Ice Cream and Raingardens

Stop by for a small scoop (that is actually small) of Nelson’s Ice Cream. (Photo: Nelson’s Ice Cream)

On Thursday, Aug. 15 from 5:30-7pm, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization (MSCWMO) will host an ice cream social and raingarden tour to celebrate local efforts to improve and protect Lily and McKusick Lakes.  In recent years, dozens of local residents have built raingardens and shoreline buffers to keep stormwater runoff from neighborhood streets out of the lakes. The raingardens help water to soak into the ground, where it is filtered and cleaned by the soil and plant roots, and also provide habitat for birds and pollinating insects. On Thursday night, folks from MSCWMO, the City of Stillwater, and the Lily and McKusick Lake Associations will be dishing out ice cream at Washington Square Park and handing out maps with information for people to visit some of the new gardens within walking distance of the park.

When I first started working in Washington County seven years ago, raingardens were still a somewhat revolutionary concept. Until then, the best weapon communities had against stormwater pollution were centralized stormwater holding ponds, which help to prevent flooding but are less effective at keeping nutrients and other pollutants out of our rivers and lakes. In addition, stormwater ponds require large areas of land, making them impractical for already built neighborhoods. In contrast, raingardens and other small-scale practices mimic nature with many small pockets where rainwater can gather and soak into the ground.

The City of Stillwater built a large raingarden at Washington Square Park in 2007.

In 2005, the Washington Conservation District began offering small grants to encourage homeowners to build raingardens in their yards and soon after, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District and MSCWMO created cost-share grant programs as well. In 2007, the City of Stillwater built a large demonstration raingarden  in Washington Square Park, across the street from Lakeview Hospital. Located just east of the baseball diamond, the raingarden keeps runoff from the sidewalks and parkland further up the hill from flooding the diamond and polluting Lily Lake. Later that year, the city worked with the MSCWMO to plant native plants around the boat launch and fishing pier at Lily Lake to stabilize the shoreline and provide upland habitat for shorebirds, turtles and frogs. During the project, they also installed porous pavement near the boat launch so that runoff from the parking lot soaks into the ground instead of flowing directing into the lake.

Today there are ~200 raingardens in Stillwater, adding beauty, habitat for birds and pollinating insects and keeping our water clean. (Above: Butterfly weed provides food for monarch butterflies.)

Stillwater built the town’s first “curb-cut” raingardens during a road improvement project on Eagle Ridge Trail in 2007. These gardens are specially designed to capture stormwater from the street when it rains. The water enters the gardens through openings in the curb and evaporates or soaks into the ground. Since then, the city has begun to incorporate raingardens into regularly scheduled road repair projects as a way to meet watershed rules and continually reduce the amount of stormwater pollution reaching local water bodies. Most recently, the MSCWMO worked with homeowners living near Lily and McKusick Lakes to install more than 20 curb-cut raingardens as part of a large grant project funded by Minnesota Clean Water Legacy funds.

Today, the roughly 200 raingardens in Stillwater alone are a testament to the commitment to clean water shared by local residents, city staff and officials, and the MSCWMO. Come out to Washington Square Park on Thursday, Aug. 15, 5:30-7pm to meet some of the folks who’ve been working hard to clean up our lakes and help us celebrate the improvement in water quality we’ve seen as a result. Grab a map for a self-guided tour of nearby gardens or tag along with a group to walk and talk about nearby projects. Don’t be surprised if you’ve passed many of the gardens before without even realizing they were doing a job! For more information visit