Summer’s Last Gasp – Removing boat docks and draining swimming pools

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology | Posted on 27-08-2015

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I hate to admit that summer is coming to a close, but…there. I’ve said it. Summer is almost over. Sure, there will be a few more glory days, a few more trips out on the boat, and few more hours spent at the beach, but there is no use in denying that the end is near. As you begin looking forward to autumn’s wooly sweaters and more time spent on the land than on the water, consider two seasonal chores that could make a difference in next summer’s water fun: removing your boat dock for the winter, and draining your swimming pool or hot tub.

If you hire a business to remove your boat, dock, or lift make sure they are on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) list of Permitted Service Providers. These providers have attended training on Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) laws and many have experience identifying and removing invasive species such as zebra mussels that frequently attach to docks, lifts and boats left in the water. In addition to being listed on the DNR website, permitted providers should have a sticker in the lower driver’s-side corner of their vehicle’s windshield.

So, what happens if you pull your boat or dock out for the winter and discover that it has zebra mussels or aquatic plants attached? First, if your lake is not currently listed as infested and you find zebra mussels, you should contact the DNR. If you are storing your boat and equipment on-site at your home or property, you do not need a permit, even if your equipment has zebra mussels or other prohibited invasive species attached. If you intend of transporting your boat or equipment off-site for the winter, however, you may not transport it with zebra mussels, faucet snails, or aquatic plants attached, even if you intend to put it in storage for the winter. If you suspect that there may be invasive plants or zebra mussels attached, you will need to fully clean and remove all invasives or obtain a permit from the DNR authorizing transport of prohibited invasive species and aquatic plants.

You've got a big pile of invasive aquatic plants you've removed from your dock - now what do you do?

You’ve got a big pile of invasive aquatic plants you’ve removed from your dock – now what do you do?

On that note, what should you do with aquatic plants and/or zebra mussels that you clean off of your dock? One option is to compost them in your yard; this does not require a permit. If you wish to dispose of them off-site, however, you will need a permit from the DNR. Find more information about DNR rules regarding permitted service providers, and transportation of aquatic invasives at: www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/aquatic.

The end of the summer is also the time when most people drain their pools and hot tubs for the year. This can be a simple and harmless process, as long as you take the proper steps to ensure that the water is de-chlorinated so that it does not kill fish or plants. Because water from swimming pools and hot tubs often contains high levels of chlorine, bromine, and copper and has low pH levels, it is illegal to discharge this water to a municipal storm sewer system without first de-chlorinating.

Happily, there is an easy solution. Simply stop adding chlorine and leave the water exposed to the air for three to five days until it becomes naturally de-chlorinated. You can also use de-chlorinating chemicals from a pool or spa supplier to remove the chlorine more quickly. Before dumping the water, use a test kit to ensure that it has been de-chlorinated to less than 0.1 mg/L of chlorine and has a pH range of 7-8., and consists only of water. Direct the water onto a vegetated surface so that as much as possible can soak into the ground (don’t flood your neighbor’s yard). Dispose of pool filters in your regular garbage and pour waste from pool filters and back wash systems into an indoor drain, not the storm sewer.

Saving up from a rainy day

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Groundwater, Partners and Updates, Water Conservation | Posted on 25-08-2015

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Driving along Lamar Ave. through Old Cottage Grove is like touring through the land that time forgot. On summer evenings, families gather at Lamar Fields for adult league softball games and you can still get darn cheap beer at the Boondock’s Bar. Most of the homes were built around the turn of the century – last century that is, and when the houses peter out, the woods and farm fields take over. Just two miles west and south, the scene is completely different. Modern houses line suburban cul de sacs and construction crews are hard at work making way for even more new development.

A recent Washington County Water Consortium tour visited the Cottage Grove City Hall to learn about its water reuse system.

A recent Washington County Water Consortium tour visited the Cottage Grove City Hall to learn about its water reuse system.

When the City of Cottage Grove built a state-of-the-art new City Hall three years ago, they chose a location at the top of Cottage Grove Ravine Park with an eye toward the future, knowing that the growing community of 35,000 would soon be spreading east and bridging the gap between old and new. Because Ravine Park contains unique habitat and a well-loved fishing lake, the city sought to minimize the environmental footprint of their new building and set a good example for how development could happen in the area. You’ll find only a small amount of lawn around the City Hall (most of the land on the property is native plantings that don’t require watering) and the city took the bold step of installing a rainwater collection and reuse system to provide water for irrigation as a way to both reduce groundwater use and minimize stormwater runoff to Ravine Lake.

