Local watershed organizations partner with homeowners on clean water projects

Minnesotans have consistently shown their support and commitment to protecting land and water resources for more than fifty years, and it is easy to see why. Outdoor recreation is a part of our way of life for everyone from hunters and fishermen to young children who play in parks. Protecting our natural areas and especially our local lakes, rivers and streams, ensures that we will still have places to hike, bike, boat, fish, hunt, see wildlife or just enjoy the quiet and peace of nature for years to come. One unique feature of Minnesota’s water governance structure are the local, special-purpose units of government called watershed districts, which were authorized by the Minnesota State Legislature in 1955.

Washington County is divided into seven watershed districts and one watershed management organization (formed by a joint-powers agreement between neighboring communities). These watershed organizations follow the natural flow of water across the land, ignoring jurisdictional boundaries such as city and county lines. The Comfort-Lake Forest Lake Watershed District, for example, contains all of the land that drains into Forest Lake, including some in Chisago County and some in Washington. The community of Grant, on the other hand, is parceled into three different watersheds. On the west side of town, water flows toward White Bear Lake, contained by the sprawling Rice Creek Watershed District, while water on the east side of town runs towards Brown’s Creek, which is managed by the aptly named Brown’s Creek Watershed District. Much of the land south of Hwy 12, however, is actually part of the Valley Branch Watershed District, as water there will eventually go south to the St. Croix River via Valley Creek in Afton.

In addition to monitoring water quality, watershed organizations also work with communities, homeowners, business owners, and rural property owners to install projects such as streambank stabilizations, raingardens, lakeshore plantings and habitat restorations that help to keep our water resources clean. More than 100 such projects were initiated last year in Washington County alone.  By splitting the cost of clean water projects with private landowners, watershed organizations are able to stretch grants and public, taxpayer funding further so that they can complete more projects per year. Private landowners, on the other hand, benefit from the design and installation assistance provided by the watersheds and are able to take on planting projects that they may not have been able to do, or afford, on their own.

Carol & Perry Parendo stand in front of their restored shoreline

For an example of how these partnership projects work, consider Carol and Perry Parendo of Stillwater, who worked with the Brown’s Creek Watershed District to restore their Long Lake shoreline property with a buffer of native plants in 2008.  As lakeshore homeowners, the Parendo’s had an obvious interest in doing what they could to clean up their lake and keep it in good condition for the birds and wildlife they like to watch. They and their neighbors began talking with the watershed and district administrator Karen Kill suggested that the group could work together to restore a stretch of shoreline along the lake. Brown’s Creek provided funding and worked with local native plant retailers and a crew from Minnesota Conservation Corps to help the homeowners complete the planting project. The Parendo’s and their neighbors are happy because they have a beautiful and natural shoreline, and the watershed district is happy because the project has reduced the amount of sediment and phosphorus flowing into Long Lake.

Watershed cost-share grant programs have become so popular that in many parts of Washington County, funding for 2011 has already disappeared. The South Washington Watershed District, for example, already has a long line of raingarden plantings waiting to be installed as soon as the weather is warm enough. The Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization, which covers parts of Stillwater, Baytown and West Lakeland, as well as the river communities from Bayport to St. Mary’s Point, is also nearly out of cost-share funding for the year, and the Rice Creek and Comfort-Lake Forest Lake watersheds are also on course to run out of funding soon.

In some parts of the county, however, ample cost-share funding is still available for landowners that are interested in raingardens, shoreline plantings and other pollution prevention projects. Brown’s Creek Watershed District is hoping to work with more homeowners living near Long, Benz and Masterman Lakes as well as landowners near Brown’s Creek. The Valley Branch Watershed District is looking for interested landowners near Silver Lake in North St. Paul, Valley Creek in Afton or near any of the lakes in Lake Elmo. Oftentimes land that is three or four miles away from a water body still drains directly there, via storm sewers or ditches, so landowners need not live on the water to qualify for cost-share grants and assistance.

All of us have a shared responsibility to protect our natural world, to use only what we need, make smarter choices, and pass on to future generations the beauty, wildlife, water and natural resources we have today. When communities, private landowners and other governmental units work collaboratively, we are able to maximize our impact and minimize our spending. “If we could each do small pieces,” says Nancy Anderson, a council member at St. Mary’s Point, “Everyone would take their share of the problem.”

If you are interested in planting a raingarden at your home, join Axdahl’s and the East Metro Water Education Program on May 21, 10am-noon, at the garden center on Hwy 15 in Stillwater. Register for this class at 651-439-3134 or info@axdahlfarms.com. The $25 class fee includes a copy of the Blue Thumb Guide to Raingardens book (retail $17.95) and a $20 Axdahl’s gift certificate.