Lessons from the locals

The summer I lived in Costa Rica, I learned a lot of lessons from the locals. For example, I had naively assumed that during the rainy season, there would be misty, rain forest rain, and that I could probably get by on most days wearing just a rain jacket. My first week there, however, I realized that the rainy season actually means torrential downpours every single day like clockwork from 2pm until 8pm in the central part of the country and from noon until 10pm in southern Costa Rica. I learned quickly from watching the local ladies that you never go to town without an umbrella, always wear a skirt or capris so that the bottoms of your pants don’t get soaked, and whenever possible plan the route from the bus stop to your destination so that you can walk under awnings most of the way. 

Here in Washington County, locals in the Stillwater area are teaching us a lesson about how multiple layers of government can work with one another and the community to actually get things done. It all started when Lake McKusick was listed as impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in 2006 for failing to meet “water quality standards.” Specifically, the problem was that the lake had too much phosphorus, which was causing excess algae growth and cloudy water. Lake McKusick’s condition concerned many, including the MPCA, whose role it is to enforce the Federal Clean Water Act and protect the water’s of Minnesota, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District and Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization, which manage local water resources to prevent flooding and pollution, the City of Stillwater, whose staff and officials want the best possible community for people to live in, and local residents such as the McKusick Lake Association, who want a clean and healthy lake in their neighborhood. 

Minnesota Conservation Corps workers help to plant one of many raingardens in Stillwater.

All too often, when this many people and organizations work together on a problem, there are arguments, finger pointing and inaction. Proving the cynics wrong, however, the locals have shown that cooperation and collaboration really lead to success. In the past four years, the city, watershed organizations and homeowners near the lake have installed several clean water projects, including residential raingardens and shoreline plantings, as well as larger stormwater pollution prevention features. As a result, the lake is getting better. Measurements show that phosphorus in the lake has dropped from 0.076ppm in 2006 to 0.054ppm in 2010, which is even lower than the 0.060 “clean water standard.” With less phosphorus available for food, there are less algae now in the lake. Chlorophyll-a, which is used to measure the presence of algae, has dropped from 0.0276ppm to 0.0159ppm, which is also below the standard. Not only that, but the water is clearer, allowing more sunlight for native aquatic plants in the lake, some of which are endangered species, and better conditions for the birds, frogs, turtles and wildlife that call the lake home.

Conditions in Lake McKusick have improved enough that the MPCA would like to take the lake off of the state impaired water’s list next year. This would be a great win for the locals, as it not only validates their hard work, but also means that the city, watersheds and residents can continue cleaning up the lake without pausing to deal with regulatory requirements or wasting money on more studies. In essence, the MPCA is telling the locals, “We trust you. Keep up the good work.” Says Stillwater Council Member Doug Menikheim, “The Lake McKusick story is a great example of what can happen when citizens pitch in to improve their community and different layers of government work together to save money and get things done.” Trust, collaboration, cooperation and success are all phrases in short supply these days. Maybe more people should take a lesson from our locals.