The news you didn’t hear


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 23-11-2015

Climbing into the car, my hand reached out lightning fast and changed the station. “What was that?” my son called out from the back seat.

“Oh nothing,” I responded, “just the news.”

“What’s the news?” he asked, in predictable fashion.

Hoping to dodge a more lengthy conversation, I explained, “Well, there are people who report about the important things happening in the world each day and you can listen to the news and find out what’s going on.”

“Like what? What’s happening in the world?” he queried.

“Oh, you know…well…I mean…if there were a war they would report on that during the news,” I spoke reluctantly.

“And what else?”

Sighing, I continued, “Or…well… if there had happened to be an election today, they would tell us who won.”

“And what else?” Charlie asked again as I stared hard at the rain on the road, trying desperately to think of anything in the day’s news I would want to talk about with a preschooler. Stumped, I sat silent. Charlie tried again, “Do they tell you who died today?” With a sigh, I continued to glare at the road.

I’m not a journalist or a reporter, just an environmental educator working for a local government partnership. I write about water issues and projects, most of which are too small in scale to ever grab the headlines of the evening news. Though local in nature, these topics are not unimportant. Our water resources – the groundwater we drink, as well as the wetlands, lakes, rivers and streams that cover our landscape – are vital to our good health and quality of life. Newsworthiness is in the eye of the beholder.

With my son Charlie’s question in mind, I thought of a few small but important happenings, right here in the St. Croix Valley. You’ll probably never hear these stories on the nightly news, but then again, you probably won’t mind talking about them with your family during dinner tonight. Maybe we should all share more stories like these:

  • A boater caught in action - doing the right thing.

    A boater caught in action – doing the right thing.

    Inspections and education made a difference in the spread of aquatic invasive species. The Washington Conservation District hired two watercraft inspectors to monitor 17 public boat launches in Washington County this past summer. The inspectors talked to boaters about the importance of removing drain plugs and cleaning their boats and trailers in order to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil. In the course of 31 inspections conducted on seven different days at Square Lake Park, not one single violation was discovered! In fact, of the 579 inspections performed across the county on incoming watercraft, only nine violations were observed – a result much lower than the statewide trend. All nine violations were boats or trailers that had plants attached and, in each case, the plants were successfully removed by hand before the boats entered the water.

  • Newly planted raingarden at Kiwanis Camp

    Newly planted raingarden at Kiwanis Camp

    A new project at the Kiwanis Scout Camp in Marine on St. Croix will help make the river cleaner. The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District worked with the Kiwanis Camp to capture stormwater runoff and repair erosion problems by building a large raingarden near the main building, stabilizing shoreline along the river with brush bundles, limestone steppers, and native plants, and creating a vegetated swale with rock to stabilize a crumbling boat access drive. Washington Conservation District helped to design the project and provided funding through a grant from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. In its entirety, the project will keep almost ten pounds of phosphorus out of the St. Croix River each year – enough to prevent 5000 pounds of algae from growing!

  • Communities in the St. Croix Valley are connecting through art and nature. Three weeks ago a group of artists, scientists and community leaders from across the St. Croix Valley gathered at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson as part of a new initiative known as Navigate, led by ArtReach St. Croix and Arts Midwest. Over the course of five retreats, the group will explore common goals and develop a strategic plan for how to work collaboratively to support arts, protect and improve nature, and enhance life in the St. Croix Valley. This innovative project is an example of collaboration at its best.

And that is the news of the day that you didn’t hear.

Stabilizing the St. Croix River Bluff in Lakeland


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Local Achievements, Partners and Updates | Posted on 17-11-2015

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Green algae filled water at Lakeland Beach in 2007.

Green algae filled water along the Lakeland Beach in 2007.

Picture two very strong men lifting two bathtubs full of water over their heads and pouring the water down the side of a steep, tall hill right next to your house. Now picture that same volume of water pouring over the hill, continuously, during a large rainstorm. Dirt begins to wash away, chunks of the hillside cave in and tumble to the riverbank down below. A torrent of muddy water, mixed with twigs and leaves streams out into the St. Croix River, creating a dirty brown plume. Long after the rain has stopped, phosphorus from the water that came down the hill lingers in the river, feeding algae and other aquatic plants. By the end of the summer, portions of the river have taken on a greenish hue.

