Secrets to success: Cleaner water and healthy landscapes

It shouldn’t be a secret, but you might be surprised to learn that 49% of lakes in Washington County have improving water quality. Trout are surviving and may be reproducing in Brown’s Creek again. Woodbury has cut its annual groundwater use by nearly 35 million gallons in only one year, and Bone Lake in Scandia has improved from an “F” to a “C+” over the past decade.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially for the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, but it’s important to celebrate the amazing progress we’ve made in recent years toward cleaner lakes and streams and sustainable groundwater resources.

Brown's Creek
Dozens of stream-improvement projects on public and private land in Stillwater have helped to improve water quality in Brown’s Creek. Reports of young trout in the creek suggest the fish may be able to survive and reproduce again.

One secret to success in Washington County is the existence of Watershed Districts. These local units of government levy taxes for flood-control and water-quality improvement projects and establish rules to ensure that new developments don’t create flooding or pollute water downstream.  Having local capacity also allows for continuity on long-term water projects that can take decades to study, plan, and implement. In contrast, state grants typically operate on a three-year cycle; this is why the Clean Water Fund was designed to supplement, but not replace, local watershed work. There are 45 Watershed Districts in Minnesota, but they don’t cover the whole state (see map). They are formed at the request of local citizens, county boards or cities that petition the state under procedures set forth in the Minnesota Watershed Act (103D). Washington County is home to seven watershed districts and one watershed management organization.

educational signage
Watershed Districts are special-purpose local units of government that cross city and county borders. They levy property taxes to pay for flood prevention and water quality projects.

Adaptive management and targeted implementation are key strategies used in local watershed work. The Washington Conservation District (WCD) monitors lake elevations, water quality, and stream flow in roughly 100 lakes and more than 50 stream sites in the county. By analyzing long-term water quality trends, partners can determine where to focus their work to protect high-quality resources or restore lakes and streams that have been degraded. The WCD and watershed districts also conduct studies to identify sources of runoff pollution and nutrient-loading and to prioritize the best practices and locations for projects to improve water quality.

Washington Conservation District works with watershed districts to monitor water quality, collecting samples and measurements from 100 lakes and 50 stream sites in Washington County. 

Once partners identify good projects, they work together to educate and engage citizens, private property owners, local decision-makers and other partners to get buy-in for projects; design and install the projects; and measure their success.  The goal is to make wise-use of public resources and focus on projects that really work.

Cooperation is also a critical component of success in Washington County. Local units of government including Washington County, Washington Conservation District, watershed districts, and cities work together and in partnership with state agencies, non-profits, and private consulting firms to maximize impact and avoid duplication of efforts. Though the work is locally-led, state funds and Clean Water grants help to make larger projects possible.

Local government collaboration on water work
Washington County commissioners met with representatives from the Washington Conservation District and watershed management organizations during a water planning meeting on May 21. (Back row: Commissioner Fran Miron, Commissioner Lisa Weik, Brown’s Creek Watershed District Board Chair Craig Leiser, Commissioner Jack Lavold (20-yr board member of South Washington Watershed District), Commissioner Gary Kreisel, Commissioner Stan Karwoski. Front row: Middle St. Croix WMO Administrator Mike Isensee, Washington Conservation District Board Vice-Chair John Rheinberger, Washington Conservation District District Manager Jay Riggs, East Metro Water Resource Education Program coordinator Angie Hong)

Cooperating with citizens and private landowners in the county is equally important. Roughly 75% of the land in Washington County is privately owned, so local government partners work with everyone from residential homeowners, to commercial businesses, golf courses, and farmers with 1-100+ acres of land.

Private landowners in Washington County play a big role in protecting habitat and water resources. Cost-share and grant programs help to fund projects that range in size from small backyard raingardens to large 10-acre prairies.

Where will we see our next success stories? One could be Lily Lake in Stillwater, in which a 2008 study called for a 145lb/year reduction in phosphorus. To date, the city and the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization have removed 100lbs and two planned projects should capture the remaining 45. We might also celebrate success in southern Woodbury, where the South Washington Watershed District is restoring prairie and oak savanna on 250 acres of land that also provides flood-protection for Woodbury and Cottage Grove. Another example could be Forest Lake, where projects led by the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District will dramatically reduce phosphorus flowing into Forest Lake by more than 400 pounds per year and keep the lake off the impaired waters list.

It shouldn’t be a secret (and hopefully it no longer is) that locally-led, collaborative efforts in Washington County are using adaptive management and targeted implementation to achieve cleaner water and healthier landscapes. Celebrate the success and be sure to tell your friends!Lake Elmo Regional Park 2