Reusing Runoff at the Oneka Ridge Golf Course


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


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)


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)


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.


Wearing high heels in the winter and other things you shouldn’t do


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 11-12-2014

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One night recently, I had an experience that most women will be familiar with – a fashion crisis. I was scheduled to be a panelist at a roundtable discussion the next day and struggling to find an outfit that would be professional, look good, and yet still allow me to wear flat boots that would keep me warm and upright while walking several blocks from my car to the building the next morning. After watching me try on about a dozen different outfits, my husband asked me what I had worn every other time I needed to look professional during the winter. After all, I’ve had this job eight years. Thinking a moment, I responded, “Well, every other time I’ve just worn something that looked good and then slipped around on the ice the whole way to and from the building.”

Rule of thumnb: If this much salt is left over after the ice melts, you’ve used too much.

Now that we are back in the icy grips of winter, it is hard to acknowledge the fact that we must allocate extra time in our already busy lives to get to work on time and to shovel the driveway and sidewalk every time it snows. At the same time, however, we have a growing problem in Twin Cities area lakes, streams and even wells that is almost entirely caused by the 365,000 tons of salt we are putting down on roads, parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks each year. Based on monitoring data, 40 lakes and streams in the Twin Cities metro area are set to be listed as “impaired” due to too much chloride, and an additional 40 lakes and 41 streams are listed as “high risk,” meaning their chloride levels are increasing and just under the threshold for impairment. In these lakes and streams, unhealthy levels of salt have built up over the years until reaching a point at which some species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are no longer able to survive. There are impacts below ground as well; the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) notes that 30% of private wells in the metro area have too high of levels of chloride.

In the east metro, Battle Creek, Judicial Ditch 2 (Sunrise River) in Forest Lake, and an unnamed stream in Oakdale/Woodbury are impaired, as are Battle Creek, Carver, Kohlman and Tanners Lakes. Wakefield Lake in Maplewood and Lake Gervais in Little Canada are on the high risk list.

Part of the problem with salt is that there is no known technology to take it out of lakes, streams and groundwater once it is in there, nor is there any good way to filter the salt out of runoff before it gets into our waterways. The only way to keep this problem from getting worse is to use less salt during the winter.

The Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project, led by the MPCA with involvement from the MN Department of Transportation (DOT), counties, cities, watershed management organizations and other stakeholders, is currently finalizing a plan for how to reduce salt use and protect water resources in the metro area without compromising public safety. Already, the DOT and many municipalities have started reducing salt use on their own by calibrating their equipment and using technology to determine which combinations of pretreatment, salt and other deicers will work best in different scenarios. At the same time, however, they are met with the challenge of protecting people like you and I.

We all know that we should drive slow when the roads are snowy and icy, but when we don’t, the plow drivers feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t get into accidents. Most of us realize we shouldn’t wear dress shoes in the winter, but when we don’t, the contractors clearing the mall and grocery store parking lots feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t slip and fall. When we get home at the end of a long day’s work, we know that we should really shovel the driveway before the snow turns to ice, but sometimes it just seems easier to sprinkle a bit of salt down and hope that does the trick. (As an aside, salt doesn’t work when the pavement temperature is less than 15°F anyway.)

This winter, I’m putting out a low-salt, clean water challenge to us all. Let’s build up our arm strength with our shovels, allow a little more time for safe travels, and tuck the fancy shoes (which will just get salt stains on them anyway) away in the closet for a while.

To learn more about the Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project and get tips for applying salt and other deicers at your home or business, go to

Creating an outlet to the Mississippi River in southern Washington County


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Partners and Updates | Posted on 01-12-2014

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In a county hemmed on both sides by the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, it may come as a surprise to some people that much of central Washington County is actually landlocked. In fact, most of our local Watershed Districts were originally formed not to deal with water quality issues, but to build infrastructure that carries water away from homes and businesses in landlocked areas during exceptionally wet years.

The Carnelian-Marine Watershed District, which later merged with the Marine Water Management Organization, formed in 1981 to address flooding concerns around Big Marine, Big Carnelian and Little Carnelian Lakes. The district constructed outlets and pipes to create an overflow pathway to the St. Croix River so that homes around these three lakes would no longer get flooded when lake levels rose. The Valley Branch Watershed District, established in 1968, spent its first 19 years completing a massive flood relief project that connects Silver Lake in North St. Paul, the Tri-Lakes, Lake Elmo and many smaller lakes in Lake Elmo and West Lakeland to the St. Croix River via a large pipe that travels alongside Hwy 94. Now, the South Washington Watershed District is midway through with a colossal project that will provide flood relief for southern Woodbury and northern Cottage Grove as those two communities continue to develop.

The Central Draw Storage Facility in June 2014. Often the area is completely dry.