Collecting and saving rainwater for later use is a practice that used to be common, back when Old Cottage Grove was just plain Cottage Grove. There was a time when every farm had a cistern to collect rainwater and people wouldn’t dream of pouring perfectly clean drinking water on the ground just to grow grass; after all, only the very rich had lawns then anyway. Ironically, water reuse projects are now considered cutting edge in Minnesota, with high visibility projects happening recently at the new Twins and Saints Stadiums, as well as at several local golf courses. A new dormitory at the University of Minnesota has even figured out a way to use stormwater runoff from the roof to flush toilets in the building.

Cottage Grove city staff explain how water from the roof is cleaned before being used for irrigation.

Cottage Grove city staff explain how water from the roof is cleaned before being used for irrigation.

Though the water reuse system at the Cottage Grove City Hall is simple in concept, it employs some fairly robust technology to ensure that the water is clean and free of harmful bacteria and pathogens. When it rains, water from the roof is directed into a 20,000 gallon tank underground. The water then passes through a filtration system that removes particles down to 5 microns in size (the size of a human red blood cell) and then an ultraviolet treatment unit that disinfects the water before it is used for irrigation.

The benefits of the rainwater reuse system are two-fold. First, it reduces the amount of potable water the city needs to use to irrigate lawns and gardens during the summer by up to 570,000 gallons. Second, it reduces the amount of water that runs off of the nearly one-acre rooftop, helping to protect the park and Ravine Lake from erosion and pollution due to increased rain runoff. The tank holds enough water to capture a one-inch rainfall.

As Cottage Grove continues to develop, City Engineer Jennifer Levitt hopes that more businesses will follow the city’s example and begin looking for ways to conserve groundwater resources and protect nearby lakes and the Mississippi River. “We would really like to see more businesses converting lawns to native landscaping or installing water reuse systems that make use of existing stormwater ponds to irrigate the grounds,” she said during a recent tour of the City Hall. Happily, help is available for water-friendly projects. Local watershed districts provide grants to help cover the costs of landscaping projects that reduce stormwater runoff and many are interested in helping to get more water reuse projects built in the area. South Washington Watershed District provided $50,000 in assistance for the Cottage Grove City Hall project and recently helped to fund water reuse projects at Prestwick and Eagle Valley Golf Courses in Woodbury as well. In Stillwater, the Washington Conservation District and Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization recently worked with DiaSorin (behind Valley Ridge Mall) to build a stormwater reuse system, and in Hugo, Rice Creek Watershed District spearheaded a large-scale project at Oneka Ridge Golf Course in 2014.

For more information about and examples of water reuse projects in Minnesota, check out the Metropolitan Council Stormwater Reuse Guide.

Land of 10,000 Buffers

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 18-08-2015

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Downed logs, snags and emergent plants are all natural and good features of a healthy shoreline.

Downed logs, snags and emergent plants are all natural and good features of a healthy shoreline.

If you canoe or kayak on rivers, you quickly find that you spend more of your time prepping supplies and equipment, loading and unloading, and shuttling between the put-in and the take-out, than you ever do paddling on the water. So, it was no surprise to me last Friday that my friend and I were ready to launch on the St. Croix River, just in time to stop and eat lunch. We climbed into our canoe, shoved off from the landing, and then paddled more or less diagonally straight across the river to a sandbar where we promptly parked ourselves for the next hour.

The sandbar was part of an island, one of many in the St. Croix River, which was covered in a floodplain forest comprised of towering silver maples, sedges waving in the wind, bright red bursts of cardinal flower, and low-growing arrowhead. After eating, my son and I set off, following deer tracks that led this way and that across the beach and through mud and tall grass. Further down, we spotted raccoon tracks, which he said looked just like baby handprints in the sand. It was clear from our short tour that the island was a hotpot for wildlife.

Riparian areas – the land along lakes, rivers, and streams – are some of the most productive habitat for plants and animals. Birds build their nests in these areas, accessing the water easily to fish, skim for insects, and hunt for frogs and more. Turtles sun themselves on fallen logs during the summer and bury themselves in mud along the bank during the winter. Larger animals like deer, raccoons, fox and fishers come frequently to the water’s edge as well. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, the trees, shrubs, and other plants that grow in riparian areas are well adapted to fluctuating water levels and stabilize the soil, preventing erosion along lakeshores and river and stream banks. Deep and widespread root systems spread out underground, creating a mesh net that holds the soil in place.