A view of the St. Croix River from the bottom of the bluff in Lakeland.

A view of the St. Croix River from the bottom of the bluff in Lakeland in 2013.

When the City of Lakeland met with the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization (MSCWMO) eight years ago to discuss drainage problems on Quixote Ave., the two entities knew they were facing a formidable challenge. Because of the slope of the land, runoff from more than 12 acres of streets and homes was flowing down Quixote Ave. and over the bluff into the St. Croix River during large rain events. Over time, the runoff water had created a gully in the bluffline and people living in the homes nearby were beginning to worry about the rate of erosion. Additionally, water monitoring research has shown that the St. Croix River is becoming unhealthy due to excess phosphorus, most of which comes from stormwater runoff.

After an initial feasibility study in 2007, the city began implementing projects to capture runoff from small storms and soak the water into the ground before it could reach the bluffline.  This included multiple raingardens installed between the years of 2009 and 2011.

The river bluff is so steep that staff had to use a ladder to get up and down it while planting.

The river bluff is so steep that staff had to use a ladder to get up and down it while planting.

Last week, Lakeland and the MSCWMO completed the finishing touches on a comprehensive project to address drainage, erosion, and runoff pollution problems along Quixote Ave. The $120,000 project included several components including building three more shallow raingardens, resloping and regrading Quixote Ave., building an iron-enhanced sand filter to pull phosphorus out of the street runoff, installing a pipe to convey water safely from the top of the bluff to the river during large storms, and restoring the hillside with native plants and shrubs to prevent further erosion. Funding for the project came from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund, a grant from the St. Croix River Association, City of Lakeland and the Middle St. Croix WMO.

Go team! (L to R: Mike Isensee, MSCWMO; Jenn Radtke, WCD; Katherine McLellan, GreenCorps)

Go team – final planting done! (L to R: Mike Isensee, MSCWMO; Jenn Radtke, WCD; Katherine McLellan, GreenCorps)

The Quixote Ave. project demonstrates the importance of working collaboratively and using innovative approaches to address modern water quality problems. Altogether, the project will keep at least 8.5 pounds of phosphorus out of the river each year (the equivalent of 4250 pounds of algae), and will also keep more than 3000 pounds of soil in place along the bluff and out of the water each year. The approach is unique in that it addresses runoff from both small and large storms, and will also protect the river bluff and surrounding homes. None of this would be possible, however, without cooperation and good communication between the city, residents along the street, the Middle St. Croix WMO, and the multiple other agencies and organizations involved in the project.

Picture Quixote Ave. in the rain next summer. Some water flows into existing and new raingardens, some soaks into the landscape in other locations, some flows safely down a pipe to the river. On the hillside, new plants grow larger and their roots take hold. The river breathes a sigh of relief.

Working in Partnership with Homeowners’ Associations


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean, Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 27-10-2015

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Wet meadow in bloom at Hamlet on Sunfish Lake

Wet meadow in bloom at Hamlet on Sunfish Lake

In 2008, Lake Elmo resident Sarah Hietpas called the Washington Conservation District (WCD) for advice. Her Homeowners’ Association, Hamlet on Sunfish Lake, was brand new and landscaping in many of the common areas had been left undone. The association board was concerned about preventing erosion and protecting water quality in Sunfish Lake and wetlands within the development, and was interested in restoring habitat in natural areas and enhancing buffers around the wetlands. After conducting a site visit at the Hamlet neighborhood and meeting with association board members, WCD natural resource specialist Rusty Schmidt put together a landscape plan that included expanding an existing wetland, creating native plantings at the entrance to the neighborhood, and planting tree glades within road medians and large expanses of open space in the development.  Schmidt also helped the Homeowner’s Association to apply for a community cost-share grant through the Valley Branch Watershed District that covered  50% of the project cost ($4,285), and to get planting assistance and an additional $2ooo in grant funds from  local non-profit Great River Greening.