Between Colby Lake in Woodbury and the Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, acres of farmland are quickly giving way to new roads, neighborhoods, buildings and businesses. But, there is not always enough room in every new neighborhood to absorb all of the runoff from rain and melting snow without flooding buildings and roads, especially during very wet months, like the spring and early summer of 2014. To address this problem, the South Washington Watershed District built a regional infiltration basin, called the Central Draw Storage Facility, which straddles the border between Woodbury and Cottage Grove. During spring snow melt and very heavy rains, the basin fills up with runoff as well as overflow water pumped from Baily Lake. It is capable of soaking up 1500 acre feet of water, which is enough to fill 740 Olympic sized swimming pools. Once Woodbury and Cottage Grove are fully developed, however, even this basin won’t have enough capacity to handle all of the runoff.

Matt Moore, SWWD District Administrator, shows the Washington County Water Consortium where new pipes are being laid for the overflow project.

Recently, South Washington Watershed 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. Capitalizing on the opportunity to install stormwater pipes below ground during the realignment of Keats Ave., Military Road and 70th St. S, the district connected the existing infiltration basin to the Cottage Grove stormwater network and constructed a 6-foot diameter pipe leading to a new stormwater infiltration basin. Eventually, the watershed district plans to connect these new areas to Cottage Grove Ravine Lake, which overflows to East Ravine, a perennial stream that passes through 3M property to the Mississippi River.

Due to the massive scale of South Washington’s flood prevention project, they are completing their work incrementally, as development happens in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The District is also coordinating with city and county parks and green space plans. The long-term vision is to link together trails, parks and other planned green spaces in southern Washington County and to allow water to flow overland, as it would in a perennial stream, in as many places as possible. The District also plans to work with Washington County Parks, 3M, and local non-profits to improve habitat and reduce erosion within Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park and the East Ravine.

Finding peace by the water’s edge


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 25-11-2014

Macy and Charlie at Loon Lake

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Our cat Lucy, who I adopted as a kitten when I was in college 16 years ago, died the morning before Halloween. A good friend’s father lost his battle with lung cancer, and then last week, we said goodbye to our dog Macy, affectionately referred to as our “crabby old lady.” The winter cold and snow has set in about a month earlier than expected and it’s hard not to see it as a symbolic reflection of life loved and lost.

Just before the weather turned this fall, I took Macy and my son Charlie hiking at Pine Point Park. The two of them tromped along happily in the woods, though never in the same direction or at the same pace. I was worried we’d walk too far for Macy that day – by then her legs wobbled after only a few blocks – but the woods had restorative power it seemed. She strode on without faltering, her hazy eyes and deafened ears attuned to the flutter of a bird’s wings, the snap of a twig underfoot.

A ways down the trail, we found a small path leading to the edge of Loon Lake and the water called to us alluringly. Tripping over one another, Charlie and Macy raced to the edge of the lake, pulling me with them in their haste. Then, it was not enough to look at the water or be near the water; we had to touch the water. Macy tromped in first, lifting her paws high and tossing water off her nose like a puppy. Charlie would have followed in her footsteps if I’d let him, but instead reluctantly agreed to entertain himself by dangling leaves and sticks in the water to watch the ripples they made. Even I reached out to touch the water, despite the chill in the air. If I had let them, we might have spent the rest of the day in that spot, paying no heed to the setting sun or the tendrils of cold spreading round us.

Water gives life, both literally and figuratively. When we are born, as much as 73% of our body weight is water – 65% once we’re adults. Most people can survive several weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Though less tangible, water is also important for our mental health and spiritual wellbeing. Water is prominent in myths and folklore across many cultures and plays a central role in the world’s major religions as well. We are drawn to water, whether it’s a lowly pond or the endless sea. Like Charlie and Macy, we long to see, touch and immerse ourselves in the water.

Sometimes when troubled, we find peace by the water’s edge. The surface ripples, the current flows, and the waves continue to crash day after day in the lake, the river, the ocean that is older than any of us are or ever will be. Other times, water brings us joy. Many a happy memory is created fishing in the early morning, splashing around at a water park, lying on the beach, or paddling down a river. The lure of a lake calls the child in us all to roll up our pant legs and wade in the water, enjoying the precious gift of life while we’re here.

Exploring the new Brown’s Creek Trail


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Local Achievements, Outdoor Adventures | Posted on 18-11-2014

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Let it be known that I did not go out on the new Brown’s Creek Trail before it was officially open even though I really, really wanted to. As soon as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a “soft opening” at the end of October, however, I was literally ready to roll. A short section of the trail within downtown Stillwater is still under construction, but the rest of the 5.9 mile route is paved and ready to explore from the old Stillwater Depot to where it intersects with the Gateway Trail in Grant. During the winter, the DNR plans to groom the trail from the Brown’s Creek Nature Preserve to the Gateway Trail for cross-country skiing.