Lakeshore buffer along Lake Phalen in St. Paul.

Lakeshore buffer along Lake Phalen in St. Paul.

In light of Minnesota’s new buffer legislation, many people are wondering, what exactly is a buffer and will more buffers statewide really improve habitat and water quality? The Buffer Initiative is a multi-agency effort led by Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Department of Natural Resources, and Pollution Control Agency. In general, the new law will require all lakes, rivers and streams in the state to be surrounded by vegetated buffers 50-feet wide, on average, and all public ditches to have 16.5-foot wide buffers as well.  Buffers will need to be installed on public waters by November, 2017 and on public drainage systems by November, 2018. Legally, any perennial plant can be used for a buffer, including turf grass, though many people choose native plants that don’t need to be mowed or perennial grasses and legumes that can be used for hay.

Corn planted too close to the edge of the Rush River, causing erosion.

Corn planted too close to the edge of the Rush River, causing erosion.

While it is true that buffers will not solve all of our water pollution problems in Minnesota, they do offer many benefits. To begin with, deep-rooted native and perennials plants provide excellent protection against erosion. I recall kayaking along the Rush River in western Wisconsin last year and seeing places where corn was literally falling into the river because the riverbank was sloughing away. Erosion is a serious problem not only for water quality – the sediment muddies the water, clogging fish gills and smothering spawning sites – but also for landowners; the soil along a river’s edge might be productive, but not if you lose half an acre to erosion. Additionally, vegetated buffers can filter out some of the nutrients and pollution that flow overland into lakes, rivers and streams. Finally, as I’ve already noted, these areas create habitat for frogs, turtles, fish and other wildlife, particularly if the buffers include native trees, shrubs and plants. Even narrow buffers along ditches and straightened streams can have habitat value if they include flowering plants with nectar for butterflies and bees.

In Washington County, most of the local Watershed Districts have existing buffer rules in place, some of which require native vegetation, and the Washington Conservation District is able to help local landowners to tap into federal and state assistance programs to establish and maintain buffers as well. In addition, watershed cost-share grants help homeowners to restore their shoreline areas by planting native plants in areas where there is currently only turf or eroding ground. Learn more about these programs at www.mnwcd.org/planting-for-clean-water.

Learn more about the Minnesota Buffer Initiative at www.dnr.state.mn.us/buffers.

Canoeing on Big Marine Lake

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Partners and Updates | Posted on 11-08-2015

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Car loaded and canoe strapped firmly to the roof, I paced around the house waiting for my three-year old to wake up from an epic nap. “It figures,” I muttered to my husband, “Most days he won’t nap at all, but the one time I want to go canoeing he’s still asleep at 6pm!” Loudly, I clomped up the stairs to the bedroom and stood staring at Charlie until his eyes finally cracked open. “Oh good – you’re awake!” I exclaimed, as I scooped him up, hustled downstairs and stuffed a banana in his mouth on the way out the door.

Water lilies are native to Minnesota and provide excellent food and habitat for fish and waterfowl.

Water lilies are native to Minnesota and provide excellent food and habitat for fish and waterfowl.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to Big Marine Regional Park, unloaded the canoe at the boat launch, and set our sights on shallow, lily-covered water at the south end of the lake. Though the lake was busy with pontoons and motor boats that evening, we had peace and solitude as soon as we crossed the channel into the southern bay. “It’s hard to believe we’re so close to home,” I said to my husband. “It feels like we’re up in the Boundary Waters.” Up ahead, a great blue heron balanced carefully on a log rising out of the water. An egret floated gracefully overhead, and beneath the canoe we could see fish and turtles swimming by.

Big Marine Lake is one of about a dozen lakes in Washington County known for exceptionally clear and clean water. On the Metropolitan Council’s report card, it has earned ‘A’ grades for clear water and low phosphorus levels most years since the early 1990’s. Other area lakes that consistently score high include Sylvan/Halfbreed (Forest Lake/Scandia); Big and Little Carnelian, Square, and East and West Boot (May Twp.); Sunset (Hugo); Pine Tree (Grant); Demontreville, Elmo, Jane and Olson (Lake Elmo); and Edith (Afton).

The south bay of Big Marine Lake is great for fish and turtles.

The south bay of Big Marine Lake is great for fish and turtles.

In addition to good water quality, long stretches of natural shoreline, shallow bays with emergent vegetation, and acres of undeveloped wetland and upland areas surrounding Big Marine ensure good fishing and superior wildlife habitat as well. Big Marine Lake is known as one of the best places in the metro area to catch largemouth bass and there are several rare and endangered species like the Blanding’s turtle living near its shores.

