Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Partnering with Faith Organizations for Clean Water

BMP Dream Team
Investigating potential BMP sites at a church near Markham Pond. 
Left to right: Joe Lochner and Ryan Johnson from Ramsey Conservation District,
Angie Hong from East Metro Water Resource Education Program, and
Tina Carstens from RWMWD.

By Sage Passi

In the near future, six congregations will have a new message sinking in: clean water stewardship!  


Over the next three years, the Watershed District will work with six faith organizations in several high-priority areas (sub-watersheds with ‘impaired waters’ including Kohlman and Wakefield Lakes in Maplewood and Bennett Lake in Roseville). Projects using Best Management Practices (BMPs) such as rain gardens and trench drains will help to lessen the amount of stormwater run-off coming from expansive parking lots and rooftops and reduce the level of phosphorus and other pollution that reaches those important water bodies. This will be done thanks to a $150,000 grant provided by Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund, one of the funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. These funds will be supplemented with cost-share dollars from the District’s BMP Incentive Program.  


So what has been “unpaving” the way (to put a twist on that phrase) for this kind of outreach and action? Collaborating in watershed education and stewardship with churches is not a new endeavor for the Watershed District. Over the past six years RMMWD has worked to develop partnerships with seven faith organizations in four cities in and near the District including the Church of St. Peter and St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in North St. Paul, First Covenant Church, Holy Trinity and Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Cross Lutheran and St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood and Trinity Presbyterian in Woodbury. Four other churches in the watershed have also been recently considering the option of using BMP cost share funds to complete water quality projects on their grounds.

“How this happens is the grace and beauty of working within a community. Churches value caring, responsibility and giving back to the community,” says Sage Passi, Watershed Education Specialist for the Watershed District who has been building rain gardens with community groups for the past eight years. “They often have a closely woven social fabric that fosters this kind of involvement.”

Pr. Preuss and Scott Zager at Cross Lutheran Church
Pastor Robert Preuss and project organizer and church member
Scott Zager at Cross Lutheran Church carry plants
out to their new rain garden

She goes on to say, “Educating leaders and congregations about the water quality issues in their community is a strong ingredient of these projects. It involves getting to know people, making connections, doing things together and letting things unfold over time. By setting the stage for opportunities for people to discover their own connections to a local lake, we can support them in finding individual ways to do their part to take care of and protect the local water bodies they value.”


But how did all this get off the ground (or should we say into the ground)? 


The story of involvement with churches in our watershed began six years ago with the inspiration of a teacher on the east side of St Paul and her sixth grade class.  Cindy Schreiber, now the Aerospace STEM Coordinator (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) at Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet instigated the Watershed District’s involvement with churches when her sixth grade class decided to create a watershed service learning project in their neighborhood. 

C. Schreiber and students at First Covenant Church
Cindy Schreiber invites student participation in a
service-learning project at First Covenant Church.
Students had been learning about impervious surfaces, run-off and the use of native plants in improving water quality at nearby Lake Phalen and the river downstream. First Covenant Church across the street from their campus with its many downspouts bringing roof run-off to the parking lot looked like an obvious opportunity. Through a lot of dedication, students mastered the steps of rain garden site assessment. They measured the surface areas that drained to the sidewalk and parking lot to size the garden and conducted soil and infiltration tests with the help of Ramsey Conservation District. Then working in small teams with assistance from the Watershed District and Master Gardeners students developed planting designs and submitted them to the church’s grounds committee. One team’s ideas were selected and then the work began!

Farnsworth students at First Covenant Church
Rain garden excavation underway by Farnsworth students at First Covenant Church
Their efforts soon attracted the attention of multiple science classrooms taught by Sherry Brooks. Kids from second grade to sixth grade removed the sod and soil at the church to create a basin for the raingarden. They hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of this material offsite back to their school ground. With the rain garden dug, they mixed compost and sand to amend the highly-clay soils to create better infiltration, lined the inlet with straw erosion blanket, then installed and planted the rain garden. 

Farnsworth sixth-graders install erosion blanket
at the rain garden inlet.
For three years afterwards, Brook’s students continued to take care of the garden, weeding it, collecting seeds, and cutting down the dead vegetation each spring. 

“The power for everyone in this project was realizing that we are part of a bigger community. It was a joint effort. Kids feel empowered being able to giving back to the community,” said Schreiber.

In recent years, a member of First Covenant Church congregation, Bill Cranford, got the “bug” too, took the ball, decided to run with it and worked with the Community Design Center’s East Side Youth Conservation Corps, Master Gardeners, Green Corps interns and members of a neighboring church to build six more rain gardens on his site, including several at a house that the parish owns across the street from the school.


B. Cranford and other First Covenant Volunteers
Bill Cranford and other First Covenant Church volunteers make
plans for an additional rain garden in the front of the church.
The rain gardens at First Covenant continue to play a role in neighborhood education and community building. They soak in the run-off from the church rooftops and provide a demonstration site for residents in the neighborhood and new classes from Farnsworth who return each year to learn what a rain garden is and how they can help keep Phalen Lake and the Mississippi cleaner. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Other churches have picked up on this “mission.” St. Peter’s Catholic Church championed one of the first parking lots with pervious lanes in the District. The school adjacent to the church now has a large native garden site that infiltrates sidewalk run-off, provides habitat for birds and insects and is a huge learning site for the school and the church community, thanks to teachers Michelle Anderson and Jaci Krogh’s energetic third and fourth graders. St. Paul Monastery installed a green roof on a section of their roof in 2008 and in 2011 Cross Lutheran took on the mission of helping protect Wakefield Lake by channeling the run-off from their parking lot into a huge rain garden across the landscape in front of their church.

Preparing to Plant
Over 50 Cross Lutheran Church volunteers teamed up to plant
a rain garden at their site.  A Master Gardener provides
 instructions on how to plant.

St. Mark’s Church in North St. Paul just recently installed six rain gardens on their site. This spring Our Redeemer Lutheran Church on Larpenteur Avenue, east of Lake Phalen in St. Paul plans to complete a 650 square foot rain garden with the help of their Caring for Creation team, an Eagle Scout, Watershed staff and Ramsey County Master Gardeners. In Woodbury volunteers working with Washington Conservation District have helped to install a series of 7 rain gardens on their site. An underground cistern and a porous paver patio were also completed. 

The foundation for teaching stewardship and clean water has been laid, and these success stories give us faith that more congregations will be as excited as we are to make their church a community that pulls together to improve the natural environment. Stay tuned in the coming seasons to watch this program evolve!

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church
Excavation of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church rain garden site
was completed in the fall of 2012.  A team of volunteers will
be developing a planting design in February and the garden will
be planted in spring 2013.


  1. Sage,
    What a great story. I'd like to hear more about happenings along County Road C too !