These are the illegal (ie. illicit) discharges.

In 1987, congress passed a major update to the Clean Water Act that required cities with storm sewer systems to begin tracking, reporting on, and reducing stormwater runoff pollution. As a result, hundreds of communities and public entities in Minnesota now have stormwater permits, regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Identifying and eliminating illicit discharges to storm drains is one of the requirements of these permits.

Because of the stormwater permit system, city staff get to become detectives. If they see soapy water coming out of a storm sewer outlet into a city lake, for example, it is up to the public works department to trace backwards and try to determine where the water is coming from. Is someone washing a car in a driveway up the road? Did a cleaning crew recently dump out wash water into the street? Sometimes, the answers to these questions are surprising. For example, when the City of Woodbury began investigating why water was coming out of some of their pipes even when it wasn’t raining, they discovered that overly irrigated lawns seeping down into buried storm pipes were often the culprit. Equally surprising, other cities have found examples of homes and businesses that have sinks and indoor drains connected to the storm sewer system instead of the sanitary sewer system.

At the end of the day, managing a municipal stormwater system will never be a high profile job, even though the work is vitally important to protecting the lakes and rivers we love. However, I have a feeling city staff might get more respect at cocktail parties if they started introducing themselves as stormwater detectives.

Thriving in the face of the Winter-maker

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Outdoor Adventures, Partners and Updates | Posted on 19-02-2015

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February 7 was one of those warm winter days that makes northerners dream of spring. The sun was shining, the air was balmy, and the only thing lacking was just a little more snow to make play time more fun. I spent more than an hour lounging in my backyard with kid and dog, before heading out in the afternoon for a leisurely run on the Brown’s Creek Trail. Come evening, we headed to Lake Phalen, where I helped to cue puppets for a special story-telling at the inaugural Phalen Freeze Fest.

Merganser and Winter-maker puppets in front of Lake Phalen

Merganser and Winter-maker puppets in front of Lake Phalen

When St. Paul Parks and Recreation began planning for Phalen Freeze Fest, they conceived of an evening in which hardy Minnesotans would come together to play and spend time outdoors, in spite of the cold and snow. Urban Roots and the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District lent their talents to plan a creative telling of the Ojibwe legend of Shingebiss, a plucky merganser duck that thrives throughout the winter, cutting holes in the ice to fish each day. Urban Roots, a Saint Paul-based organization focused on food, conservation and youth development, worked with teen volunteers to build larger than life puppets they used to act out the story. Meanwhile staff from Parks and Rec and the Watershed District worked with school and after school groups at St. Paul Public Library, Duluth Case and Hancock Recreation Centers, Harding High School Earth Club, American Indian Magnet, Farnsworth Aerospace, and Great River School to create smaller puppets for event attendees. The idea was to have kids in the audience act out the story as it was narrated and performed on stage.

Ten minutes before show time, the crowd was still small, but by the time the narrator began, nearly every seat was taken in the outdoor amphitheater near the lake. On stage, the youth surged forward and back, five to a puppet, as the Winter-maker and merganser took turns leading the story. In their seats, smiling children giggled and waved animal masks and sock puppets on cue. Some, like my son, shouted words of encouragement to Shingebiss, who nonchalantly carried on even as the Winter-maker doled out his worst.

Charlie tries out ice fishing on Lake Phalen.

Charlie tries out ice fishing on Lake Phalen.

After the story, the crowd fanned out toward Lake Phalen, where MN Department of Natural Resources, Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) staff were helping families try out ice fishing. Other activities included cooking over a fire, flashlight geocaching, lighted frisbee tossing and a Story Walk.

Our own encounter with the Winter-Maker happened later in the evening, once it was fully dark. My son led me down to the lake to show me where he had been fishing earlier and we chatted with the FiN staff as out little guy poked a stick into the water. Then, in the wink of an eye, he stood up and stepped plunk straight into the hole, soaking his leg all the way up to his knee. Being the plucky ducks that we are, however, we did not rage or shake our fists at the winter. We scooped the kid up and headed back to the car, and, when we stopped for Indian on the way home, Charlie wore one of my mittens on his foot instead of a boot.

Underground water

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Groundwater | Posted on 10-02-2015

Have you seen any good movies lately? How about the one where a little camera slowly descends into a well several hundred feet deep in Afton State Park? You can see water and rocks and, well…you know, it sure captivated a room full of science geeks.

With funding from the Metropolitan Council, the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment, and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), the Minnesota Geological Survey (MGS) is wrapping up a pair of research projects that have vastly improved understanding of how water moves underground in the Twin Cities metro area. The research supports previous findings that high capacity wells are causing groundwater to move more quickly and go deeper than it would otherwise. New data collected also show that water is moving both horizontally and vertically below ground.

To better explain this research, let me first offer a basic primer on how groundwater works.  Groundwater is the water beneath the land’s surface that fills the spaces between rocks and sediment.  If you think of the earth as a layer cake, there are porous layers where water is stored, known as aquifers, and confining layers of impenetrable rock that water cannot move through.  Thus, there can be several layers of aquifers, one on top of another, with the deepest aquifers containing the oldest water. Statewide, groundwater provides about 75% of our drinking water, and in Washington County it provides 100% of the water we use for drinking, irrigation, and commercial uses.

Groundwater interacts with surface water in many different ways. There are recharge areas where rainwater collects and soaks easily into the ground, as well as spring-fed lakes and streams where groundwater flows out to the land’s surface. We humans are able to access groundwater by drilling wells that go hundreds of feet deep into the ground to reach both shallow and deep aquifers.

As part of the County Geologic Atlas program, MGS has worked with many counties in Minnesota to map the sediments, rocks and aquifers below ground, as well as public and private wells.  These geologic atlases show where aquifers connect with surface water resources and also include information about geology, mineral resources, and natural history in each county. Additional maps, created by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, show water levels in aquifers, direction of groundwater flow, water chemistry, and sensitivity to pollution.

According to Robert Tipping, a Senior Scientist involved in recent MGS research, there is a correlation in the metro area between locations where there is deeper groundwater pumping, and those with higher levels of chloride in the groundwater. This information, paired with other water quality data collected, tells the MGS scientists that human activities (such as putting down road salt) are not only increasing chloride levels in groundwater, but also causing the chloride to move down into deeper aquifers.

By installing measurement equipment and dropping video cameras down into a couple of test wells, MGS was also able to document that water is moving both horizontally and vertically beneath ground. In a test well in Edina, Tipping estimates that water was flowing downward at a rate of 30-40 gallons per minute, which was much faster than they had previously imagined. Video footage from a temporary well built in Afton State Park showed water shooting out of a horizontal fault in one of the bedrock layers and then rushing downward toward a deeper level aquifer. Watching the video, it is easy to see how a poorly placed or improperly constructed well could act as a wormhole, allowing contaminants from a shallow aquifer to travel through confining layers into a deeper aquifer. To prevent this from happening in Afton, the test well was carefully controlled during the investigation and sealed at the end of the project.

In future research, MGS hopes to gain a better understanding of how groundwater travels through or across vertical fractures in bedrock, as well as how it moves through bedrock valleys. As for the thrilling footage from the bottom of a well, maybe you’ll find it on YouTube some day!

Learn more about the Minnesota Geological Survey at www.mngs.umn.edu. Find information from the Minnesota DNR’s County Atlas project at www.dnr.state.mn.us/waters/groundwater_section/mapping.