Blessed as the lake may seem, it has weathered its share of challenges over the years. Before the Carnelian-Marine Watershed District installed a three-mile gravity pipe in the 1980’s to outlet water from Big Marine, Big Carnelian, and Little Carnelian Lakes, flood waters would frequently swamp houses and cabins in the area and bury individual septic systems underwater. Historic records document that the surface area of Big Marine Lake has been as large as 2,300 acres in 1847, and as small as 890 acres in 1938 – a difference in lake-level elevation of about 11 feet. Homes built during dry decades flooded when lake levels rose and the Watershed District decided to build a new, lower outlet to protect personal property and lake water quality. In 2007, the Carnelian-Marine Watershed District merged with the Marine Watershed Management Organization to form the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District, which continues to work actively today to protect and improve Big Marine Lake and other local water resources.

In recent years, the two biggest challenges facing Big Marine have been development of shoreline property and the introduction of invasive species. In 1998, the Watershed District conducted an aerial analysis of lakeshore areas and began several new programs to protect the lake from degradation. The District worked with landowners to stabilize shoreline areas with native plantings, increased permitting efforts including review and comment on shoreline setback variance requests, educated landowners about the damaging impacts suburban style lawns can have on lakes, and investigated areas where wetlands and lakebed had been filled. They also began working with the Big Marine Lake Association to manage invasive purple loosestrife and Eurasian water milfoil, efforts which continue today.

123As my husband, son and I paddled leisurely around Big Marine Lake, thoughts of natural and manmade outlets and aquatic invasive species were far from our minds. The sun was just beginning to set as we returned to the boat launch and we paused to watch a loon glide silently across the water. One by one, other boaters began returning to shore as well, unloading fishing poles, coolers and suntans. We smiled at each other, glad to have this treasure so close to home.

To learn more about the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District and grants available for lake and river friendly landscaping projects, go to www.cmscwd.org.

Downsizing to a small backyard

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 04-08-2015

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A border of native plants blends seemlessly with the nearby wetland

A border of native plants blends seemlessly with the nearby wetland

When Marge Sagstetter and her husband Steve decided to move to Oakdale after 25 years in Lake Elmo, they took more than just their interior furnishings with them. Marge, a Master Gardener, had spent years lovingly cultivating and tending to gardens at her old home and, though she looked forward to a lower maintenance yard in Oakdale, she just had to bring a few flowers and ornamental grasses along with them when they moved.

Though the Sagstetters have only had one year to begin transforming their new yard, you wouldn’t guess that if you visit them. A border of native flowers wraps around the backyard, helping the yard to blend seamlessly with a wetland complex behind their home. Shortly after moving in last year, Marge scheduled a site visit with Tara Kline from the Washington Conservation District to get advice about managing her rooftop drainage to protect the wetland from runoff pollution. Though a front yard raingarden proved to be too difficult to install due to buried utilities, the Sagstetters redirected several downspouts into buried pipes with pop-ups so that water from the roof would flow away from the house and into vegetated areas. With help from Kline, they received a grant from the Valley Branch Watershed District to plant natives along the wetland edge. They also built a dry stream and mini-raingarden on the other side of the backyard. Other artistic touches include a new stairway, designed using railroad ties and gravel repurposed from the original landscaping, and a charming collection of garden art and décor.

A dry stream and raingarden catch rain runoff from the roof

A dry stream and raingarden catch rain runoff from the roof

For many people, transforming their own yard would be challenge enough, but Marge is an ambitious person with a friendly, outgoing disposition. After talking to the church across the street, she installed a Little Free Library for people in the neighborhood who use the walking trail. She also borrowed a storm drain stenciling kit to mark the street near her home with the message, “Dump no waste. Drains to wetland.” “Lots of people don’t even realize that it’s bad to leave grass clippings in the street,” she says. “Once they realize that yard waste can cause algae blooms in local waterways, most people will sweep it up.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, 6:30-8pm, Marge and Steve Sagstetter will invite neighbors and interested community members to join them for an educational event in partnership with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program, Minnesota Master Gardeners, and the City of Oakdale. An Oakdale Evening in the Garden will be a free, fun way for people to learn about gardening, pollinators, and local water resources, as well as how to tap into free site visits and grants available through the Conservation District and local Watershed Districts. In addition to Master Gardeners and Conservation District staff, a local Girl Scout Troop will be there with information about keeping water clean.