In June of 2010, Hamlet on Sunfish Lake again reached out to the Valley Branch Watershed District, this time to remove invasive cattail and reed canary grass that had crept into the wet meadow planting and to add more than 1,000 new plants. With a $500 plant grant, the association was able to improve habitat in the wet meadow and incorporate more flowering plants for a prettier landscape.

Managing outdoor common areas in apartment, condominium, and homeowner associations can be challenging. On the one hand, most people who live in these types of neighborhoods enjoy having large lawns and open areas nearby without having to mow, trim, weed and maintain those areas themselves. On the other hand, the cost of hiring a landscape maintenance company can be expensive, and water bills from in-ground irrigation systems often pack a big punch as well. Meanwhile, residents also worry about how their neighborhood might be impacting the environment. Is their lawn care company applying more pesticides and fertilizer than the lawn really needs? Could they shrink their water bills and use less groundwater if the sprinklers were running less often?

The Washington Conservation District currently has funding available through a Clean Water Grant to help interested Homeowners’ Associations in Washington County complete projects that will help to reduce runoff water pollution, improve habitat, and conserve groundwater. Example projects include building raingardens, converting turf areas to native plantings, and retrofitting existing stormwater ponds to use stormwater instead of groundwater for irrigation. Often, an association will reach out to the Conservation District with a specific goal in mind – fixing a drainage issue, for example, or reducing their water bill. Landscaping projects can have multiple benefits, however, and experts at the WCD are good at figuring out ways to address problems while also improving the environment. In addition, education staff are available to meet with property managers and association board members to provide tips on what to ask for from lawn care providers to ensure healthy lawns that are “green” in more than one way.

If you live in an apartment, condo or homeowner association in Washington County, contact Jenn Radtke to learn more about the Washington Conservation District program and other resources available to you: or 651-330-8220 x.44.

Calling all ninja warriors


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Buckthorn, Uncategorized | Posted on 21-10-2015

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ninja-29569_1280Whaaaaaa! Whu whu whu…weeaah! Is that a non-native, invasive buckthorn shrub growing in your back yard? Here, take my ninja sword and chop it down. Hi-yah! They’ve got us surrounded. The buckthorn are creeping in from all sides. We need more ninjas! Chop, chop, chop – get ‘em!

A ninja costume arrived in the mail at our house yesterday and I spent at least an hour prowling around the outside of the house jumping out of bushes, stabbing imaginary foes, and attempting to scare my son. I’m sure the neighbors thought I had gone crazy. Then I got to thinking, “What if all this slicing action could be put to better use fighting a real enemy like buckthorn?”

Buckthorn has smooth, dark green leaves, greyish bark with little horizontal lines, and long thorns.

Buckthorn has smooth, dark green leaves, greyish bark with little horizontal lines, and long thorns.

It’s hard to believe that one plant could cause so many problems, but buckthorn truly has become a green menace in Minnesota. Since it was first recorded in Minnesota in Hennepin County, 1937, the shrub has taken over thousands of acres of woods and deciduous forests in our state, crowding out woodland wildflowers and native shrubs, as well as spoiling bird habitat and increasing erosion near rivers, lakes and streams. Because it leafs-out early in the spring and keeps its leaves late into the fall, buckthorn enjoys a growing advantage compared to native shrubs. Females produce large numbers of blackish-purple berries, as well, many of which germinate and help buckthorn to spread quickly into new areas from bordering properties.

Truth be told, I know that there are already hundreds of ninja warriors out there in Washington County battling buckthorn. They come by the Washington Conservation District office all the time to borrow orange weed wrenches for the crusade. I know too how frustrating it can be to fight buckthorn if you have anything more than a small city lot. Not only does buckthorn form an impenetrable thicket, spiky and difficult to cut down, but it is freakishly capable of sprouting and re-growing from a stump, unless treated with herbicide, creating a new octopus-like shrub even tougher to defeat than the original. Worst of all, buckthorn seeds can survive for up to five years in the soil, so even if you succeed in removing all of the buckthorn from your land, you’re doomed to continue pulling out emerging seedlings each spring until the buckthorn really stays gone.

