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.

The Nature of Change

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Buckthorn, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 09-02-2015

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Think Minnesota winters are bad? You should have been here 75,000 years ago when the snow never melted, even in the summer. Massive glaciers covered the land, encasing Minnesota in a slow-moving, back and forth deep freeze that lasted 65,000 years. When the glaciers finally retreated for good, they scraped the earth bare in some places, left heaps of rocky soil in others, and etched deep wrinkles across the land as the melting ice water flowed away to the oceans. Over the past 10,000 years, the glacial waters continued to recede, leaving us with the Minnesota landscape we know today. As the glacial lakes have dried up, they’ve left behind thousands of smaller lakes and wetlands as remnants, and the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers now flow through wide valleys carved by the glacial River Warren.

The Minnesota we know today includes three distinct biomes: pine woods in the north and east; oak woods in the center and southeast; and prairie grasslands across the southern and western portions of the state. Climate change is gradually moving the boundaries of these biomes, however. As a result, some keystone species like aspen, tamarack and moose are declining, while others like maple are migrating north and east. On top of all that, scientists are learning that temperature and precipitation are changing more rapidly here than in other parts of the U.S., especially in northern Minnesota.

For most of us, the changes we are most familiar with are those we see in our own communities. Farm fields give way to new developments, or an empty lot becomes a new store. Many rural landowners in the county tell me they’ve seen changes on their own land over the years. A few years back, after several consecutive years of drought, I heard more than one person remark that a pond or wetland on their property had gone dry for the first time that they could remember. People also notice that the woods around them are changing, as older oaks die and invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard move in. Sometime, they notice changes in the kinds of birds that come to the feeder, or the ducks that land on the lake. Change happens in town as well.  Neighborhoods gradually grow shadier as the spindly trees planted decades ago in yards and parks grow and spread, and invasive species in the form of weeds march across lawns and under fences.

On February 21, Wild Ones, a local nonprofit, will hold a daylong conference entitled Design With Nature: Changing Tactics. An event for gardeners, designers, and enthusiasts of native plants and natural landscapes, the conference is billed as an opportunity to “rethink how we design and manage our landscapes” in the presence of constant change, both natural and manmade. Travis Beck, a nationally recognized landscape architect, will share tips for designing yards and other landscapes that adapt naturally over time as trees and shrubs mature and other changes occur. Wiley Buck, a restoration ecologist with local nonprofit Great River Greening, will talk about local grazing initiatives using sheep, goats and horses to control buckthorn and manage prairies in rural and urban settings. Leslie Brandt, a climate specialist with US Forest Service, will discuss a Chicago-based initiative to manage city trees as an urban forest, using forest management practices to respond to the impacts of climate change.

The Wild Ones Design With Nature: Changing Tactics conference will be held Saturday, Feb. 21 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis (free parking).  Register by Feb. 13 ($55 Wild Ones Members / $60 General Public). Learn more at www.DesignWithNatureConference.org.

Minnesota Fairytale

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

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A frozen Brown’s Creek in the enchanted kingdom.

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was an enchanted kingdom. Within this kingdom, the trees grew taller than castles, crystalline rivers flowed through the land, and there were more lakes than a person could count. Many beautiful princes and princesses lived in the kingdom, and they weren’t all tall and blonde like the royalty from other fairytales either (though, to be honest, due to their Scandinavian heritage, a fair number of them were). Some had black hair, some had brown, and a couple even had red hair. In any case, these beautiful princes and princesses lived happily together fishing and hunting for food, swimming merrily in the many lakes and rivers, and drinking water that burbled up out of the earth like magic.

Over time, however, the people began to notice that many of the lakes and rivers in the kingdom weren’t as healthy as they used to be. In some places, castles and yellow-brick roads had been built too close to the water’s edge, and when it rained, the rain washed dirt and grime off of rooftops and roadways and into the water. The rain washed nutrients from soil, leaves and grass clippings into the lakes as well, feeding algae in the water. By the summer’s end, many of the formerly beautiful lakes in the kingdom were green instead of blue, creating most un-picturesque backdrops for the grand ball the king and queen hosted each year.