The event is perfect timing, as two of the Watershed Districts encompassing Oakdale – Ramsey-Washington Metro and Valley Branch – have significant amounts of funding left in their cost-share budgets for 2015. Both districts provide grants to help people with projects such as raingardens, native gardens, and lakeshore/wetland edge plantings that help to protect water resources from runoff pollution and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat. Valley Branch Watershed District also provides grants to help people with at least one-half acre of land adjacent to a DNR-protected water body to remove invasive buckthorn. In addition, the City of Oakdale recently compiled a raingarden guide for interested homeowners.

An Oakdale Evening in the Garden will be held Tue., Aug. 4m 6:30-8pm at 1625 Hydram Ave. N in Oakdale. RSVP to Marge Sagstetter at sagstettermom@gmail.com. Learn more about Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District’s grant programs at www.rwmwd.org. Learn more about Valley Branch Watershed District’s grant programs at www.vbwd.org/GrantForms.htm.

Creating healthy habitat for fish

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Keeping water clean | Posted on 27-07-2015

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Winter camping and fishing for lake trout in the BWCA.

Winter camping and fishing for lake trout in the BWCA.

Before you read this article, be forewarned that I am not a fishing expert, nor do I have any secret leads on where to find the biggest walleyes in the county. I’m just your average outdoorsy kind of gal, who occasionally likes to partake in Minnesota’s favorite summer pastime. As a child, my dad used to take me fishing all the time, with varying degrees of success. Once we came home with a bucket full of bullheads, leading my mom to gag, make faces, and refuse to eat dinner with us. Sometime in early grade school, my dad stopped taking me fishing, probably because I felt sorry for every fish we caught and begged to throw it back. Now as an adult, I am slowly learning to enjoy fishing again, especially when it results in a delicious dinner of fresh walleye or trout.

Living the good life in Minnesota.

Living the good life in Minnesota.

Those of you who really are fishing experts know that there are a variety of ways and places to enjoy the sport. You can cast a line from the pier down at your favorite local lake using a makeshift pole of buckthorn baited with kernels of corn to catch bluegills. You can fish from the middle of White Bear Lake, riding a $100,000 boat and using thousands of dollars worth of lures, bobbers, reels and depth-finding equipment. You can bushwhack through mosquito-infested woods to fly fish in a trout stream or watch TV and drink beer from inside your fully furnished and heated ice shanty. Chances are, however, you will not want to fish from a lake covered in a thick layer of greenish-brown algae, festering under the sweltering summer sun and complete with a shimmering trail of engine oil and grease.

There are a few things that fish like. First, they like to have clean water to swim in, unpolluted by road salt, engine oil and lawn chemicals. Any pollutant that lands on a sidewalk, driveway or road can eventually be washed away into a storm sewer or roadside ditch and wind up in our local lakes and rivers. If you don’t like the idea of bass a la glyphosate, then sweep up any spilled herbicide, pesticide, or fertilizer, repair engine leaks on your car, and dispose of used engine oil properly at a drop-off facility.

Reelin' 'em in on the St. Croix River.

Reelin’ ’em in on the St. Croix River.

Second, fish like to have oxygen to breathe. Sure, they are aquatic animals, but they still need well-oxygenated water to survive. When algae grows out of control on a lake due to excess phosphorus in the water, it creates a chain reaction that reduces the amount of overall oxygen in the water, resulting in fewer, smaller fish and sometimes even mass fish kills. We can help reduce the amount of phosphorus that enters lakes by sweeping grass clippings and other yard waste off of sidewalks and the street in front of our homes before these phosphorus-rich materials are swept into storm sewers that connect to lakes and rivers.

Third, fish like to have shady, vegetated habitats for spawning. When we remove native grasses, sedges, flowers and trees from the water’s edge, we eliminate fish habitat. If you have shoreline property, leave at least half of it unmowed and under natural cover. You can still enjoy your view of the water without destroying its ability to support aquatic life. Better yet, work with your local Watershed District to restore shoreline property and improve habitat – grants are available!

Now, grab your hook and line, your assorted gizmos and gadgets and your favorite fishing partner and get out there to enjoy this beautiful Minnesota summer.