Buckthorn wrench in action.

Buckthorn wrench in action.

Although swords may be the weapon of choice for real ninjas, they actually aren’t really the best method for killing buckthorn. In general, there are two standard approaches. The first is to remove the buckthorn completely from the ground, root and all, using a weed wrench so that it can’t grow back. The downside to this strategy is that it disturbs the soil and can make it easier for new buckthorn seedlings to sprout up, or other invasive species like garlic mustard to take hold. Furthermore, if the soil below the buckthorn is completely bare, you’ll need to plant new native groundcover and shrubs to prevent erosion. The second strategy is to cut down buckthorn with a saw, to avoid disturbing the soil. Then, to prevent the buckthorn from re-sprouting, you have to either treat the stump with herbicide (see for info on chemical control) or cover the stumps with a tin can or buckthorn baggie (

The University of Minnesota, Forest Resources Department has been conducting research on the best ways to prevent and manage common buckthorn. After surveying 55 sites in central and southern Minnesota in 2010, researchers found that buckthorn was most abundant in sites with more openings in the canopy and a sparser layer of leaf litter on the forest floor. They also found that non-native earthworms and buckthorn tended to go hand in hand. “Although not immune to invasion,” they wrote, “’healthy forests’ are more resistant than disturbed forests (Whitfeld, et al, 2010).” This month, the Minnesota Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center at the University of Minnesota announced that it will be funding a new $327,000 project, led by Professor Peter Reich, to develop management tools to limit buckthorn re-colonization following its removal.

Though the fight against buckthorn is challenging, controlling buckthorn in residential areas is one of the best ways to protect Minnesota forests from invasion. That’s why I’m calling all ninja warriors today…ready, set, hiiiii-yaah!

To participate in a group ninja buckthorn attack, come to the annual Newport Buckthorn Event at Bailey School Forest on Saturday, Oct. 24, 9am-noon. RSVP to Renee Eisenbeisz at (651) 459-5677 or, by Monday, October 19, 2015, so that supplies and snacks can be arranged.

Learn more about buckthorn at

The mysterious connection between leaves and algae


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Yards and Landscaping | Posted on 12-10-2015

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Bring on the Minnesota fall color!

Bring on the Minnesota fall color!

If a leaf falls in the forest and nobody sees it, do you still have to rake it up? While autumn may be Minnesota’s favorite pastime, raking up the leaves that fall in our yards, definitely is not. Yet, most of us do it begrudgingly eventually, both to keep the leaves from smothering our grass, and to avoid the scorn of our neighbors.

What about the leaves on the driveway, sidewalk and road, though? In recent years, we’ve become aware that these leaves actually deliver a big dose of nutrients to lakes and rivers when they get washed into storm sewers in the streets. Is this a problem? After all, leaves are natural and fall into wooded lakes and streams all the time. In fact, part of the reason that lakes in central and southern Minnesota can grow more fish and bigger fish than those in northern Minnesota is because they receive more nutrients from natural sources like the leaves of deciduous trees.

The real problem is not that leaves contain phosphorus but that storm sewers make the contributing drainage areas for metro area lakes, rivers and streams so much larger. As a result, leaves from several square miles, instead of just a few acres, could end up in one little lake.

Leaves can clog storm drains and send nutrients into local lakes and rivers.

Leaves can clog storm drains and send nutrients into local lakes and rivers.

Consider the contrast between what happens to fallen leaves in a forest, versus those in a city neighborhood. In forests, earthworms and insects, fungi, and bacteria break down and decompose the leaves over time. As a result, some of the phosphorus and nitrogen that has been absorbed by trees is returned to the soil and helps to spur new growth in the spring.

