This February, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District (CLFLWD) begins work on a major project to improve wetland habitat in the City of Forest Lake’s Bixby Park and downstream water quality in the Sunrise River, Comfort Lake, and ultimately the St. Croix River. The district will be installing two weir structures to re-direct water currently flowing through a now-abandoned ditch into surrounding wetlands. They will also be removing roughly 8,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulated over the years. The project will prevent a calculated 206 pounds/year of phosphorus from flowing downstream and will be a crucial advance toward cleaner, clearer water in Comfort Lake. This amount accounts for over half of the phosphorus reductions needed to get Comfort Lake water quality back to its clean water goal. A $360,750 Clean Water Grant from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources will pay for three-quarters of the $481,000 project.
Water quality problems in the Sunrise River harken back to the early 1900s when farmers ditched many stretches of the river in order to dry out nearby wetlands to plant crops. This is what happened to the area between Forest Lake and Comfort Lake, which came to be known as Judicial Ditch 1 (JD 1). After water management issues surrounding JD 1 became increasingly complex in the late 1990s, the ditch was ultimately abandoned in 1997. Though it is no longer being regulated and maintained, this short stretch of the Sunrise River still continues to function more like a ditch than a free-flowing stream with a natural floodplain.
When the Forest Lake area developed in this area during the 1980’s and 1990s, many of the stormwater management rules now in place had not yet been adopted. Unknowingly then, polluted runoff containing high levels of nutrients from the urban areas of the city began flowing through JD 1 and into Comfort Lake, which lies just north of Hwy 8 in Chisago County. The lake’s health declined and algae blooms became more common. Swimmers and boaters that once enjoyed clear water could no longer see their toes when they stood waist deep in the lake. Downstream, the Sunrise River and St. Croix River that receive water flowing out of Comfort Lake have suffered from the stormwater pollution as well.
The Bixby Park Clean Water project, in the works for many years, will take place on a parcel of city-owned land, southeast of Hwy 8 and I-35 that formerly housed the community compost collection site. In addition to modifying the abandoned ditch system to send more water in the surrounding wetlands and floodplain area, the CLFLWD will modify the existing outlet and remove accumulated sediments in the wetland to store more water during large rainstorms. This will reduce the velocity of water flowing downstream to Comfort Lake so that there is less erosion, and will provide protection against downstream flooding as well. The significant amount of excavation will increasing water storage within Bixby Park and will thus also reduce the potential for flooding.
A lightweight aggregate filter berm will pull dissolved phosphorus (the nutrient that feeds algae) out of water flowing downstream, and the watershed district will also be improving habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife by increasing the habitat diversity in the Bixby Park wetlands. The CLFLWD’s engineering firm, Emmons & Olivier Resources (EOR), has designed many similar projects around the east metro and will be monitoring the effectiveness of the water quality practices once they are installed.
The Sunrise River-Bixby Park Clean Water project, is just one of many projects the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District has completed to protect lakes, streams and wetlands in the area. Several years ago, the District worked with Washington County to enhance a large stormwater treatment project north of Broadway Ave. and south of Bixby Park, near the new Cedar Park dragon playground. The sediment pond, filtration basin, and iron-enhanced sand filter remove 37.4 pounds of phosphorus per year from runoff that eventually flows into Bixby Park. The Watershed District also worked with Target Corporation to install raingardens and a large stormwater infiltration basin to capture and treat stormwater runoff from the store’s parking lot and roof.
Future plans after the Bixby Park Project is complete include improving a shallow pond in the area between Hwy 61 and Greenway Avenue, and restoring two wetlands on watershed district-owned tax forfeit parcels along Hwy 8, both in Chisago County. In addition, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District was just awarded two grants from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. One is for $162,000 to enhance a wetland draining to Forest Lake in order to improve lake water quality. The other is for $429,284 to rehabilitate wetlands draining to Moody Lake in order to improve water quality within Moody Lake and other downstream lakes.
To learn more about the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District, including grants to help homeowners install water-friendly landscaping, visit www.clflwd.org.