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.

Measuring progress toward cleaner lakes and streams in Washington County

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 25-06-2015

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In 1938, the first major wastewater treatment plant was built on the Mississippi River in Minnesota at Pig’s Eye Lake in St. Paul. Prior to that, thousands of homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul had been literally dumping dirty toilet water straight into the river, which was incredibly polluted and smelled so bad that no one wanted to live near the water. According to the Metropolitan Council, “Within four months of the treatment plant opening, the floating mats of stinking sludge and scum were gone. Within two years, fish returned to metro waters and anglers reported catching walleye and other game fish in water that previously could not support carp.”

After the Clean Water Act was reorganized and expanded in 1972, the nation saw similarly huge leaps in water quality in many rivers and lakes. Within a few years, factories that had previously dumped toxic chemicals and untreated waste straight into nearby waterways began employing new technology to clean up their discharges. Improvements in lake and river health were quickly visible.

The new Washington County project map shows where urban and rural clean water projects are located.

The new Washington County project map shows where urban and rural clean water projects are located.

In recent decades, however, our attention has turned from “point sources” of pollution, like factories and wastewater treatment plants, to “non-point sources,” like urban stormwater and agricultural runoff. This makes it increasingly difficult to measure and keep track of our progress toward clean water, even when we have monitoring programs in place to measure surface water quality.

One solution in Washington County is a new web-based mapping tool that tracks small-scale habitat and water improvement projects that reduce non-point source water pollution. Created by the Washington Conservation District, in partnership with Washington County, as well as Brown’s Creek, Carnelian – Marine – St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, South Washington and Valley Branch Watershed Districts, and the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization, the tool helps to visually show where projects have been installed and can also be used to measure progress toward big goals, like restoring the St. Croix River. “Currently, there are data points for more than 1,200 voluntary urban and rural conservation projects installed in Washington County since 2005 – a real accomplishment,” said Jay Riggs, Conservation District Manager.

If you are interested in seeing where conservation projects are happening in your neighborhood, explore the new Washington County project map at http://www.mapfeeder.net/wcdbmp. The map includes layers for both urban and agricultural practices.

If you don’t find much in your area, don’t worry. Your project can be the first.

South Washington Watershed District adapts to changing times and new challenges

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Partners and Updates | Posted on 16-06-2015

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When the South Washington Watershed District (then called the Cottage Grove Ravine Watershed District) was first established in 1993, its primary objective was to protect against flooding in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. Since then, the district’s boundaries have expanded along with its mission, which now includes protecting and restoring area lakes and the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, conserving groundwater resources, and helping local communities to adapt to a changing climate with more frequent, higher intensity storms.

Encompassing 110 square miles at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, the South Washington Watershed District includes all of Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport, Denmark Twp. and Grey Cloud Twp., as well as portions of Woodbury, Oakdale, Lake Elmo and Afton. Included in this area are twelve lakes and 2,400 acres of wetlands.

New development continues to be one of the biggest challenge facing the watershed; what was once prairie, savanna, and forest has now been converted to suburban development, and farming has radically changed the landscape even in the parts of the district that remain rural. These changes mean more water running off the land when it rains, less water soaking in to recharge shallow and deep groundwater aquifers, and more pressure on the groundwater resources people use for drinking and irrigation.

On the edge of development in southern Washington County.

On the edge of development in southern Washington County.

When the South Washington Watershed District was first formed, a large segment of the watershed covering Oakdale, Lake Elmo and Woodbury was draining to one little lake – Bailey Lake, which had no controlled outlet.  Localized flooding was already a problem in some neighborhoods, and the local communities knew the problem would get worse as development continued.  To protect homes and businesses, the watershed district purchased 250 acres of land near the outlet of Bailey Lake and constructed what is now known as the Central Draw Storage Facility – essentially a large, bowl shaped meadow that can temporarily fill with water like a small lake when Bailey Lake overflows. Currently, the district is proceeding with later phases of the flood-prevention project, scheduled to be complete in 2020, which involves building a series of pipes and dry streams to carry overflow water from the Central Draw down to the Mississippi River in the event of a 100 or 500-year mega-storm.

