Talking Turf and Water in Forest Lake

When Jack MacKenzie was a golf course superintendent, he never had time to take care of his own lawn at home. The long hours of the job also left little time for hobbies he enjoys like camping up north in the Boundary Waters. After a job change, he dove into new projects in his local community, joining the Forest Lake Parks, Trails and Lakes Commission and the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District’s Citizen Advisory Committee. As MacKenzie learned more about local water management, he soon realized that he could put his expertise in turf management to good use, helping other people learn how to take care of their lawns without polluting local lakes or groundwater resources.

Jack MacKenzie, Executive Director for the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendent’s Association, has been sharing low-impact lawn care tips with homeowners near Forest Lake. His goal is to help people save money and protect local lakes and groundwater resources. 

Back in 2011, several golf courses in Minnesota lost their water appropriation permits due to concerns about over-taxing aquifers during drought conditions. In response, MacKenzie and others in the golf industry created a best practices package that courses across the state could adopt to conserve water and reduce their fertilizer and pesticide use. After taking a new job as administrator for the Minnesota Golf Course Superintendents Association, MacKenzie also started teaching turfgrass management classes in partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Fortin Consulting, and the University of Minnesota – Extension. The training program helps public works departments and private lawn care companies modify their practices to use less chemicals, create less runoff pollution, and reduce costs.

Then, two years ago, he learned about Master Water Stewards, a program that trains citizens in water science, policy, and management so that they can provide volunteer support to local Watershed Districts. MacKenzie signed up for a St. Croix version of the program, and was soon taking classes with a cohort of enthusiastic stewards from Minnesota and Wisconsin. For his capstone project, he created “Watershed Coolers” to distribute to homeowners in Forest Lake, Scandia and southern Chisago County with information about lakeshore landscaping, lawn care, and other topics of interest. The catch? People would have to attend a presentation about lake-friendly lawn care to get their free cooler.

During a recent conversation, Jack MacKenzie explained how his project fits in with the Watershed District’s other outreach and education efforts. “Comfort Lake – Forest Lake is really focused on installing large projects to capture phosphorus and in helping lakeshore landowners to establish native shoreline buffers,” he explained. His message is targeted at lake residents that already have a buffer but need help taking care of their lawn, as well as those who aren’t interested or able to complete a shoreline planting at this time. “If you’re going to choose turf,” he says, “be responsible in how you take care of it. Research shows that a poorly maintained lawn with bare patches can be almost as bad for lakes as an over-fertilized lawn.”

Lakeshore homeowners can protect their lakes by maintaining a buffer of native plants, trees and shrubs near the shoreline. Taking good care of the lawn in upland areas is important as well.

MacKenzie’s cooler project is off to a good start. He’s taught four classes so far and will be holding a final session on Tuesday, May 9, 6-7:30pm at the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District office in Forest Lake (44 Lake Street S.). During the presentations, he teaches homeowners how to create healthy lawns that are more resistant to weeds and drought and create less runoff for local lakes. Thinking long term, he’d like to take his class on the road, presenting to people around Washington County.

Talking to Jack MacKenzie, it’s hard to believe that he was once even more busy than he is today. In spite of his projects and committees, however, he claims that he’s finally found time to take care of his own yard. “I’ve got a great place on Sylvan Lake,” he explains, “and I’m fixing it up to be a demonstration project where people can see what low-input lawn care practices look like in real life. I even planted native plants along the shoreline.”

To learn more about the Master Water Stewards program, go to Watershed Organizations in Washington County will be recruiting ten stewards to begin training in October of 2017 and have special grant funds available to pay for the capstone projects next spring.