Old Dogs and New Tricks

When I burned out on my first career, my decision to return to college was a blatant admission of my desire to learn new tricks. My professors in the Department of Landscape Architecture furthered that idea by pushing us to go beyond the existing norms, to dream of what might be possible and work to find a way to bring those dreams to reality. Of course, when we came up with a wonderfully creative and new idea we were brought back to reality with the reminder that the bureaucrats would never approve such a design. So when I eventually found myself working at the Washington Soil and Water Conservation District (as it was called back then) as a bureaucrat, implementing the Wetland Conservation Act here in Washington County, I purposely tried to encourage innovative thought. If it functioned as a wetland, even if it didn’t look like a wetland, I was likely to support it.

In class, we used a new computer program to calculate stormwater run-off. It was a radical way to evaluate a site design, especially when it seemed to contradict common-sense. That contradiction got better after our class uncovered a glitch in the program, and forced a correction. In my early days here, only a few engineering firms were able to provide the modeling we requested.  Now, most applications provide run-off modeling and calculations without being asked. They also submit the plans in “pdf” or CAD form, instead of stacks of blueprints.

A few of my classmates worked on a design research project involving creating narrow basins along roadsides. Heavily planted with flowers, the basins allowed water to infiltrate and transpirate stormwater. Those students were mocked, since nobody should be expected to give up their tidy lawns, especially in an urban setting in the early 1990s. In 2011, the Washington Conservation District (WCD) responded to more than 130 requests for assistance on installing raingardens. In less than 20 years, they’ve become common.

An engineer recently reminded me that in the old days, applicants didn’t want the expense of submitting plans that weren’t likely to get approved, and the communities weren’t about to gamble on unproven technology or tricks. A turning point came in 2001. Less than ten years ago, the WCD supported an innovative proposal for using infiltration as part of the required stormwater management on a relatively small commercial project site near Stillwater. We found some grant funds to offset the cost difference, and persuaded the regulators that the experiment was worth the risk. We were lucky. The local watershed district was looking for methods to support their new rules, the applicant was appreciative of new ideas, and the engineers did a fine job on the design and construction.

Several of my professors told stories of the challenges of growing prairie plants in yards, due to weed ordinances. In my early years here, I received a call from a new rural resident asking about who he needed to talk with about planting prairie in his yard. I offered a list of prairie plant suppliers; he was concerned about weed ordinances. I told him “Welcome to Washington County, we like prairies.”  Gardening with native plants is no longer the domain of a counter-culture. From coneflowers and prairie dropseed in entry gardens to categories in flower divisions at the county fair judging, they no longer need justification. You’ll even find prairie flowers in wedding bouquets or holiday wreaths these days. And we have three native plant nurseries within easy driving range around the county, with others slightly farther away. They are also available on-line, another new trick.

And don’t overlook the concept of Reduce – Reuse – Recycle, which is really a new spin on a trick known by the very old dogs. Even though the WCD may encourage you to grow more trees (and we still send out a hardcopy newsletter), we also encourage recycling organics for use as mulches or soil amendments. Not long ago, people were complaining about separating cans from trash. Now, we provide multiple bins at our education programs, to meet attendee expectations.

So as you reflect back on 2011 and ahead to 2012 and beyond, keep watching for those new tricks. I admit to being an old dog in many ways, but can’t wait to see what new tricks will emerge in the next 20 years.


Guest Writer: Jyneen Thatcher is a Natural Resource Specialist with the Washington Conservation District. She can be reached at jyneen.thatcher@mnwcd.org or 651-275-1136 X 37.