As it spins through the galaxy in trajectory around the sun, the Earth leans on its axis, 23.5-degrees. That slightest lean means all the difference between warm summer days, sun on the back and toes in the soft, brown dirt – that and the cold bite of winter, frozen breath before your face and wind whipping loudly through the now leafless trees. On December 21 at 4:22pm, Minnesota leans as far from the sun as possible and the nighttime steals nearly seven hours of sunlight from our day. Orion the huntsman is high in the sky, keeping silent watch over the snowy landscape below. The Norse Goddess Frigga births light in the darkness and the solar year begins again. This is the winter solstice.
At the Belwin Conservancy in Afton, a roaring fire burned bright on solstice eve, as people young and old gathered in the woods to breathe in the winter’s air, listen to musical storytelling, and celebrate the wonders of nature. One such wonder is the 1,375 acre preserve, which includes oak savanna and woodlands, tallgrass prairie, wetlands, and fens. Another is the Valley Creek, which flows through the Belwin property and is believed to be in the world’s top 10% of streams for trout production.
Over the years, the Valley Branch Watershed District has worked hard to protect Valley Creek from the insults of modern life. A special purpose, local unit of government that encompasses one square mile of Ramsey and 70 square miles of Washington County, the Watershed District has completed projects to reduce siltation in the creek, maintain good water quality, and protect critical habitat for trout and other wildlife. It has collaborated with citizens and private landowners, Belwin Conservancy, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and government partners, including the Minnesota DNR, MN Board of Water and Soil Resources, Washington Conservation District, Metropolitan Council, and the cities of Afton and Woodbury. Last month, the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts (MAWD) awarded Valley Branch WD as its 2018 MAWD Program of the Year, in recognition of the district’s decades-long efforts to protect this special stream.
Valley Branch Watershed District monitors water chemistry at three different locations along Valley Creek, through a partnership with Washington Conservation District. They keep careful track of phosphorus, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, total suspended solids, and metals in the water. The district also works with Barr Engineering to monitor macroinvertebrate populations in Valley Creek, as another measure of stream health.
Several years ago, Valley Branch Watershed District inventoried the north and south branches of Valley Creek and identified actively eroding areas on and near the stream. It then worked with private landowners and secured grant support from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund to repair and stabilize six of those problem areas. Since then, monitoring data has shown improved water quality and a larger number and variety of fish and macroinvertebrates living in the stream.
This year, the Valley Branch Watershed District celebrated its 50th year of watershed work. In addition to Valley Creek, the district manages land to protect and restore 1230 wetlands, and dozens of recreational lakes, including Elmo, Jane, Olson and Demontreville. It is governed by a five-member Board of Managers, appointed by Ramsey and Washington County Commissioners. The district employs no full-time staff but contracts with local government partners and private consultants to provide engineering, legal and accounting services, as well as conduct its public education, landowner stewardship, and water monitoring programs.
On a cold midwinter’s night, the waters of Valley Creek flow clear and clean through wooded hills and lonesome prairies, down to the St. Croix River. The creek sustains the only naturally-reproducing population of brook trout in the Twin Cities area and is beloved within the local community. As it flows through the Belwin Conservancy, it provides moments for quiet contemplation, as well as numerous learning opportunities for students from Stillwater Area High School and St. Paul Public Schools. Even in the winter, the water continues to flow, bringing life to the valley, dark and cold.