Measuring progress toward cleaner lakes and streams in Washington County

In 1938, the first major wastewater treatment plant was built on the Mississippi River in Minnesota at Pig’s Eye Lake in St. Paul. Prior to that, thousands of homes in Minneapolis and St. Paul had been literally dumping dirty toilet water straight into the river, which was incredibly polluted and smelled so bad that no one wanted to live near the water. According to the Metropolitan Council, “Within four months of the treatment plant opening, the floating mats of stinking sludge and scum were gone. Within two years, fish returned to metro waters and anglers reported catching walleye and other game fish in water that previously could not support carp.”

After the Clean Water Act was reorganized and expanded in 1972, the nation saw similarly huge leaps in water quality in many rivers and lakes. Within a few years, factories that had previously dumped toxic chemicals and untreated waste straight into nearby waterways began employing new technology to clean up their discharges. Improvements in lake and river health were quickly visible.

The new Washington County project map shows where urban and rural clean water projects are located.
The new Washington County project map shows where urban and rural clean water projects are located.

In recent decades, however, our attention has turned from “point sources” of pollution, like factories and wastewater treatment plants, to “non-point sources,” like urban stormwater and agricultural runoff. This makes it increasingly difficult to measure and keep track of our progress toward clean water, even when we have monitoring programs in place to measure surface water quality.

One solution in Washington County is a new web-based mapping tool that tracks small-scale habitat and water improvement projects that reduce non-point source water pollution. Created by the Washington Conservation District, in partnership with Washington County, as well as Brown’s Creek, Carnelian – Marine – St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, South Washington and Valley Branch Watershed Districts, and the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization, the tool helps to visually show where projects have been installed and can also be used to measure progress toward big goals, like restoring the St. Croix River. “Currently, there are data points for more than 1,200 voluntary urban and rural conservation projects installed in Washington County since 2005 – a real accomplishment,” said Jay Riggs, Conservation District Manager.

If you are interested in seeing where conservation projects are happening in your neighborhood, explore the new Washington County project map at The map includes layers for both urban and agricultural practices.

If you don’t find much in your area, don’t worry. Your project can be the first.