South Washington Watershed District Receives Climate Adaptation Award

Along the border of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, black-eyed susans, bergamot, and grey-headed coneflowers bloom in an 80-acre expanse of oak-savanna and prairie. The preserve doubles as a regional infiltration basin, capable of capturing and infiltrating 1500 acre feet of water (enough to fill 740 Olympic sized swimming pools) after a large rainstorm or when the snow melts in the spring.

Aster in the future Glacial Valley Park, Woodbury. Photo by Manu June.

Further south in Cottage Grove, visitors can find goats grazing on buckthorn and garlic mustard along the steep, wooded hillsides in Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park. A dry stream bed winds along a paved trail through the park, leading to the lake below.

Goats graze on invasive species at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park.

Within the South Washington School District, seven schools are working to replace large expanses of turf grass with native flowers, shrubs and trees. The “campus greening” projects at Lake, Middleton, Nuevas Fronteras, Valley Crossing, Crestview, Cottage Grove Middle, and Grey Cloud will help to infiltrate rainwater, reduce groundwater pumping for irrigation, create habitat for birds and pollinators, and offer unique learning opportunities for the children.

Boy Scouts rest at a new outdoor classroom at Lake Middle School in Woodbury.

These three examples demonstrate some of the many ways in which South Washington Watershed District (SWWD) is working to build resiliency and protect local communities against climate-related threats, including flooding, aquifer draw-down, and invasive species. In recognition of its accomplishments, ongoing work, and leadership on climate adaptation and resiliency, SWWD has been awarded the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership’s 2021 Organization Award.

Established in 1993, the South Washington Watershed District is a special-purpose local unit of government that covers 110 square miles in southern Washington County, including 12 lakes, 120 miles of piped and natural streams, 2,400 acres of wetlands, and the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. The district works to protect communities against flooding and improve water quality in lakes and streams. With only four employees, SWWD operates in close partnership with the county, cities, and other local government, as well as with private land owners and non-profit organizations including Great River Greening and Friends of the Mississippi River.

Four years ago, SWWD hosted a two-day Climate Resiliency workshop in partnership with Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, Freshwater Society and Barr Engineering. During the workshop, city staff and community leaders identified risks related to climate change and considered potential strategies to address those risks. The group discussed a wide range of topics including the growing frequency of “mega-rain” events; the need to replace out-dated stormwater pipes and elevate roads in flood-prone locations; the observed draw-down of aquifers used for drinking water during the past thirty years; loss of habitat and increasing abundance of invasive species in natural areas; and more frequent algal blooms.

Annual rainfall has been higher than normal during the past decade. As a result, the water table is very high in most parts of Washington County, MN and flooding is happening more frequently.

South Washington Watershed District went on to create a Climate Resiliency Plan that identifies climate adaptation strategies with multiple benefits, such as reducing stormwater pollution, protecting homes from flooding, and improving habitat for wildlife. The district’s cornerstone project is a multi-phase system, designed to alleviate flooding in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The system begins with the 80-acre oak-savanna open space along the southern border of Woodbury, continues through a series of buried pipes and dry-stream beds, down through Cottage Grove Ravine Region Park and, eventually, to the Mississippi River. The system infiltrates large amounts of rainwater during smaller storms, helping to recharge aquifers, and also provides a safe route for floodwater to reach the Mississippi River during 100-year mega-storm events. The oak savanna in Woodbury will eventually become a city park and a hub for a regional trail connecting Lake Elmo Park Reserve to Cottage Grove Ravine Park.

South Washington Watershed District staff and board stand in the prairie at the SWWD 25th Anniversary event in 2018. Left to right: Matt Moore (District Administrator); Lisa Weik (County Commissioner); Brian Johnson (Board Member); John Loomis (Water Resource Program Manager); Don Pereira (former Board Member); Melissa Imse (Operations Manager).

In the coming year, SWWD will continue to work with South Washington County Schools on campus greening projects and has recently announced new funding available through its Coordinated Capital Improvement Program to support city projects that improve water quality and increase climate resiliency. To learn more about the South Washington Watershed District and access interactive maps of projects in the district, visit