Heavy rains wreak havoc on local streams and stormwater systems

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 21-07-2015

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In the week following July 5 and 6, local communities began inventorying the damage to streams, stormwater systems, and construction sites caused by 4-7 inches of rain falling in less than 24 hours. Some weather stations in southeastern Washington County reported 6 inches of rain on July 6, while Lake Elmo, Stillwater and Woodbury reported 4-5 inches each. In River Falls, WI, a kayaker attempting to paddle in the swollen Lower Kinnickinnic River spent an hour perched on a tree branch in the center of the stream before she was eventually rescued by a sheriff’s deputy and a River Falls firefighter in an airboat Monday evening. The river was roaring at least twice as wide and three feet higher than average that day, and witnesses say the woman fell out within minutes of launching on the river. Smaller streams in Washington County experienced similar flash-flooding as well.

Trout Brook on July 6, 2015

Trout Brook on July 6, 2015

Throughout the day on July 6 and 7, water monitoring field staff from the Washington Conservation District surveyed and reported on the post-rain carnage around the county – washed-out culverts, eroded gullies, and streams running chocolate brown. At a construction site in Lake Elmo, about 100,000 gallons of untreated stormwater overflowed into a newly installed pipe, discharging to an intermittent stream that eventually connects to Wilmes Lake in Woodbury. Trout Brook, which flows through Afton State Park to the St. Croix River, was swollen and muddy on Monday, and monitoring staff could see that the water had been even higher earlier before they arrived. The one spot of good news among the week’s inspection reports were the many newly installed raingardens around the county that were full but functioning as designed.

A raingarden in Lake Elmo that was full of water but functioning properly.

A raingarden in Lake Elmo that was full of water but functioning properly.

Why do heavy rains cause so many problems and why are streams affected more than lakes and wetlands? The answer has a lot to do with where the rain goes once it lands on the ground. In a natural system like a forest or prairie, about 40% of the rain that falls is either captured by plants and trees before it lands or taken up by their roots. Approximately 50% of the water soaks into the ground, some filling shallow groundwater resources that feed wetlands, lakes and streams, and some percolating deeper down into aquifers. Only 10% runs off the land and into rivers, lakes and streams. In contrast, our built environments have much more impervious surface – places like rooftops, driveways and roads where there are no plants and water can’t soak in. Additionally, ditches and stormwater pipes carry water off the land more quickly and into streams and waterways.

Depending on how densely an area is developed, we often see 20%, 30% or even 50% of the rain running off instead of soaking into the ground or being captured by plants. More runoff leads to more frequent flash flooding and more erosion in rivers, streams and gullies where the water is concentrated and flowing fast. Wetlands and lakes tend to be more resilient because there is a larger area for the rainwater to slow down and spread out and more opportunity for the water to either evaporate or soak into the ground.

A grassed waterway on a farm in Stillwater Twp.

A grassed waterway on a farm in Stillwater Twp.

There are many ways we can reduce the damage caused by heavy rains and plants play a central role in most of these strategies. A buffer of deep-rooted plants along a river, lake or stream helps to stabilize the soil so that it doesn’t erode when the water rises. Preserving or recreating natural floodplains is important as well to spread out and slow down the water. Plants also help to stabilize the soil in highly erodible locations such as steep hillsides, farm fields, and construction sites. One common best management practice for agricultural areas is to create grassed waterways by planting natives or hearty perennials instead of crops along the drainage pathways that rain naturally follows. On construction sites, temporary seed mixes can be used to quickly cover bare soil until building begins. Grading smaller areas at a time also reduces the risk of major washouts.

Climatologists warn that our weather patterns in Minnesota have been changing and larger storms with heavier rain are becoming more common. Finding ways to adapt to these deluges will help us to protect the health of our water resources and reduce the human impacts from flash flooding as well.

Recent unhealthy air a reminder that air and water don’t follow political boundaries

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Keeping water clean | Posted on 13-07-2015

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Minnesota air was smoky last week due to forest fires in northern Canada.

Minnesota air was smoky last week due to forest fires in northern Canada.

Early in the afternoon on July 4th, many people in the St. Croix Valley began to notice a haze in the air – and not from the fireworks. In fact, the smog-like air was actually the result of smoke drifting down from forest fires burning in Canada, more than 1000 miles away. By Monday, July 6, a storm system pulled the smoke even deeper into Minnesota, prompting the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to declare the air “unhealthy” for everyone – not just children, elderly people, and those with breathing problems. On an air-quality scale that ranges from 0 to 200, some parts of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, rated in the 170s and 180s, close to the worst ever measured in Minnesota. The Associated Press reported that smoke reached as far south as Tennessee, with a thick haze extending through much of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Strange as it may seem that smoke from Saskatchewan can travel as far away as Minnesota, the phenomenon has been a visible reminder that air, like water, refuses to follow political boundaries.

