Cleaner Streets for Cleaner Water

Raingarden clean-up event – May 5 in Stillwater
Storm drain stenciling – May 19 in Forest Lake

When Minnesota artist Sean Connaughty began collecting litter along the shore of Lake Hiawatha in 2013, he quickly amassed an eclectic collection of rubber duckies, pens, swimming goggles, aerosol cans, and other gunky ephemera. Curious about where all this garbage was coming from, Connaughty addressed a ball he’d found in the water, took it home, and sent it down a storm drain in the street in front of his house. Two weeks later, he found that same ball in the lake, confirming his suspicions that the litter in Lake Hiawatha was coming from streets and neighborhoods all around the area.

Artist Sean Connaughty gathers bag of colorful litter from Minneapolis’ Lake Hiawatha.

Rain carries everything that lands on our streets — trash, leaves, grass clippings, automotive fluids, and even dog poop — into lakes, streams and wetlands via storm drains and pipes that run underground. Even so, many people think their actions don’t matter if they don’t live near the water.

One way that cities combat the problem of stormwater pollution is by building stormwater retention ponds that hold the water back temporarily until sediment and litter can settle out. The water eventually flows out of the ponds and into lakes and rivers at a slower pace that is less likely to cause erosion. Some communities also use smaller scale practices such as raingardens to catch road runoff from rain and melting snow.

Raingardens catch runoff from roads and rooftops, giving the water time to soak into the ground instead of going into storm sewers.

Over the past 12 years, City of Stillwater and local partners have installed more than 100 raingardens on public and private property around Stillwater to help protect Lily, Long and McKusick Lakes, Brown’s Creek and the St. Croix River. Road runoff flows into the raingardens and soaks into the ground, thereby helping to keep stormwater out of our waterways and recharge groundwater flow.

On Saturday, May 5, Sustainable Stillwater, Lily Lake Lake Association and the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization will hold a city-wide raingarden clean-up event from 10am-noon. The goal is to tidy up raingardens by removing built up sediment in the inlets, picking up litter, and cutting down old vegetation from last year so that the gardens will continue functioning properly and looking great. The clean-up is part of a new Adopt-a-Raingarden program, which launched earlier this year (

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Partners in Stillwater are recruiting volunteers to help weed and maintain 100+ raingardens in the city.

Another way that cities address the problem of stormwater pollution is by educating the public and encouraging residents to rake and sweep dirt and yard waste out of the street in front of their homes, especially in the spring.

After nearly two decades of public awareness and education campaigns, surveys show that most Minnesotans know not to dump used engine oil or other chemicals into storm drains in the street. However, people don’t always think about where the soap goes when washing a car in the driveway or what happens to fertilizer pellets that land on the sidewalk instead of the lawn. These chemicals also end up in lakes and steams when rain washes the streets clean and sends pollutants down the drain.

Even natural debris like grass clippings and leaves can cause problems for local lakes when it breaks down in the water. As they decompose, the leaves and clippings release phosphorus that causes algae to grow and make the lakes green.

Clean Water Minnesota Stories
If your storm drain looks like this, it’s time to clean it up! Dirt, leaves, grass clippings and litter flow through storm pipes to lakes, rivers and streams. Cleaner streets mean cleaner water.

On Saturday, May 19, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District is organizing a storm drain stenciling event from 8:30am-noon in Forest Lake. During the event, volunteers will hit the streets of Forest Lake, armed with cans of spray paint and stencils that read, “Dump no waste, drains to lake.” The goal is to help people make the connection between cleaner streets and cleaner water.

Leading the charge in this effort is Jack MacKenzie, a member of the watershed district’s Citizen Advisory Committee, and a St. Croix Watershed Steward. Says MacKenzie, “Our storm drain stenciling event last fall was so popular, we decided to do it again.” Like Connaughty, MacKenzie has a vested interest in protecting his community’s lakes. “Forest Lake is the jewel of our city. We’ve got to take care of the water and keep our lakes healthy.”

clflwd storm drain stenciling 2017 2
Volunteers in Forest Lake will stencil drains to help protect area lakes.

To learn more about the May 5 Raingarden Clean-up event in Stillwater and sign-up, go to

To learn more about the May 19 storm drain stenciling event and sign-up, go to Volunteers will receive free breakfast and a t-shirt.