Along with a heightened risk of flooding, changes in land use in southern Washington County have degraded water quality in area lakes as well. Rain and melting snow wash off of farm fields, roads and parking lots, carrying sediment, nutrients and pollutants into ditches and storm sewers that connect to area waterways. As a result, the lakes have less fish than they used to and suffer from algae blooms during the summer.

During the past twenty years, city, state and watershed district rules have helped to reduce polluted runoff from construction sites and limit stormwater runoff from developed areas as well. As a result, water quality in area lakes and wetlands is no longer getting worse. Now, the South Washington Watershed District is increasingly looking for opportunities to retrofit already developed areas and pursuing “in-lake” strategies to remove pollution already in the water as well. One such project was a neighborhood retrofit near Colby Lake, in which the district built 25 residential raingardens to capture and clean stormwater runoff from local streets. Industrial sized raingardens can also be seen at the Bielenberg Sports Center and the South Washington County Service Center.

The South Washington Watershed District is currently developing a new 10-year plan that will guide its work from 2016-2026. The Watershed District board will review recommendations from staff and advisory committees at a special meeting on Tuesday, June 23, 6-8pm at the Woodbury Public Works building, and they are also hoping to get feedback from people who live and work in the watershed. To provide input, attend the upcoming meeting or contact John Loomis at 651‐714‐3714 or jloomis@ci.woodbury.mn.us. Additional information is available at www.swwdmn.org.

Drought, floods and hail – oh my!

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 11-05-2015

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‘Dat was some pretty darn big hail we had last weekend, hey? It was especially dramatic for those of us that didn’t bike quite fast enough to make it home before the storm started (spoiler alert – we lived). Then again, the wind and hail was nothing compared to that other storm that happened that one time way back when, right?

If you’ve lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin for more than a year, you know that unpredictable weather is one thing you can count on around here. The temperature can swing more than 50° from one day to the next, and it’s entirely possible to have hyper-local storms that dump rain and hail in one area, without so much as a drop of rain in a nearby community only a few miles away. For as long as people have been tracking the weather in our region, there have been blizzards and thunderstorms, drought and floods, tornadoes and heat waves. Despite this predictable unpredictability, however, scientists have noticed that typical weather patterns in the upper Midwest are not entirely the same as they used to be.

During his keynote talk for the St. Croix Summit on April 29, Minnesota Climatologist Mark Seeley talked about the kinds of weather information researchers gather and the changes they’ve seen over time. For example, though Minnesota has always suffered from severe thunderstorms and occasional “mega rain events,” these kinds of storms have actually become more frequent in recent years. During the first 140 years that people were recording weather information in Minnesota, there were seven mega-storms – an average of one every 20 years. In the past 15 years, there have already been five mega-storms – an average of one every three years! Most of us can remember these large storms vividly because of the damage they caused; they include events such as the flooding in Duluth, June 19-20, 2012 and the storm that dumped 15-17 inches of rain on southeast Minnesota, August 18-19, 2007, flooding the Whitewater River.

In general, we are getting more of our rainfall from thunderstorms nowadays, and less from plain ol’ boring, drizzly rain. According to Seeley, 75% of the precipitation in southeast and eastern Minnesota in 2004 and 2009 came from thunderstorms. In between these storms, there are often extended periods without any rain. As a result, many communities find themselves in the unusual position of battling floods in localized areas, while still under drought conditions as a whole.

Clean your neighborhood storm drains after storms to help keep the street from flooding and keep nutrients out of local lakes and rivers.

Clean your neighborhood storm drains after storms to help keep the street from flooding and keep nutrients out of local lakes and rivers.

Last Sunday’s storm in Stillwater demonstrated how easily that can happen. During the worst of the hailstorm, I watched torrents of icy stormwater rushing down one of the city streets toward Lake McKusick. The water was moving so fast that most of it swept right past the storm drains, flooding McKusick Rd. at the bottom of the hill. The next day, as I was sweeping leaves and twigs up from our sidewalk and driveway, though, I noticed that our gardens were still bone dry.