A view of the old stone arch bridge from the new Brown’s Creek Trail

I made an inaugural bike ride along the trail just before the weather turned cold and towed my son along in a Burley trailer, which meant that I spent half of the ride calling out interpretive features at the top of my lungs as we pedaled by. From downtown, the trail heads north alongside Hwy 95 until just south of Hwy 96, at which point it crosses the road and runs parallel to Brown’s Creek. The segment between Hwy 95 and Stonebridge Trail is absolutely beautiful. The trail hugs the side of a steep, wooded gorge, with the namesake Brown’s Creek babbling down below. Just after passing under Stonebridge Trail, there is a small pull-off where one can get a view of the historic stone arch bridge that once carried travelers over the creek before the modern road was built. Immediately to the west of the bridge, trail users might also notice a gently sloped area between the trail and the creek that is currently covered in tannish-colored landscape fabric. This is one of two major stream improvement projects completed by the Brown’s Creek Watershed District in conjunction with the creation of the trail.

When the original rail line was built in 1870, it was quite a challenge to lay the track rising out of the St. Croix Valley along a steep and winding path. According to the Minnesota Transportation Museum, “It climbed 299 feet on its way out of the St. Croix River Valley. The first four miles had an average 1% grade, with short stretches exceeding 2%. Half the six miles were on curves, some as sharp as 7.5 degrees.” Over time, the reach of Brown’s Creek alongside the tracks dug deeper into the earth, becoming separated from its natural floodplain, and as a result, unstable. During stream inventories, the Watershed District concluded that this section was one of the most degraded segments of the creek. Converting the rail bed into a walking and biking trail created an opportunity to correct some of the historic damage by pulling the trail away from the edge of the creek to provide space for the water to overflow during the spring and early summer. This change will improve trout habitat and reduce erosion along the steam banks, as well as slow the water down so that it causes less damage to the historic stone arch bridge. Until interpretive signs are added next year, however, the only sign of this work is the erosion control fabric and newly planted vegetation between the trail and the creek.

Continuing westward, the trail stays close to Brown’s Creek as it passes through the Oak Glen Golf Course and Brown’s Creek Park and Nature Preserve. Between McKusick Rd. and Neal Ave., another major stream improvement project is visible alongside the trail behind Countryside Auto. Here, the Watershed District installed an underground water quality unit capable of trapping 80% of the sediment and 37% of the total phosphorus from rain runoff before it enters Brown’s Creek. The project was partially funded by a grant through the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment Fund. Once again, the only visible sign currently is a patch of erosion control fabric on the ground beside the trail.

After Brown’s Creek Park, the trail and creek diverge, with the trail continuing west, roughly parallel to McKusick Rd., and the stream’s course leading northwest to its headwaters up in Withrow. A few miles past Manning Ave., the new trail finally meets up with the Gateway Trail in the woods, just south of Hwy 96.

Arriving at the intersection of the Brown’s Creek and Gateway Trails a few weeks ago, I had the strange sensation of entering an alternate universe where people travel by bike and skis instead of car, surrounded by woods, like members of a nomadic forest tribe. Glancing back, I noticed that my son was fast asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of his trailer, not unlike the gentle rocking of the trains that once rolled through these same woods. The early November air was still mild and I decided to keep on riding, just a little bit further.

In Search of Hardwood Creek


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Outdoor Adventures, Partners and Updates | Posted on 10-11-2014

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We finally found Hardwood Creek off a dusty country road in Hugo.

My decision to seek out Hardwood Creek was made impulsively one evening on the drive home from work. How could it be, I wondered, that I had worked in Washington County for eight years, traipsed back country roads from Cottage Grove to Forest Lake, reviewed dozens upon dozens of technical studies and water monitoring reports for local lakes and streams, and yet never seen the infamous creek with my own two eyes?

Classified by Washington County as one of the top ten priority conservation areas in the county, the Rice Lake wetlands and hardwood swamps surrounding the upper portion of Hardwood Creek (east of Hwy 61) form the largest complex of native habitat remaining in the county. Unique plants and animals that have long since disappeared from our area due to farming and development still find home in the groundwater fed wetlands surrounding the creek. There are fernleaf false foxglove, kittentails, creeping juniper, and American ginseng; red-shouldered hawks, blanding’s turtles, eastern hognose snakes, American brook lampreys, milk snakes and Louisiana waterthrush. Despite the natural diversity near the upper portion, however, Hardwood Creek’s health deteriorates as it heads west toward Lake Peltier in Anoka County. Downstream, only a few hearty species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are able to survive due to sedimentation and low dissolved oxygen levels.

There are high quality woods in the Paul Hugo Farms WMA, blessedly buckthorn free.