In a city neighborhood, most of us remove the leaves from our yards in the fall so that they don’t smother and kill the grass. (That said, running over the leaves with a mulching mower during the fall is actually a good way to break them up and return nutrients to the soil – and it’s much easier to do than raking and bagging.) Leaves in the street begin to break down as well, but as they do, the nutrients are washed away into storm drains that connect to wetlands, lakes and rivers instead of being returned to the soil.

Blue-green algae, fed by excess phosphorus, occasionally turns Lake St. Croix green.

Blue-green algae, fed by excess phosphorus, occasionally turns Lake St. Croix green.

In freshwater systems where phosphorus is the limiting nutrient, algae and aquatic plants stop growing once the phosphorus runs out (nitrogen is the limiting nutrient in saltwater). Conversely, if stormwater pipes deliver twice as much phosphorus as normal to a lake, twice as much algae can grow. Many lakes in Washington County, including Lake St. Croix, suffer from too much phosphorus. The result is too much algae, which makes swimming and boating unpleasant, upsets the natural balance of aquatic ecosystems, and even causes toxic blooms on occasion.

So, what is a good, water-loving Minnesotan to do if you want to help protect your local lakes and the St. Croix River? If a leaf falls in the woods, by all means, let it be. But, if it falls on your driveway, sidewalk or street, rake it up for lakes’ sake!

Rake for lakes' sake!

Rake for lakes’ sake!


Minnesota Fishing Still Just as Sweet


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology | Posted on 06-10-2015

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Erica Ellefson holds up one of the many bass we caught on Disappointment Lake.

Erica Ellefson holds up one of the many bass we caught on Disappointment Lake.

With three poles, one canoe, and an oversized tackle box, we three girls set out to prove that Disappointment Lake was misnamed. Had we relied on my skill alone, we would have certainly ate stale tortillas and cheese for lunch. Erica and Katie, on the other hand, paddled with confidence directly to the sheltered bay marked on the map with an asterisk and a hand-written note, “Good bass fishing here.” Within minutes, Erica had already caught her first fish. It was a tiny one, the kind you keep at the beginning of a trip, just in case it’s the only one you catch that day. Before long, however, the bigger bass began biting.

Katie Pata and Erica show off the day's catch before lunch.

Katie Pata and Erica show off the day’s catch before lunch.

I was sitting in the middle seat, and I screamed when Katie caught her first fish, reeling it in so that the slimy bugger flew by inches from my face before flopping about on the bottom of the canoe underneath my seat. Later, with a little guidance from my gal pals, I soon reeled in a fighting bass of my own. After an hour or so on the water, we paddled back to camp triumphantly, seven fish trailing behind us on a line. We ate them battered and fried over a camp stove, the stale tortillas long since forgotten.

Since the premature close of walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs in early August, there has been intense discussion about the state of fishing in Minnesota. Will anyone come here to fish anymore? Are there still enough fish to be caught?

Though walleye is our official State Fish, it may surprise you to learn that there are actually 158 species of fish in Minnesota. Pan fish are the most commonly caught fish in Minnesota (9.7 million pounds per year), followed by walleye (4.6 million pounds) and northern pike (4.6 million pounds). You can catch crappie, catfish, sunfish, perch and bullhead at any time, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has established fishing seasons for gamefish such as walleye, northern pike and bass to protect these species from overfishing.

Fishing is a lucrative business in Minnesota. The DNR estimates that anglers in our state spend $1.8 billion per year on fishing-related recreation, including boats, cabin rentals, fishing gear, gas, and even ice. Many of these anglers have their sights set on walleye; to help boost natural populations, the DNR stocks lakes with approximately 250 million walleye fry (mosquito sized), 2.5 million walleye fingerlings (4-6 inches long), 50,000 walleye yearlings, and 30,000 adult walleye each year. That said, the DNR stocks other popular fish species as well, and many people enjoy the solitude of fly fishing for trout on a cold-water stream, fighting to reel in a plucky bass, or even going for the big guns like muskie and northern pike.

