Friday, November 15, 2013

Do You Have My Eagle? - Round Lake Residents Restore

By Sage Passi
The Round Lake Restoration Ring Leaders: Darlene Cochran (left) and Jane Johnson (right)

I recently interviewed Darlene Cochran and Jane Johnson, the two resident ring leaders who instigated the Round Lake Shoreline restoration project in Little Canada. I knew I had hit the jackpot in my interview with them when this question popped into my head. 

“What did you do in your life to prepare you for this project?”

“Do You Have My Eagle?” is the question Jane shot back at me. Her response caught me off guard. Like a bird of prey tracking a fish or a small mammal, I did a double-take, swiveling my head in reaction to this unusual inquiry. Clearly this was a clue about Jane’s motivation for getting involved in the restoration project at Round Lake.

Jane Johnson, former president of the Round Lake
Townhome Association.

Jane told me she once worked for a lab at the University of Minnesota Department of Avian Physiology and Pharmacology on the St. Paul campus, the predecessor to the current Raptor Center.

“Do you have my eagle?” was the question Jane would throw out to the loading dock workers each time she’d drive out to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to pick up an injured eagle or other raptor that she’d then drive back to the research lab at the U of M in a truck borrowed from the Minnesota DNR. Sometimes she would even bring her five year old along on the trip. Imagine what the airport employees thought when this young woman showed up with kid in tow requesting her “package – a live eagle!

The Round Lake Townhome Trail Association shoreline
restoration project, completed in the fall of 2013.

Now due to her restoration efforts perhaps the eagles may show up on her doorstep!

Jane told me she also took trips out to Willmar during the late 70’s to pick up young live turkeys to bring back to the lab for further study. I did another double take when I heard this and offered a story of my own, 

“I grew up in Willmar. Those turkeys are what drove me out of town,” I joked. The smell from the turkey factory was so bad that I left Willmar and went to college at the University. I couldn’t bring myself to do any more lab or field experiments on animals after my 6 month internship with badgers at Cedar Creek so I decided I would be much more comfortable working with plants.”  That’s how I got to where I am now, helping you with this project.” 
"The smell of the turkey drove me out of town,"
joked Sage Passi, Watershed Education Specialist.

Our stories began to show further signs of overlap. Jane told me she used to shop and was a member at St. Anthony Park Food (SAP) Co-op across from the University back in the late seventies.

Like a loon resurfacing on one of Minnesota’s lakes, the memory of Jane’s connection with my previous life suddenly popped up like a bird out of water. I had run that co-op in an earlier incarnation.

“Hmm,” I murmured to myself. “Here they are again - the eagle, the serendipity and a face from the past.”

I always know I’m onto something when those three things appear.  I stared at Jane and tried to remember her as a young mother and member shopping at the co-op when I, too was once a young mom working in the women’s collective at the store and then later as manager of this largely volunteer run operation. I learned from Jane that while in college she studied ecology, ornithology and other biological studies. Knowing that now, it’s no wonder she was familiar and could apply her knowledge about issues such as habitat restoration to her own shoreline project. I’m glad I took the time to ask my questions that not only answered this, but confirmed that Jane and Darlene are my kind of people 

Round Lake in Little Canada.

So what is it about Round Lake that made it a good candidate for a restoration project and how did they get drawn into it? Round Lake is a beautiful, quiet little gem (12 acres) tucked away on the western border of Little Canada. It has its own special recreational and wildlife value, as the people who look out onto its shorefront will testify. Darlene Cochran and Jane Johnson both live in townhomes that hover above the “seawall” that separates their property from the south side of the lake. Over the past year and a half, they have quietly but determinedly orchestrated a large scale shoreline restoration project on their lake with help from the Watershed District, Ramsey Conservation District and Sandstrom Land Management Company.

What “turned on” the sentiments of these local “Unsung Heroes” and motivated them to take action?
According to Jane, the former president of the Townhome Association, the vision for their site surfaced back in 2009/2010.
“I originally approached Ryan Johnson from Ramsey Conservation District to help us develop a strategic plan for our whole grounds. We had some erosion issues at one end of our site. But the “ah hah” moment came when we walked around to the back and he pointed out to me that if we didn’t do something about the shoreline before long we might completely lose the whole thing! At that point I knew we had to heed his warning seriously and make this project a priority.”

Left: Erosion on the east side of the building was the first prompt leading to the restoration project,
but there were bigger concerns around the corner...
Right: Would the waters of Round Lake eventually reach and undermine this wall if nothing was done?

What are the Main Watershed Issues at Round Lake?
Round Lake Townhomes' shoreline property is within the 100 year flood elevation.
Round Lake Townhome’s property along the shoreline is vulnerable because it falls within the 100 year flood zone. Luckily the lake does not suffer from the effects of heavy wave action that could potentially further erode its shoreline. But without addressing the steepness of the southern bank and it growing ramifications of erosion on the hillside caused by run-off from the developed property, these threats had the potential to jeopardize the townhome’s real estate investment and potentially create some challenges to the lake’s water quality.

Can you see the Round Lake Trail Townhomes along the southern shoreline?
Even in the aerial photo, you can see how green the water is.  The clarity of
Round Lake is only 1/3 of a meter.

