Not to brag, but I was a pretty smart little kid. My first grade teacher had an incentive system based on gold stars, which she doled out to kids who did their homework on time, got the answers right on tests or read extra books during their free time. When you are seven, getting a gold star sticker is exciting enough as it is, especially when you get to watch the line of stars next to your name grow increasingly longer throughout the school year. Mrs. Hatfield took the incentive system one step further, however, offering us the option to exchange the stars we collected for token awards, such as the privilege to sit in a bean bag chair in the back of the room during reading time. By the end of the school year, I had collected so many stars that I got to bring home the class goldfish Jumpy (who lived with us for two years until he jumped to his death on the morning of my ninth birthday) and, as the top star earner, was invited to go swimming at Mrs. Hatfield’s house on the first day of summer vacation.
In July, Minnesota debuted the new Blue Star Award program to recognize communities that are going above and beyond regulatory requirements to keep runoff pollution from degrading their lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands. To achieve a Blue Star Award, cities must complete a rigorous assessment of their policies and practices in three core areas: 1) Water Friendly Planning and Preservation; 2) Stormwater Management Standards and Practices; and 3) Stormwater Pollution Prevention. Communities that score higher than 60% on their assessment earn a Blue Star, and those that are among the top ten highest achievers in Minnesota are listed on the Leader Board at www.bluestarmn.org. The award program is sponsored by a partnership between state agencies and watershed districts, along with the engineering firm Emmons & Olivier Resources and the non-profit group Friends of the Mississippi River.
This September, Stillwater took the Blue Star assessment and scored high enough to land themselves a spot on the Blue Star Leader Board, as well as one of the coveted Blue Stars. The city attained high points for natural resources preservation and management, stormwater management policies, and inspections and enforcement. They also received bonus points for their involvement in the East Metro Water Resource Education Program, through which they have helped to coordinate workshops and trainings for homeowners, city staff, contractors and elected officials. Said Stillwater’s Assistant City Engineer Torry Kraftson, “I went into this assessment thinking that it would be a ‘feel good’ thing, but was pleasantly surprised at the rigor and depth of the evaluation. The questions were right on and clearly well-researched and reviewed.”
Some of Stillwater’s efforts to protect and improve local water quality are highly visible. The city installed an enormous raingarden at Washington Square Park near the Lakeview Hospital and the city now regularly installs curb-cut raingardens and other stormwater retrofits during their street improvement projects. One of the benefits of the Blue Star program, though, is that it also recognizes communities for their less visible actions to protect water resources. For example, in the Natural Resources Preservation and Management section of the assessment, on which Stillwater scored high marks, cities achieve points for inventorying their first-rate natural resource areas, requiring developers to maintain vegetated buffers around wetlands and streams, and establishing protections for sensitive wetlands within a resource management plan. All of these measures ensure that things don’t change, which is kind of the point, but the flip side is that people in the community often don’t realize how much planning and effort has gone into ensuring that those buffers and high quality natural areas aren’t bulldozed, filled or converted to lawn.
Stillwater’s Blue Star Award is valid for three years, after which the city will have to update its assessment to maintain the award. At the current moment, there are no incentives for earning a Blue Star, other than the opportunity to gloat and satisfaction in a job well done. Qualifying communities, of course, also reap the benefit of cleaner lakes and rivers, which often translates into higher property values, tourism revenue and healthy, happy residents. Just to sweeten the pot a bit, though, I’m thinking of presenting Stillwater with a goldfish. I can’t offer a pool day at my house, but I hear that Lily Lake’s looking pretty good for swimming this year.