You may also be surprised to learn that lakes in southwestern Minnesota produce five times as many fish per acre as the cool, deep, clear, clean lakes in northern Minnesota.  The reason is that fertile lakes support more plant life, which in turn creates more habitat and more food for the fish. However, too much of a good thing can eventually become a problem. When lakes are inundated with nutrients from urban and agricultural runoff, already eutrophic lakes can become hyper-eutrophic, meaning that the excess nutrients allow so much algae and plant growth that the plants eventually die, consuming large quantities of oxygen as they decompose. Fish kills are common in many shallow lakes during the winter and can happen during mid-summer algae blooms as well. In addition, nutrient laden runoff often comes with other pollutants as well. Sediment can muddy the water, clogging fish gills and smothering spawning areas, and the runoff usually contains warmer water, a problem for cold-water fish like trout.

In the east metro area, local units of government known as Watershed Districts manage the landscape surrounding lakes, establishing rules regarding development and working with landowners to reduce runoff going into the water. Meanwhile, the DNR is responsible for managing what happens inside the lakes to fish and aquatic plants, for example, limiting the amount of aquatic plants lakeshore landowners can clear for navigation so that fish populations don’t crash. This division of labor can be confusing, but helps to make a large job more manageable.

To learn more about fishing and fisheries management in Minnesota, go to The summer may be over, but fishing in Minnesota is definitely not.

Tale of the Trees


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Keeping water clean | Posted on 28-09-2015

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“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

– Dr. Suess, The Lorax

My son decided that this imaginative play structure at the Franconia Sculpture Garden looked just like the "Onceler's House."

My son decided that this imaginative play structure at the Franconia Sculpture Garden looked just like the “Onceler’s House.”

Stomping angrily around the room, my three-year old looked up at me. “If someone tries to cut down a tree,” he declared, “I will tell them ‘No! Trees are good. They give us oxygen.’ Someone who cuts down a tree…I will NOT be their friend.” He had just read Dr. Suess’s The Lorax earlier that day with my mom, then twice again with me that night, and his sense of justice was righteous. I tried to tell him that we do sometimes have to cut down trees – to build houses like ours or make paper for books – and that the important thing is to take good care of our forests so that trees regrow and animals can still live there. Unimpressed, he insisted, “I am going to plant a tree. And tell everyone else not to cut them down.”

By chance, the arrival of The Lorax in our house happened to coincide with me reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, which is more or less a longer, more complicated and more depressing, adult version of The Lorax. After detailing the rise and fall of nearly a dozen human societies – Easter Island, Greenland Norse, Anasazi – he comes to the conclusion that deforestation was either the primary cause, or a strong contributing factor to every one of the doomed society’s eventual collapse. In modern times, countries like Haiti bear witness to the devastating impacts of deforestation.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 50% of our nation’s freshwater supply originates in forests. Forested watersheds reduce stormwater runoff, stabilize streambanks, shade surface water, cycle nutrients, and filter pollutants. Some scientists predict that forests will become even more critical in the future. In a technical paper for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of researchers argue that, “Forests are key determinants of water supply, quality, and quantity, in both developing and developed countries. The importance of forests as watersheds may increase substantially in the next few decades, as freshwater resources become increasingly scarce (Bates et al., 2008, Climate Change and Water).”

In addition to supplying us humans with drinking water and recreation opportunities, rivers, lakes and streams within forests provide habitat for plants and wildlife as well, including many rare and endangered species. We may not have Brown Bar-ba-loots or Swomee-Swans in Minnesota, but we do have eastern spotted skunks (also known as civet cats) and cerulean warblers, both of which are forest-dependent species of special concern that live right here in Washington County.

Forests protect the health of the St. Croix River.

Forests protect the health of the St. Croix River.

Though the St. Croix River Basin still contains many healthy forests in its northern reaches, local scientists know that we have lost many acres of forest since pre-settlement times; added together the amount of forestland lost comprises 20% of the 7,700 square mile basin. One of the resulting impacts of this change has been a decline in water quality in the St. Croix River as excess nutrients and sediment in the water cause more frequent algae blooms and poorer habitat for aquatic life. According to the St. Croix River Basin – State of the Forest Report, “As human expansion has pushed upstream, change from low phosphorus export cover types such as forest, shrub, and grassland to high phosphorus export cover types such as cultivated crops and developed land has been the result… Failure to preserve these low phosphorus export land cover types could mean failure to meet water quality goals in the SCRB (US Forest Service, 2013).”