The lake is seriously impacted by intensive residential and commercial development around it. Water quality data for the past three years (2010-2012) indicates that the lake has a summer average of phosphorus of 179 TP (Total Phosphorus). It has a summer water clarity average of only a third of a meter and a chlorophyl a reading of nearly 104 ug/l. These three perimeters put it into a category of a hyypereutrophic nutrient-rich lake. 

Round Lake also faces the occasional health issue of harmful blue green algae also known as cyanobacteria that reoccurs periodically in the lake.  For further information on this topic, see this link for a definition of cyanobacteria or this pdf for the Watershed District’s blue-green algae fact sheet that accompanied an advisory in September 2013. 

Take caution.  Blue green algae can be harmful to pets
and humans.  Pay attention to advisories.

How are some of these Issues being addressed through the Round Lake Trails Shoreline Project?
Investigation of the site revealed the need for:

  • removal of buckthorn and invasive weeds 
  • replacement of non-natives with native plants and shrubs
  • making the lake more visible to residents
  • stabilizing the bank by solving serious erosion issues caused by run-off
  • preventing the gradual loss of shoreline 
  • habitat restoration for birds, fish, insects… and eagles!

Left:  Where's the lake?  Before the restoration, residents had a hard time seeing the lake from their townhomes due to the dense buckthorn.  The plants chosen will not be as tall and block their lake view.  Right: There goes the neighborhood!  Increasing runoff from the site was causing erosion down the hillside and compromising the shoreline.

Left: We want birds!  Improving habitat was an important goal for Round Lake residents who like to observe and appreciate animal life near their shoreline.  Right:  A pipe redirects runoff further down the slope and an erosion blanket with long rooted plants help reduce shoreline erosion and keep runoff from undermining the slope.
New native plants on a gradual slope now take the place of buckthorn on a steep slope.

Getting Townhome Residents On Board

Darlene Cochran, current President
of the Round Lake Townhome Association.
 “Darlene, the current president of the association was very excited about the shoreline restoration project from the moment I met her,” attests Paige Alborg, the Watershed District BMP Cost Incentive Program Coordinator who has helped support the project. “Throughout the process she was a good advocate for the project because she understood the importance of the project to the association and knew how to relay this so that the other townhome owners would understand its value.”

“Overall our project was a success because people felt heard, included and involved.” - Darlene Cochran, president of the Round Lake Trail Townhome Association.

Before any of the physical work could be started and the project could move forward, convincing the other 20 homeowners to get behind the project was the first step. Both Jane and Darlene recognized that it was important to establish buy-in by involving residents in important educational and decision-making steps along the way. Essential to the success of the project was helping the homeowners understand both the purpose for the project and what to expect as it progressed. Jane and Darlene set out to assist residents in recognizing the issues resulting from the dominance of invasive non-native plants and the level of erosion that jeopardized their shoreline. Ultimately residents had the opportunity to learn about and choose appropriate native replacements and determine locations for access points in the restoration area.
"How about putting it here?"  Residents had input into deciding the best locations for the three access points on the lake.

Teachable moments along the way…

“People were nervous about making a change,” noted Jane.

“But now everyone is looking forward to seeing what it will look like next spring and summer,” Darlene acknowledged.

“Some people weren’t convinced at first that the problems on the shoreline were serious enough to address. Couldn’t we wait a little longer? Even though the Watershed District would pay for 75% of the project costs, the residents had to be willing to kick in for some of the costs as well. They also had to be persuaded that if they didn’t do anything about the problems on their shoreline, eventually the shoreline would disappear and the lake level could be up to their wall.”

There was reluctance on the part of some homeowners to give up plants that weren’t native on their shore hillside because they had personally chosen and planted them themselves. Education about the value of long rooted native plants in stopping erosion became paramount. An evening education session was offered by the Watershed District to help teach the board members about the different types of plants needed for different zones along the shoreline. By the end of the project, comments from residents grew more favorable. Once the board approved the project and the project was in the ground by mid September, many residents took responsibility for watering the new plants along their section of the shoreline.

Rolling Forward 
"Meet me on the deck this evening at 6:30.  Ramsey Conservation District and
Paige Alhborg from the Watershed District are coming to meet with us." - Darlene Cochran

Darlene estimates that she held at least ten or more meetings over a year’s time with townhome residents and consultants. She and Jane toured Lake Phalen and other sites to get ideas for plants to include. Ramsey Conservation District developed the restoration plan. The Townhome Association applied for cost share funds from the Watershed District, then Darlene and her team solicited and reviewed bids. Sandstrom Land Management Company won the bid to remove the buckthorn, prep the site with erosion blanket, biologs and fence in the water and to install the plants. 

Leave well enough alone!  Native trees and shrubs already on site were left intact and worked around.

Bruce Sanborn, a former DNR hydrologist who worked for 16 years for the MN DNR and 18 years for the Board of Soils and Water Management BSWM was hired as the lead contractor. He was very careful to save many native plants and trees already growing on the shoreline. By the time the project was completed, 4000 square feet of shoreline were restored including upland areas, a transitional wetland buffer and an emergent zone along the water’s edge.

So there you have it –a story that contains the intersection of co-ops, childcare, eagle care and protection of our lakes. Looking out for our future, our waters, our children and their children and the efforts that go into creating supportive food sources and habitats for plants, birds, eagles, fish, insects and humans are all interrelated. Thank you to everyone for caring enough to make it happen!
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.  For more about his
photos and river story, see our previous post Rusty's River Ride: A Story About Eagles.

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