City planners and engineers use rainfall data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine how big to make stormwater pipes and ponds to prevent flooding in our communities.  Until recently, the standards were based on weather data collected during the first half of the 1900’s, including the 1930’s Dust Bowl Era. When the standards were updated in 2013 to include rainfall data since 1961, engineers realized that the average 50 and 100-year storms had increased by 20-25% in many parts of Minnesota. As a result, the new 100-year rain event is more like what we used to call a 200-year storm. These very large storms quickly overwhelm older stormwater pipes and ponds and, because the ground gets too saturated to absorb more rain, there is usually lots of runoff. The best ways communities can protect themselves from flooding damage due to increasingly frequent large storms are to preserve wetlands and open space in flood prone areas, and create larger easements and safe overflow routes for stormwater ponds and ditches.

There’s a reason FiveThirtyEight Science just ranked Minneapolis as one of the top three major U.S. cities with the most unpredictable weather. As the saying goes around here, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” To protect yourself from hail damage as severe storms become increasingly frequent, consider my advice. Start carrying a bike helmet with you at all times, just in case a storm rolls in.

Planting for Future Generations

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Partners and Updates | Posted on 05-05-2015

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Charlie collects worms and feathers along the way.

Charlie collects worms and feathers along the way.

When he starts kindergarten in two years, the young baby oaks we planted last week will still be shorter than he is. They’ll continue growing slowly, maybe a foot each year, so that they’ll finally be taller than he is by the time he gets his driver’s license, though still too skinny for him to carve his initials alongside another’s in a heart. By the time the oaks are sturdy and tall enough for me to sit and rest my back against, he may already have kids of his own. Perhaps I’ll bring them to visit the trees and gather up acorns to bring home and plant in their yard. Many, many years from now, when his grandchildren have grandchildren of their own, those trees that we helped to plant on Arbor Day of 2015 will finally stand tall and proud with gnarled limbs and massive canopies, roots anchored deep in the prairie. By then, no one will remember who planted the trees or know that we patted the soil beside each seedling, whispering words of encouragement, “Grow big little buddy.”

In a world of instant gratification, planting a tree is still an immensely satisfying experience. This past week, Great River Greening brought together nearly 200 volunteers to plant 3000 young oaks, grown from acorns, in the South Washington Conservation Corridor in Woodbury. Little by little, the South Washington Watershed District is restoring the land, set aside to provide food relief and infiltrate stormwater runoff from the city, to native prairie and oak savanna. Eventually the site will feature an interpretive center, as well as trails helping to connect Lake Elmo Park Reserve all the way down to the Mississippi River.

200 volunteers planted 3000 trees

200 volunteers planted 3000 trees

In spite of cold weather and light drizzle this Arbor Day, volunteers still turned out in mass for the tree planting event. We brought a small team from the Washington Conservation District, including my son Charlie – age three, and a co-worker’s daughter Linnea – age two. County Commissioners Lisa Weik and Karla Bigham spoke during the pre-planting ceremony, as did Watershed District managers Jack Lavold and

Jenn Radtke helps Linnea Radtke and Charlie Hong to plant trees.

Jenn Radtke helps Linnea Radtke and Charlie Hong to plant trees.

Denny Hanna. Other volunteers included teams from local businesses, as well as area residents who signed up as families and individuals. Charlie and Linnea provided a distraction from the chilling rain, helping to tie little blue ribbons around the new seedlings and collecting earthworms along the way. By the time the oaks we planted begin to produce acorns, Charlie and Linnea will already be in their 30’s, with jobs and lives of their own.

Bur oaks are incredibly well adapted for life on the prairie. Though they grow slowly, their tap roots burrow down more than four feet within their first year, helping them to hold ground against similarly deep-rooted prairie plants. They can survive fires and even lightning. In fact, it is often impossible to tell how old a bur oak is by counting its rings because most of the older oaks have burnt and hollowed inner trunks from the repeated lightning strikes they’ve suffered.

