Protecting the St. Croix River

Faced with the prospect of record flooding on the St. Croix River, volunteers turned out in droves to fill sandbags in downtown Stillwater. So many volunteers came out, in fact, that city officials called off the effort early. It goes to show that people in the St. Croix Valley are passionate about their community and aren’t afraid to get a few sore backs if it helps to protect the people and places they love.

This same kind of community spirit and can-do attitude can be seen in towns small and large on both side of the St. Croix River. A group of artists, scientists and community leaders in the Hudson area is currently developing an Artful Raingardens Project, set to launch in late spring, that they hope will spur acts of conservation both large and small throughout the area. Plans include a raingarden design competition, as well as an art exhibit at the Phipps Center for the Arts that will showcase artwork, music, photos and landscape design drawings that demonstrate the beauty of raingardens and native plantings, as well as their ability to protect the river so many of us love.

Aboard the Grand Duchess, Dave Bucheck and Jack Lavold, two local watershed board members talk about protecting the river

Meanwhile, the St. Croix Basin Team, which includes researchers, government agencies and the citizen led St. Croix River Association, has been hard at work over the past ten years to identify the sources of pollution to the St. Croix River, model different strategies to reduce this pollution, and promote collaborative efforts throughout the watershed. At the 12th Annual St. Croix Basin Protection Conference on April 5, the Basin Team will share its latest research along with updates on projects underway in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Conference organizers see this event as an opportunity for local communities to exchange stories and ideas, as well as a chance for citizen groups, lake associations, and non-profits active in land and water conservation to tie into regional clean water projects underway.

Over the next three years, Conservation St. Croix, a collaborative of nine Minnesota Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the St. Croix Basin, is working on a grant project to help communities update policies, ordinances and zoning and subdivision codes to better protect the river. Minnesota also introduced the new “Blue Star” Recognition Program, which was developed to reward communities for reducing stormwater runoff into lakes and rivers and for good water-management policies. Stillwater took the Blue Star assessment in September and scored high enough to land a spot on the Blue Star Leader Board, as well as one of the coveted Blue Stars.

In Washington County, raingardens, shoreline plantings and grassed waterways are spreading like wildflowers. The Washington Conservation District and Watershed Districts in the county began promoting raingardens five years ago as a way for homeowners to reduce runoff from their properties. The gardens, which are designed to catch water from rooftops and driveways and soak it into the ground, are popular because of their beauty and ability to attract birds and butterflies. The districts also work with farmers to install grassed waterways that reduce erosion along natural drainage ways, as well as with shoreline and streambank property owners to stabilize the water’s edge with native plants. There were nearly 100 clean water projects on private land in the county in 2009, and 130 in 2010.

When the St. Croix River was listed as impaired by excess phosphorus in 2008, some people saw it as a sign of failure. When American Rivers declared the Lower St. Croix to be one of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” the very next year, others hung their heads in shame. The people of the St. Croix Valley saw it differently though, and they are rising to the challenge in true Valley spirit. Throughout the 8,000 square miles of the St. Croix Basin, from the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi in Prescott all the way north to communities like Hinkley, McGrath and Moose Lake in Minnesota, and Spooner, Hayward and Solon Springs in Wisconsin, people are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. There is no doubt that the challenge at hand, to cut phosphorus in the St. Croix River by 100 tons per year, will be monumental given the size of the basin and the amount of effort needed. There is also no doubt, in my mind, that our network of collaborators can rise to the challenge. The St. Croix River is our economic, cultural and ecological backbone and no one here is afraid of a sore back.

Register on-line for the April 5 St. Croix Basin Conference at

Learn more about clean water projects in Washington County at