Elsewhere in the kingdom, fishermen and women who cast lines into streams came home empty handed. Many of the once plentiful fish had lost their breeding grounds, been smothered by sediment, or died due to warm water, salt and pollution. In some places, even the water that sprang from the ground came up dirty; fertilizers from farm fields and chemicals from businesses had soaked down through the soil, contaminating the water that nourished the people of the land.

One day (2008, to be exact), the king and queen called all of the people of the kingdom together and asked them what could be done to return the lakes and rivers of the land to their former splendor.  After much debate, the princes and princesses voted to pool their money together to pay a team of fairies to fix the water. Calling their decision the “Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment,” the people determined that for 25 years, they would set aside a small portion of their sales taxes to pay for clean water, habitat, parks and trails, and arts within the kingdom.

After this decree, the team of fairies set to work. They collected water samples to determine which of the countless lakes in the kingdom were still healthy and which needed help. They planted magical prairies, trees and gardens around the rivers and lakes to purify the rainwater flowing off of the land, and they taught the princes and princesses how to take better care of their water. A few years later, many of the lakes in the kingdom were clearer than they had been, the fish had lower levels of mercury, and the water coming out of the castles’ wastewater treatment plants had much less phosphorus.

Try as they might, however, the fairies couldn’t fix all of the problems.  Though their magic was strong, they still needed help from the princes and princesses to clean up the water. So, the fairies gathered the people of the kingdom together again and they told them, “Each one of you has something you can do. You may not realize it, but you all have magic too. Some of you can help to plant the magic gardens and trees, some of you can put less fertilizer and salt on the ground, and some of you can teach others how to protect our water. We will only succeed if we all do our part.”

What happened then? It was a fairytale ending of course. All the princes and princesses used their magic powers and the fairies waved their wands faster than ever. A cloud of glitter rose up into the air and when it finally settled, it covered the kingdom in pure white snow. Beneath the snow, the lakes and rivers were clean again, and the people of that enchanted land lived happily ever after.

To learn more about progress on the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, visit www.legacy.leg.mn/. Find a summary of Clean Water Funds invested, actions taken, and outcomes achieved at www.legacy.leg.mn/sites/default/files/resources/2014_CleanWaterFund_ReportCard.pdf.

Reusing Runoff at the Oneka Ridge Golf Course

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Water Conservation | Posted on 12-01-2015

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Until recently, it never occurred to most Minnesotan’s that water could be a finite resource. After a string of dry summers resulted in low water levels for White Bear and other area lakes, however, local communities have begun looking for innovative ways to reduce groundwater pumping. Reusing stormwater runoff for irrigation is a relatively new idea that is gaining popularity because it offers the elusive possibility of addressing two problems with one solution – reducing stormwater pollution and conserving groundwater resources.

In late 2014, the Rice Creek Watershed District completed a massive stormwater reuse project in partnership with the City of Hugo and Oneka Ridge Golf Course that will capture and reuse up to 32 million gallons of nutrient-rich stormwater that would otherwise flow into Bald Eagle Lake, contributing to excess algae growth and poor water quality. The project received additional funding from a $497,100 Clean Water Fund grant from the Minnesota Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.

The foundation of the Oneka Ridge project is a large stormwater pond near the 18th hole that collects runoff from about 1000 acres of land. The pond connects to an irrigation system that waters 116 acres of turf. Extra water not needed for irrigation is pumped into perforated pipes so that it can soak into the ground and recharge shallow groundwater supplies. According to estimates, the system will reduce the golf course’s groundwater pumping by up to 50%, though the actual amount will vary from year to year depending on how much rain there is. By reusing the water instead of letting it run off, Oneka Ridge will also keep 75 pounds of phosphorus per year out of Bald Eagle Lake.

