Going Old School at Lake Phalen

Southwest side of Lake Phalen.

Once upon a time, urbanites traveled out to the country to vacation at Lake Phalen. In 1899, after acquiring the lake and adjacent parkland, the City of St. Paul immediately set to work dredging sediment from the bottom of the lake to fill in marshy, wetland areas along the lakeshore. They created a sturdy shoreline around the lake, planted these areas with grass, and then introduced sheep to keep the lawns manicured. (Note: Don’t try this in your own backyard, as your neighbors and the local zoning officials will undoubtedly have something negative to say about the practice.) I imagine the setting was quite beautiful with the sparkling blue lake, lush, green lawns, and chubby white sheep walking about as if they were wandering the English countryside. By 1920, however, the grassy shoreline was suffering from major erosion and park managers turned to rock riprap instead. Though ugly, the mix of rocks and concrete worked for quite a few years. Eventually, however, silt and soil built up between the riprap, the water carved away at the soil around the rocks, and the shoreline began to crumble again. By the 1990’s, the shoreline around Lake Phalen consisted of a mangy mix of riprap, weeds, eroding soil and remnant turf grass. In some locations, even the paved walking path was in danger of crumbling into to water. (Elvecrog and Bartodziej 2008)

Today, Lake Phalen is decidedly urban. The sheep are gone, as is most of the grass and riprap along the shoreline, and the lakeshore now looks older – much, much older. After twelve years of restoration work, the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, in partnership with the City of St. Paul and Minnesota DNR, has succeeded in controlling erosion at the lake by reaching back several hundred years to a time when plants ruled the land. Little by little, the watershed district has pulled out riprap, killed off invasive species, and stabilized the shoreline with native plants like three-square bulrush, marsh milkweed, and anise hyssop. The result is beautiful. Vast swaths of the Lake Phalen shoreline are awash in color during the growing season and the plants protect against wave action and ice damage while also providing wildlife habitat and discouraging geese from landing. Meanwhile, beaches and fishing access points around the lake ensure that people can still easily reach the water.

The Lake Phalen restoration project is one of the largest in the state and has contributed, in part, to the growing popularity of lakeshore and streambank restoration using native plants, instead of riprap or retaining walls. The power of these native plants lies in their extensive root systems. Upland prairie and wet meadow plants can have roots five, ten or even fifteen feet deep. The fibrous network of roots holds soil in place and helps water to soak into the ground during rain or snow melt. Emergent plants that are half in and half out of the water buffer the shoreline against wave action and hold the toe of the slope in place. Aquatic plants like lilies also help to keep waves and water from eating away at the shoreline, in addition to providing food and habitat for fish and other animals.

After making its transformation from a weekend getaway to an urban community lake, Lake Phalen is now, ironically, closer to natural than it has been for more than 100 years. Yes, the surrounding watershed is now surfaced in houses and roads, and streams that once were have now become underground pipes. At the same time, shoreline restoration efforts have given us a glimpse back in time before dredging, rocks, turf and sheep changed Lake Phalen forever. Take a walk around the lake sometime soon and witness thousands of flowers abloom on all sides of the lake. Old never looked so good.

For more info on Lake Phalen Shoreline plantings, read Lake Phalen Shoreland Restoration: Walking Tour and Plant Guide, 2008, by Haley Elvecrog and Bill Bartodziej. $10 at Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, 651-792-7950 or www.rwmwd.org.