I began my search from Hardwood Creek at Paul Hugo Farms Wildlife Management Area. The creek, also known as Judicial Ditch #2, originates south of Rice Lake, before flowing through the WMA and then north across farmland in Hugo and Forest Lake.  My two-year old chattered happily at my side as we ambled down the access road, which passed through restored prairie, glowing red in the late day sun, before entering a beautiful stand of woods.  I felt a bit uneasy as Charlie collected a rainbow assortment of shotgun shells along the way, but was nonetheless amazed by the patchwork quilt of native woodland flowers, ferns and shrubs we found. The road finally ended in a massive cattail swamp where Rice Lake used to be. Disagreement over which government entity is to blame for the lake’s low water levels is just one of many controversies surrounding Hardwood Creek.

After hiking back to the car, Charlie and I drove north along dusty country roads, chasing the winding path of Hardwood Creek. I finally found the stream where it passed through a culvert under the road, pulled over, and snapped a few photos in the setting sun.

Another view of Hardwood Creek from another dusty country road.

The upper two-thirds of Hardwood Creek have been maintained as a ditch since 1908. Along the lower creek (west of Hwy 61), there are many places where the stream banks are eroding and dirt has filled in gravel beds needed by fish for spawning.  In 2002, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added Hardwood Creek to the official list of impaired waters due to low dissolved oxygen levels throughout the length of the creek and limited fish diversity in the lower portion.

Two years ago, the Rice Creek Watershed District used federal grant funding to stabilize eroding stream banks, restore the original meandering path of Hardwood Creek along a 1800 foot path in Anoka County that was straightened when Interstate 35E was built, and connect 500 feet of the creek to a floodplain area. Additional voluntary efforts by local landowners, such as building fences to keep livestock out of the creek and establishing buffers of native plants or perennial crops, at least 50-100 feet wide, along the edge of the stream, would help to nurse Hardwood Creek back to good health as well.

Imagine how it could be


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 06-11-2014

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This little boat was our home for 7 days when my husband and I visited the Galapagos 10 years ago.

The stars were beautiful on my morning run today. Orion was particularly lovely. It reminded me of other beautiful skies I’ve seen over the years (my mind tends to wander with my feet). The stars up north are so much brighter than those down here in the cities, especially in the Boundary Waters where there are no lights for miles to compete. Without a doubt, however, the most amazing sky I’ve seen was in the Galapagos Islands on my honeymoon. From the deck of our tiny, ramshackle boat we would sit and gaze at an uninterrupted 360° panoramic view of the galaxy. It turns out that the night sky isn’t even black; it’s mottled purple, black and gray, and the Milky Way is a giant swath of stardust. You don’t realize that you’re missing out on something until you see how it could be.

During the heyday of the modern environmental movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, our country responded to environmental catastrophes with major legislation and reform. “Smog episodes” in New York City killed hundreds of people in 1953, 1962 and 1966. An oil well blowout spilled 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean along California’s coastline on January 28, 1969. June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire and flames reached five stories into the air. The bald eagle, our national symbol, almost went extinct. Over a span of twenty years, the U.S. Government passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Wilderness, and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts, along with other revolutionary measures.

When it comes to air, water, and ecosystems, however, change happens slowly. To our advantage, this means that the earth’s environment is resilient enough to tolerate much of our poor behavior. By the same token, though, it can take years and years to nurse these systems back to good health once they become degraded. Furthermore, our shared vision of what a healthy ecosystem looks like tends to change over time as well. Children are born, people move to new places, and each new generation comes to see the way things are at that time as normal. Once upon a time, a night sky like the one I witnessed in the Galapagos was the norm. Now it is an exception.

A group of neighbors gathered at the Lily Lake Association (Stillwater) picnic this fall to talk about cleaner water.

When change happens slowly, there is a danger in becoming complacent. Thanks to the sweeping legislation of the modern environmental movement, rivers in the U.S. no longer catch on fire. Mats of raw sewage no longer float down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the same time, many of our local lakes and streams have gradually degraded over the years due to development and urbanization. As a case in point, Lily Lake in Stillwater was one of the clearest and deepest lakes in the metro area in the 1960’s – so clear that people even scuba dove in it. Since then, years of stormwater pollution from area streets have gradually degraded the water quality with regular doses of sediment and nutrients; today the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lists the lake as impaired for mercury in fish tissue and excess nutrients in the water. In recent years, the city, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization and local residents are working hard to reverse the damage by improving existing stormwater treatment ponds, retrofitting neighborhood roads with raingardens to catch stormwater, and stabilizing eroding shorelines as well. Water quality monitoring results from 2013 indicate that Lily Lake might be improving, but it will likely be years before we’re able to enjoy the benefits of our restoration efforts today.

How clean do we need our lakes and rivers to be before we’re satisfied we’ve accomplished our goals? Is it enough that they don’t catch on fire, or do we hold the bar a bit higher? Early in the morning, beneath a blanket of stars, it’s easy to dream big and imagine things as they could be.