Golf courses, athletic fields and homeowners associations are ideal locations for stormwater reuse projects because they have ample space for stormwater ponds and are usually using a lot of water to irrigate turf. The South Washington Watershed District recently worked with Prestwick Golf Club in Woodbury on a similar project that uses stormwater runoff from County Road 19 for irrigation. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota has designed a new eco-friendly dormitory that uses stormwater runoff to fill and flush toilets. A similar system at the new Saints Stadium in St. Paul will use stormwater from the nearby Metro Transit facility to irrigate the ball field and fill 10% of the toilets.

Homeowners interested in using stormwater to water lawns and gardens can install underground cisterns to collect runoff from rooftops or driveways. Several years ago, Jackie Metelak, a Master Gardener in Mahtomedi, replaced her driveway with porous pavers and installed an underground cistern to collect water for her many gardens.  Trinity Presbyterian, a church in Woodbury, installed a similar cistern on their property, along with raingardens and a porous paver patio. Washington Conservation District provided technical assistance for both projects, while the local watershed districts supplied cost-share funding.

As the Water Drop Rolls

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 07-01-2015

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This portion of As the Water Drop Rolls has been brought to you today by the East Metro Water Resource Education Program, a partnership of 18 local units of government working to keep your water clean. When we last checked in, local watershed management organizations were waging furious battle against a multitude of villains – excess phosphorus, aquatic invasive species, and even…poop. How has our cast of characters fared in 2014?

Northern county residents preparing to battle aquatic invaders.

The year began with much cursing and shivering as the people of Minnesota suffered in the icy grip of winter. By early March, the rage began to boil over. More than 50 hardy locals gathered at the Scandia Community Center with the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake and Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed Districts and laid plans to thwart aquatic invasive species, intent on harming their lakes. Using top secret intelligence gathered by Steve McComas, the Lake Detective, they learned how to identify the invading plants and animals and keep them at bay. Meanwhile, the watershed districts allocated funds to patrol boat launches in the area.

By May, the ice had finally (almost) receded from area lakes and the Rice Creek Watershed District launched a surprise attack against phosphorus in Bald Eagle Lake. The District threw aluminum sulfate (alum) into the water, which quickly bound to unsuspecting phosphorus. Starved of its ally in crime, the lake’s algae began to recede, crying, “Feed me! I’ll die without nutrients!”

One of many sneaky raingardens, disguised as ornamental landscaping.

Elsewhere across the east metro, homeowners wielding shovels and pitchforks laid traps, disguised as ornamental landscaping, to keep nutrients and other pollutants out of local waterways. In Oakdale, Woodbury, Stillwater and Bayport, people gathered at top-secret meetings to learn how to build these “raingarden” traps. Rumors began to spread throughout the summer, however, and soon people were sharing their raingarden design plans with family, friends and neighbors. In July, more than 800 people visited raingardens at the Tangen and Johnson homes as part of the 22nd Annual St. Croix Valley Garden Tour. In August, neighbors gathered around gardens at the Juran and Grabowski homes in Lake Elmo. By September, people living near Lily Lake in Stillwater had called a meeting with representatives from the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization to learn how they could install dozens of their own raingardens and shoreline plantings. In retaliation, excess phosphorus from urban and agricultural runoff teamed up with algae to turn the St. Croix River green.

While area homeowners were waging guerilla warfare against polluted runoff, local government partners began systematically installing raingardens in locales that phosphorus and runoff were known to frequent. Stillwater added bump-outs with raingardens to area streets to slow traffic and capture pollution before it could sneak into the St. Croix River. Over in North St. Paul, the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District built raingardens in more than a dozen yards around Casey Lake where stormwater would be most likely to travel. In a particularly aggressive move, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District installed an underground water quality unit along the new Brown’s Creek Trail, capable of trapping 80% of the sediment and 37% of the total phosphorus from rain runoff before it enters Brown’s Creek.

