Planting Seeds Today for Cleaner Water Tomorrow

When Denise Stephens learned that polluted runoff from rural and residential areas was threatening Brown’s Creek and the St. Croix River, she didn’t just sit there; she started planting. Working with the Brown’s Creek Watershed District, she promptly installed not one, but three raingardens at her home in northwestern Stillwater. Now, virtually all of the rain that falls on her rooftop drains to the raingardens and soaks into the ground. The end result is less polluted runoff and more groundwater recharge.

Not content to stop in her own yard, however, Denise started talking to her neighbors and promptly convinced several of them to work with the watershed district to build raingardens at their homes. A similar pitch to the Settler’s Glen Homeowner’s Association resulted in two raingardens at the entrance monuments to the neighborhood and a native planting along the boulevard on Boutwell Road. Denise has now joined the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Brown’s Creek Watershed District and was recently awarded their Conservationist of the Year Award for all her hard work to keep local lakes, streams and rivers clean.

It would be hard to top Stephens’ enthusiasm for protecting local water resources.  I am constantly amazed, though, at how knowledgeable and passionate local residents are about their community lakes and streams and how willing they are to build raingardens, plant trees, install rain barrels and generally do whatever it takes to keep their water clean.

According to the 2007 Minnesota Report Card on Environmental Literacy, 61% of Minnesotans know that polluted runoff is the biggest threat to our local lakes, rivers and streams, which is a statistically significant improvement from 52% in 2001, and just goes to show that we are miles ahead of the rest of the nation. In other states, only 28% of people know that rain and melting snow wash pollutants and nutrients off of farm fields, lawns and city streets and into our local waterways, causing smelly green algal blooms, excess weed growth, and dying fish.

Here in Minnesota, when we hear our water’s in trouble, we do something to fix it. Last year, around 140 people attended Planting for Clean Water workshops in Washington County and nearly half of these people went on to plant raingardens or shoreline projects at their homes. Raingardens and native shoreline plantings are appealing to many people because they reduce the overall volume of polluted runoff from commercial, public, and residential properties but can also correct erosion and drainage problems and add property value. Both can be designed to complement existing landscaping, and with the right combination of flowers, grasses and shrubs, will attract birds and pollinators and provide year-round color.

To make it easier for folks like Denise Stephens to do the right thing, all eight watershed agencies in Washington County (including Valley Branch and Ramsey-Washington Metro, which extend into Ramsey County) offer cost-share grants for projects like raingardens that reduce runoff pollution. Guidelines vary from one program to the next, but in general these grants will pay for half of the cost of installing a raingarden, shoreline planting or other project. For smaller gardens, this may only be $100, but in larger projects the grants might be up to $2500. Many of the watershed agencies like Brown’s Creek also allow people to use their time building the gardens as their match, reducing the cost of the projects even further.

If you want to do your part to reduce runoff pollution from your home, you don’t have to be a watershed hero like Denise Stephens. You can start by contacting the Washington Conservation District to request a free site visit at your home, register for an upcoming Planting for Clean Water workshop or learn about available grants. Then again, for those of you that are interested in going all out like Denise, we’ll happily take your calls as well.