Protecting the St. Croix River

Green, algae covered water greeted us at the marina in Hudson, WI.

There was a stench in the air when we arrived at the marina in Hudson, Wisconsin. “That’s why we’re doing this workshop!” we said to one another as we boarded the Grand Duchess and looked down disapprovingly at the green, algae-slicked water in the river. For years, the stretch of the St. Croix River between Stillwater and Prescott, known as Lake St. Croix, has suffered from algal blooms that make the water smelly, keep people from enjoying fishing, swimming and boating, and in some cases, create toxic conditions that are unsafe for people and pets. The algae is fed by phosphorus, a naturally occurring element found in leaves, grass clippings, sediment and fertilizer, and due to the very large size of the St. Croix Basin – 7760 square miles drain to the river – Lake St. Croix is inundated with approximately 123 metric tons more phosphorus than it needs every year.

In the St. Croix Valley, tourism revenue, property values and quality of life are closely tied to the health of the river, and as a result, local community leaders are keenly interested in finding ways to improve water quality. Our July 17 workshop, organized by the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources, Minnesota and Wisconsin Extension, St. Croix County and the East Metro Water Resource Education Program, St. Croix River Association, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and National Park Service was the fourth “Workshop on the Water” we have held for local decision-makers in the past five years. Each time, more than 100 representatives from cities, counties and watershed management organizations have attended.

Thanks to research conducted by the St. Croix Basin Team, we know that approximately 80% of the phosphorus in the St. Croix River comes from unregulated sources, including erosion along stream banks and river bluffs and runoff from agricultural lands, small towns, and rural residential areas. In order to keep soil and nutrients on the land and out of the water, local communities, private landowners, and state agencies will have to work together to address challenges and implement projects.

This year’s St. Croix River workshop addressed current concerns, such as aquatic invasive species, the new St. Croix River crossing, and the official Lake St. Croix restoration plan. Workshop presenters shared case studies and spoke about strategies for reducing phosphorus in the river. Printed at the top of the workshop agenda was our equation for success, “Science + Funding + Local Expertise = Getting Things Done.”

As we pulled up to the dock, a beautiful sunset reminded us why we work to protect the St. Croix.

After three hours of learning, we put our local decision makers to work. Folks gathered in small groups based on where they were they were from and talked to one another about recent and upcoming projects, as well as opportunities for collaboration. Ideas included working together to educate the public, revising ordinances, and reaching out to key landowners.

By the time the boat finally returned to Hudson, the sun was setting, casting a warm glow on everything it touched. As the captain eased us into the dock, community leaders gathered by the railings and gazed out over the scenic St. Croix, talking excitedly about the projects they would do together. We smiled as we said our goodbyes, and the giant orange sun tapped the top of the river. “This is why we did this workshop,” we said to each other as we stepped off the boat and back onto land.