For children like mine, inspired by the tale of The Lorax, it turns out that there is an entire website full of activities and extensions at For adults, useful resources include My Minnesota Woods, a service of the University of Minnesota, or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Additionally, Washington County landowners can schedule a free site visit with the Washington Conservation District to get advice about managing their woodland habitat, and the Conservation District offers a low-cost tree sale every year in the spring.

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Vectors of Infestation


Posted by Angie Hong | Posted in Aquatic Biology, Partners and Updates | Posted on 08-09-2015

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How long will our wilderness lakes remain pristine?

How long will our wilderness lakes remain pristine?

There’s nothing like heading up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to get away from everything for a while…in theory at least. My friends and I recently returned from a four day, three night jaunt into the BWCA where we found beautiful scenery, good bass fishing, but not a lot of solitude. Apparently, our entry point on Moose Lake is the most popular in the BWCA, and the route we chose from there led us to a crossroads where people from all directions converged, leading to a severe shortage of campsites. There were multiple other groups at every portage we passed through and we acquired our last night’s campsite only by stalking a group from Kansas City that was packing up and getting ready to leave later that day.

When aquatic invasive species first started showing up in Minnesota lakes, I don’t think anyone was surprised. Invaders like zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil were already wreaking havoc in other states and it seemed natural that they would eventually make their way to some of the bigger, more popular lakes in Minnesota as well. There is an increasing sense of urgency now, however, as invasives have begun to show up in smaller lakes, closer to home, as well as northern lakes, theoretically remote.

This summer, watercraft inspectors working on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Washington Conservation District, and local Watershed Districts have been stationed at public launches around Washington County. Though the inspectors have no enforcement authority, they greet boaters as they arrive, check to ensure that drain plugs have been removed and no plants or animals are attached to boats and trailers, and educate people about how to avoid spreading aquatic invasive species. Recently, our office began looking at data collected from inspections during the first half of the summer, the results were astounding.

The above graphic shows the connections between Washington County lakes and rivers and those in other parts of the state, based on watercraft inspections conducted during June and July of 2015.

The above graphic shows the connections between Washington County lakes and rivers and those in other parts of the state, based on watercraft inspections conducted during June and July of 2015.

The good news is that the majority of people are following the rules and cleaning and draining their boats properly; all it takes is one bad seed to spoil the lake, however, so the need for education still exists. More surprising was the information collected about where people had come from before arriving at lakes and rivers in our county. We drew lines on a map to show these connections, and the resulting spider web spans the state from Washington County to the border of Canada.

Lake Superior (infested with ruffe) and Lake of the Woods (spiny waterflea) are connected to Lake Elmo and Big Marine Lake. Winnibigoshish (faucet snail and zebra mussel) connects to DeMontreville, and Mille Lacs (Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny waterflea and zebra mussels) to Big Carnelian and Big Marine. Likewise, Clear Lake in Forest Lake (infested with Eurasian watermilfoil) is connected by people to Birch Lake in Babbitt (which leads into the Boundary Water via the Kawishiwi River), and Lake Elmo (Eurasian watermilfoil) connects to the Boundary Waters as well. In addition, people made countless trips between metro area lakes and rivers, linking the Mississippi to the St. Croix, Lake Minnetonka to Tanner’s Lake, White Bear to Square, and more.

Looking at these “vectors of infestation,” it is clear that we must be hyper-vigilant if we hope to protect our remaining pristine waterways from invasive species. As my friends and I were reminded two weeks ago, few places in Minnesota are truly remote anymore. To avoid spreading aquatic invasives to our favorite places, always clean your boat and trailer when you exit a lake or river, remove the drain plug to empty the water, and if possible, leave the boat out of the water to dry for at least five (5) days before going to another lake or river. More info at

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


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:

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


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.