In addition to monitoring air quality, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also keeps track of lakes, rivers and streams in the state, noting which are safe to swim in and fish from, and which are impaired due to pollution.  Of the water bodies classified as impaired in Minnesota, two-thirds suffer from mercury contamination, including 1250 lakes and river stretches in which the fish have elevated levels of mercury in their tissue, and 22 in which the water itself has unsafe levels of mercury. As a result, the Minnesota Department of Health has created fish consumption guidelines for how often certain fish from impaired water bodies can be safely eaten. Even some of the most pristine wilderness lakes in the Boundary Waters suffer from mercury contamination. Where is the mercury coming from?

It turns out that atmospheric deposition (mercury in the air that falls down onto the land and water) supplies more than 99.5% of the mercury getting into fish. MPCA research has determined that about 70% of this atmospheric mercury is coming from man-made sources, while the remaining 30% comes from natural sources such as volcanoes. Furthermore, about 90% of the mercury deposition in Minnesota originates from outside of our state. In other words, bad air in other parts of the world can translate into bad water here.

At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working to reduce mercury emissions across the country. Coal-fired power plants are currently the largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S., accounting for 25.4 tons of mercury per year being sent up into the air (49% of total U.S. emissions). Other large sources include electric arc furnaces used in steelmaking (about 10% of U.S. mercury emissions), industrial boilers (7%), and burning waste from the manufacture of Portland cement (5.5%). Globally, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the largest source of man-made mercury emissions, followed closely by coal combustion. Other large sources include non-ferrous metals production and cement production. (United Nations Environment Programme, Global Mercury Assessment, 2013)

When it comes to protecting communal resources like air, water, forests and wildlife, we often realize quickly that many problems cannot be solved entirely at a local level, though it’s important for us all to do our part. Like the smoke from a wildfire, air and water move without regard for our borders and lines.

All the pretty gardens

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 06-07-2015

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A shade garden in the backyard alongside a sunnier patio space.

A shade garden in the backyard alongside a sunnier patio space.

Walking around Roger Miller and Mary Zweber’s yard, you get the impression that the landscape and gardens just happen to be there, which is not to say that they aren’t beautiful, but rather that they appear effortless. Whether it’s the numerous shade gardens, featuring a mix of native woodland plants and common horticultural varieties, or the lush and colorful raingardens spilling out from either side of the driveway, each portion of the yard looks so entirely natural and at home in its surroundings that one can’t help but think, “Yes, of course there is a patch of Canada anemone growing here. What else could there possibly be?”

Effortless and natural as it may appear, Miller and Zweber’s yard wasn’t always so charming. When they first bought their house in Baytown Twp. in 2000, they inherited a collection of overgrown foundation plantings and large expanses of turf, bordering a pine plantation choked with buckthorn. Furthermore, drainage on the property was a major concern. There was moisture damage under the deck and along the backside of the home from water coming downhill in the backyard, and in the front yard, runoff from the rooftop and surrounding landscape would run along the roadway, under the driveway, through a culvert into the yard of the neighbors across the street, and eventually, down to the St. Croix River.

One of four raingardens at the Miller and Zweber gardens.

One of four raingardens at the Miller and Zweber home.

The transformation began with help from Diane Hilscher, a local landscape architect who specializes in landscaping with native plants. Over the years, Hilscher has helped the couple to redesign and enhance their landscape, and to incorporate native plants that bring in pollinators, birds and other wildlife. Along the way, Miller and Zweber also sought advice from the Washington Conservation District, which provided aerial photography with topographic information and sent a staff person over for a site visit to provide advice on managing the drainage issues. Now, four raingardens catch most of the rain and runoff from their property and help the water to soak into the ground naturally, on-site.

For his part, Roger Miller has become one of the area’s best advocates for landscaping with native plants. On the advice of Hilscher, he joined the St. Croix Oak Savanna Chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. After serving as the chapter president for several years, he continues to remain actively involved, helping to recruit speakers for the group’s monthly meetings, organize field trips, and plan an annual conference in the spring and native plant sale in the summer.

Roger Miller shows Charlie Hong how to rub aromatic aster to release its odor.

Roger Miller shows Charlie Hong how to rub aromatic aster to release its odor.