Central Draw Storage Facility in flood conditions

Phosphorus hasn’t been the only criminal active in the area, however. In response to previous attacks by a greedy thug known as flooding, the South Washington Watershed District built a regional infiltration basin called the Central Draw Storage Facility that is capable of soaking up 1500 acre feet of water that might otherwise flood homes and businesses. This year, the District completed the first phase of a long-term project to eventually connect the Central Draw Storage Facility to the Mississippi River in southern Cottage Grove. Could the end be near for flooding in Woodbury and Cottage Grove?

Closer to the St. Croix River, Valley Branch Watershed District discovered that poop – yes poop – has been secretly sneaking into Kelle’s Creek from failing septic systems in the area. Poop’s partner in crime, e. coli, has been hiding in the stream as well. Could this be retaliation for the District’s clean water projects along Valley Creek?

Will residents of northern Washington County keep aquatic invaders out of their lakes? Can algae survive with so many raingardens in the east metro? How will Valley Branch Watershed District fight back against the poop? Stay tuned to find out. This is Angie Hong, inviting you to join us again in 2015 for As the Water Drop Rolls.

How’s the Water Minnesota? (Part 2 – Rivers and Streams)

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 22-12-2014

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Valley Creek in Afton is still healthy enough to support naturally reproducing populations of trout.

Last week, I wrote about a new web resource created by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to share information about our state’s lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater with the public. Based on water monitoring data from around the state, the MPCA has found that the majority of lakes in northeastern Minnesota are healthy and clean, while the majority in southern and western Minnesota suffer from nutrient and sediment pollution. Not surprisingly, rivers and streams across the state mirror this trend as well.

Three-quarters of the streams and rivers in north and northeastern Minnesota support healthy aquatic life such as fish, amphibians, insects and mussels. This is because most still follow natural pathways, unlike many of the streams in the metro area and southern Minnesota that have been ditched to drain farm fields, straightened, and sometimes even buried underground. Also, though northern Minnesota was heavily logged in the past, 41% of the northwoods are once again woods, so there is less runoff pollution there than in urban and agricultural regions.

In the Twin Cities metro area, development has impacted most of the rivers and streams and only 37% are meeting water quality standards for aquatic life. Some streams in the urban core of Minneapolis and St. Paul have disappeared completely, replaced instead with underground stormwater pipes that convey rainwater from city streets directly to the Mississippi River. Within the inner ring suburbs, most of the streams support only a fraction of the fish species they once did, and chloride from road salt is a growing concern. The healthiest streams are those in the least developed areas, such as Valley Creek in Afton and a handful of small streams in northern Washington County that flow to the St. Croix River.

On the up side, there is less phosphorus, ammonia and bacteria in the Mississippi River than there was 75 years ago thanks to major improvements to waterwater treatment plants. Metro area rivers also have healthier levels of oxygen than they used to, allowing fish and other aquatic species to survive. According to the Mississippi State of the River Report, released by National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi River in 2012, a 1926 survey found only two living fish in the 25 miles of the Mississippi south of St. Anthony Falls. Today, due to cleaner water and catch-and-release rules, populations of smallmouth bass, catfish, walleye and several other species of trophy fish are flourishing.

Stream and river health is worst in southern and western Minnesota where 78% of the land is agricultural. Most streams have been straightened and ditched and most large farms have installed underground drain tile to dry out the fields more quickly and create more farmable land. As a result, erosion and flooding are big problems, as are excess nitrogen and sediment in the water. Only 16% of the streams and rivers in southern and western Minnesota are healthy enough to support aquatic life. In addition, many streams have unhealthy levels of e. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, which can make people sick.

In Washington County, Brown’s Creek is a good example of a partially degraded stream that has improved in recent years due to targeted restoration work. The Brown’s Creek Watershed District has worked with private landowners along the creek, including Oak Glen Golf Course and Stillwater Country Club, to plant native habitat along the streambanks and install raingardens to capture runoff pollution. The district also completed two large stream improvement projects during construction of the new Brown’s Creek Trail. As a result, water in Brown’s Creek is cleaner and cooler and there are signs that trout may finally be reproducing in the creek again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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