Board tour shows that conservation works in any setting

WCD board members John Rheinberger, Louise Smallidge, Jim Levitt, Sarah Hietpas and Gary Baumann pose in front of a Lake St. Croix Beach raingarden.

It’s not very often that you see a group of elected officials climb aboard a school bus, but despite the bouncy seats and a few unpaved roads, Washington Conservation District’s (WCD) five board members remained in good humor as they visited several recent projects in the southern half of the county. Like most Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the WCD got its start in the 1940’s working with farmers. The projects highlighted in this year’s tour, however, ran the gamut from rural to suburban, agricultural and even commercial, demonstrating that conservation today is appropriate for any setting.

In a Woodbury subdivision near Powers Lake, Wendy Griffin, a natural resource specialist with the district, pointed out trees planted during the spring as part of a grant-funded research project to determine how much trees reduce stormwater runoff. Fifty-five homeowners participated in the project, planting a total of 142 trees throughout the neighborhood. In front of one home, water resource specialist Erik Anderson revealed monitoring equipment mounted inside a storm drain inlet, one of 60 such monitoring stations around the county. The equipment collects water samples every time it rains, providing the district with important information about how much water runs off the road, how clean it is, and most importantly, if there are any changes over time as the trees mature. Additional monitoring data is collected from Powers Lake itself, where district employees take temperature and dissolved oxygen readings throughout the spring, summer, and fall, measure water clarity using a secchi disk, and gather water samples to analyze for phosphorus, nitrogen and Chlorophyll-a.

Further down the road in Woodbury, WCD board members visited a very different style of project at the Bielenberg Sports Center. Here, the district worked with the city’s parks department to redesign an existing parking lot basin so that it now functions as a raingarden. The raingarden cleans and infiltrates runoff water from the soccer fields and parking lot, in addition to providing habitat for birds and insects in the area. As resource specialist Tara Kline explained, a dry creek that wanders through the basin filters out sediment and carries water to the plants in the garden. It also provides visual interest, as well as easy access for park employees to pick up litter or pull weeds.

During the past decade, the WCD has amplified efforts in residential and commercial neighborhoods within Washington County in response to rapid development and a changing landscape. Much of the county remains rural, however, and the district continues to work with agricultural producers and other large-lot owners to implement conservation projects that provide wildlife habitat and protect lakes and streams. Along a little-used road in Afton, the WCD board tour stopped in front of a large farm field with a newly repaired grassed waterway. The landowner had contacted the Conservation District for advice back in 2008, and after visiting the site and reviewing watershed maps, WCD staff realized that the land is actually part of the headwaters to Trout Brook. Water that runs off the farm field feeds into the stream, which eventually flows through Afton State Park and into the St. Croix River. As district engineer Pete Young explained, there was an existing grassed waterway on the site, most likely built with WCD assistance several decades ago. Over the years, however, sediment had built up to the point that the waterway was no longer cleaning the runoff, but instead, sending dirt downstream toward the river. Working with the landowner, the WCD designed and installed a simple repair that Young estimates now keeps 3.4 pounds of phosphorus out of Trout Brook each year, along with an astounding 3.4 tons of sediment.

The dozen conservation projects on the WCD board tour represent just a fraction of the hundreds that the district has helped to install over the past five years. There are conservation projects in all 33 cities and townships within Washington County and it is worth noting that every one of these was a collaborative effort. During their tour, the WCD board visited projects that were accomplished in conjunction with local cities, watershed districts, Washington County, private landowners, a developer and even a homeowners’ association. Displaying an impressive diversity of size, style and function, this unique bus tour demonstrated that conservation happens everywhere and with everyone.