On July 11 and 12, Miller and Zweber’s home will be one of eight featured on FamilyMeans 23rd annual St. Croix Garden Tour. Proceeds from the event support the nonprofit’s work, providing family counseling and mental health services; assistance in managing debt; caregiver support; and youth programs. Other gardens on this year’s tour will include an 80-acre former dairy farm, an eclectic river bluff property, a garden overlooking a golf course, and a garden tended by an area business to grow produce for a local food shelf. Tour participants can visit the gardens in any order and there are Master Gardeners and other experts on hand at each to answer questions and point out unique features. The event runs 9am-3pm both days and tickets are $15 per person when purchased in advance, $20 the weekend of the tour, and free for children under 12.

Learn more about Wild Ones at www.wildones.org or wildones.org/chapters/scos.

Purchase tickets for the FamilyMeans St. Croix Garden Tour on-line at www.familymeans.org or in person at 1875 Northwestern Avenue South in Stillwater.

Save the fish, then eat them

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology | Posted on 30-06-2015

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An example of the web ads being delivered to mobile devices in Washington County.

An example of the web ads being delivered to mobile devices in Washington County.

You may not always know where you are, but your phone does. By now, most of us have noticed that our smart phones are extremely effective at tracking our whereabouts. Open a map application, and a pin automatically appears creeping slowly along the road where you are driving. Use the internet to search for a hardware store and the phone will list web links, maps and phone numbers for the three closest to you. Beginning this summer, you might even be surprised to find your phone giving you a reminder as you pull into a local boat launch – clean your boat, before and after getting on the water, to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Aquatic invasive species are plants and animals, not native to Minnesota, that threaten the health of our rivers, lakes and streams and cause millions of dollars of problems for local communities. Well known invasives include zebra mussels, carp, Eurasian watermilfoil, and curly-leaf pondweed. Once introduced to a body of water, they typically spread quickly and are expensive and nearly impossible to remove.  To prevent the spread of aquatic invasives, the law requires all boaters to clean and drain boats, trailers and other equipment after coming out of the water, and to dispose of unwanted bait, including minnows, in the trash.

On June 10-11, PLM Lake and Land Management Corp. applied herbicide to control invasive Eurasian watermilfoil in Big Marine Lake.

On June 10-11, PLM Lake and Land Management Corp. applied herbicide to control invasive Eurasian watermilfoil in Big Marine Lake.

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature allocated funding to counties to implement aquatic invasive prevention and education activities. Washington County was allotted $202,392, which they have passed through to several local entities for projects in 2015, including herbicide treatment of invasive Eurasian watermilfoil in Big Marine, Long, Jane, Demontreville and Olson Lakes, herbicide treatment and cutting of flowering rush on Forest Lake, and watercraft inspectors to monitor boat launches and water access points during summer boating and fall waterfowl hunting. In addition, the Washington Conservation District is working with partners to improve signage at popular boat launches and educate boaters and waterfowl hunters about what they can do to prevent the spread of aquatic invasives. That’s where the telephone location technology comes in handy.

Public service announcements are being targeted to mobile devices near popular water bodies in the county to catch the attention of visitors, as well as local residents. If you check the weather while you’re out fishing on Big Marine Lake, you might see a banner ad urging you to “Save the fish..and then eat them.” Click to confirm, “Yes – I cleaned my boat today,” and you’ll be directed to a webpage with information about aquatic invasive species and a list of infested water bodies in the county. Taking it one step further, people can even upload a picture to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #SavetheFishMN to help spread the word and be entered into a contest with prizes from local businesses.

A boater on Big Carnelian Lake removes his drain plug after coming out of the lake.

A boater on Big Carnelian Lake removes his drain plug after coming out of the lake.

In addition to funding immediate actions to address the threat of aquatic invasives, Washington County is also supporting the St. Croix River Association, which recently hired a full-time invasive species coordinator and is working with governmental and community partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin to create an aquatic invasive species plan for the entire St. Croix River Basin. The plan will include detailed strategies for prevention; research and monitoring; control of new and existing infestations; and evaluation.

If you like fishing, boating, swimming or hunting on local lakes and rivers and you want to be part of the resistance force working to block aquatic invasives you can do three simple things: 1) Clean, drain and dry your boat and equipment before and after getting on the water; 2) Help spread the word to friends and family – #SavetheFishMN; and, 3) Come to a public meeting hosted by the St. Croix River Association on Thursday, July 9, 4-6pm in the Washington County Government Center in Stillwater, Lower Level room 14, to share your ideas and input about aquatic invasives in the St. Croix Basin.

For more information about aquatic invasive species in Minnesota, go to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/aquatic.