The baby oaks were barely large enough to see.

The baby oaks were barely large enough to see in the field.

American Forests calculates that a mature bur oak tree 60 feet tall and 105 feet wide with a circumference of 322 inches removes 19.56 lbs. of nitrogen, sulfur, ozone and particulate matter every year, and if planted in a built environment, can provide $3456.39 in stormwater control (by intercepting rainfall that would otherwise runoff into a storm sewer system). According to ecologist and author Doug Tallamy, they also support more than 500 species of larval insects, which in turn, provide food for song birds and other animals. They are slow growing, but long lived, reaching heights of 70-80 feet, on average, and sometimes living more than 400 years.

What will Woodbury look like when the young oaks we planted last week stand tall in groves upon the prairie? Who will pause to explore beneath them while out on a family picnic? What challenges will those future generations face and where will they plant their trees?

The release of Hector the Toad

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Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Wildlife | Posted on 29-04-2015

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Hector awaits his release.

Hector awaits his release.

It happened in the blink of an eye early last fall. One minute I was mowing the lawn, and the next a small, greenish figure was struggling in the grass. My heart sank. It was a toad. I rushed to pick it up and noted with relief that I had only clipped one of the front legs, amputating it at the “knee.” Other than that, the toad seemed remarkably well. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?) Since the accident was my fault, I felt obliged to bring the toad inside and care for it for a while, in the hopes it might recover and go on to live a normal amphibian life.

Soon Hector, as my son named him/her, was well equipped indoors with a small aquarium, a shallow bowl of water and a nice hollow rock to hide under. For a few days, I applied a repti-healing aid to Hector’s leg with a Q-tip, and Charlie and I foraged in the gardens to bring the toad a steady supply of tasty worms and bugs. When the weather turned frosty, we switched over to mealworms from the pet store. Never once did we see Hector eat a single bite of worm, and in fact, he spent the entire winter hidden under the rock so that several days would go by before I would suddenly remember we had a pet toad and rush over to see if he was still alive.

Then one day recently, I passed through the dining room and noticed that Hector was out and about, alertly sitting on a pinecone. The next day, he was out as well. “I think Hector is done hibernating,” my husband remarked later that week. My son and I agreed we would set Hector free in the backyard as soon as the weather got a little bit warmer. A few weeks later, the chorus frogs and spring peepers began calling outside.

At a meeting recently, I asked people to share their favorite signs of spring. Some people look forward to specific activities – watching the baseball season opener or going outside without any socks. Other people look for buds on trees or tulip bulbs coming up in the gardens. For many though, spring announces itself with a chorus of sounds – frogs trilling, redwing blackbirds calling, and geese honking overhead.

During the spring, seasonal ponds and streams seem to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes called vernal ponds or ephemeral wetlands, they form in low-lying areas on the landscape when spring weather brings melting snow and lots of rain. Although these wetlands are temporary, they provide important habitat for migratory birds, amphibians and even insects like dragonflies. Pollution from fertilizers and pesticides can have a particularly bad impact on ephemeral wetlands during the spring when frog and toad eggs are hatching into tadpoles and birds are stopping over on their return journey north. Retaining a buffer of unmowed native plants around ephemeral ponds and streams helps to protect them from harm and using less chemicals on nearby lawns helps as well.

This past weekend, we decided it was finally time to say goodbye to Hector. We carried him outside and my son helped to choose a place in the back corner of our yard in a shady, hillside garden under some trees. After a few false starts, I finally convinced Hector to hop out of the aquarium and then I placed his hollow rock over him for protection. An hour later, when Charlie led my mom and a couple of friends over to show them where Hector was hiding, we all gasped in horror when we found the fake rock lying upside down in the lawn – the dog! Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a greenish figure hopping up the hillside. Gently, I scooped Hector up and moved him and his rock to the other side of the fence. He may not live forever, but today the toad is still safe.