Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Carrying a Torch for Native Plants

By Simba Blood

Meghan Manhatton, from St. Paul Parks and Recreation, and Janna, 2013 RWMWD Natural
Resources Intern, keep a prescribed burn under control at Lake Phalen.

“Wait – didn’t you plant that? Why are you burning it – you’ll kill it!”

Our first controlled burn of natural buffers along the Lake Phalen shore attracted the attention of many passersby, including this older gentleman, a regular lakeside walker. He seemed quite distressed to think that we were destroying all the grasses and flowers we’d planted. When I tried to explain that we wanted to give the prairie a boost, he just shook his head and walked on.

That happened nearly 10 years ago, and by now regular park-goers have had several opportunities to witness how native plants respond to fire. Dense green growth, abundantly decorated with brilliant blooms is the typical aftermath of a burn. Why do native plants do so well after such a major disruption?

Lake Phalen's shoreline restorations are periodically burned  in
the spring or late fall to help new native plant growth.

The short answer is that prairie ecosystems have developed in a landscape subject to frequent fires, both natural and human-caused. The deep rooted, perennial grasses and flowers that make up this plant community are able to survive and thrive in the presence of regular fires. The longer answer involves the physical and ecological mechanisms natural resource professionals point to when discussing how fires can be beneficial. From the
plant’s perspective, it’s all about temperature, access to sunlight and nutrients, and freedom from competition.

One consequence of a controlled burn is the removal of dead plant material that builds up in a prairie. This increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. Not only is the amount of light increased but the charred earth warms up quickly. This happens because the black ash absorbs every wavelength of visible light. Elevated soil temperatures stimulate both plant growth and soil bacteria.

Burning dead plant material increases the amount of sunlight reaching new sprouts.

The combustion of dead plant stems and leaves releases essential nutrients back into the prairie, but the story is a little more involved. Soil microbes actually do the heavy lifting in converting nutrients into forms that the plants can use. Thanks in part to the action of these microbes, burned prairies produce taller, healthier plants with more vigorous flowering. Increased flower production provides sustenance to pollen and nectar consumers. Of course we humans find all those flowers quite attractive as well!

Another benefit of fire is the reduction of competition by unwanted plants. Fire helps to reduce annual weeds, destroying seeds and harming or killing early growing annual plants. Fire can also suppress or even kill some of the undesirable cool season perennial grasses , such as smooth brome and bluegrass. Burns also set back woody vegetation that tends to take over prairies if left unmanaged.

The Gervais Mill Pond restoration near RWMWD's office
is burned every few years to help the native plants thrive.

With this list of benefits, why don’t we just burn our natural areas every year?

Although burning a prairie is helpful to general prairie health, it is not without other consequences. The downside to spring burns is damage to desirable cool season plants, particularly spring flowers such as pasque flower, prairie smoke, and Jacob’s ladder. And while our larger, mobile critters can get themselves out of harm’s way for the most part, beneficial insects that overwinter in prairie plants typically don’t emerge until later in the spring. The bugs that hunkered down in the area selected for a spring burn will likely perish. To mitigate for these effects we will burn most managed areas every two or three years, and select areas to serve as refuges for vulnerable insect species.

When you see us out around the District this spring with our drip torches and swatters, we want you know we are out to help the prairie, not harm it. Prescribed burns are not just an opportunity for us to don the Nomex “banana suits” – as awesome a fashion statement as that makes – but a management tool to improve the health, habitat value and beauty of our native plantings.

Willow, Water and Winter Bonding with Ames Lake

By Sage Passi

French Immersion student hauls willow and cottonwood cut by
Minnesota Conservation Corps crews at Ames Lake on the east side of St. Paul

Becoming a steward of the land and water demands a certain bonding with a place. My childhood wanderings with field guide in hand around the wetland edges of Foot Lake at the outskirts of my small hometown Willmar were the early catalysts that set the stage for my career in water protection. For Nick Gasho’s fourth-grade students at L’Etoile du Nord, French Immersion School, the anchor is Ames Lake, a tiny, tucked away oasis just east of Cub Foods on the east side of St. Paul. If you didn’t grow up in the area you might not know it exists. 

French Immersion students frolic on the Ames Lake ice shortly
before a blizzard hits.

The restoration at Ames Lake.
Ames Lake has always had a colorful history. At one time it was a much larger lake, but in the 1960s, in anticipation of Interstate 94 being built through the neighborhood, the lake was filled in and Phalen Shopping Center was “planted” on top of it. Marian Seabold, age 97, an elder in the community tells stories from her youth about walking past the lake/wetland serenaded by chorus frogs as she stopped to admire the colorful array of prairie and wetland plants adorning the lake.

Years later as an adult, she recalls, sadly watching as the dump trucks filled in the lake that had held so many happy first memories for her. In the late 1990s, the neighborhood observed cattails popping up in the parking lot. Disgruntled by the sinking pilings and the flooding in the shopping center, they rejected the covering up of Ames Lake and made a big pitch for its return. The Watershed District contributed $500,000 toward restoring the lake and its surrounding habitats.

Thus Ames Lake was reborn.

But, as with all restoration projects, there is still on-going work to be done. Early this winter, I checked in with St. Paul Parks and Recreation Natural Resources Technician Meghan Manhatton to ask her about the status of invasive plants on the site. I was involved in the original restoration and have been watching over the years as more and more of the area has been overtaken by willow and cottonwoods that shade out and threaten the vitality of the diverse array of prairie and wetland species that we planted back in 2001. I asked, “What can the students do to help?”

Nick Gasho's fourth-graders stack willow and cottonwood at
Ames Lake to be hauled away for mulching or to be burned
to provide heat for downtown St. Paul.

Left: Meghan Manhatton from St. Paul Parks and Recreation has been spearheading this winter's willow and cottonwood cutting.  Right: Katie Clower, Program Assistant for Friends of the Mississippi River prepares the site for willow removal.

After some deliberation and thoughtful discussions, a tentative work plan for the next year emerged. Katie Clower from Friends of the Mississippi River jumped on board to provide education about wetlands with funding assistance through the McNeely Foundation. We decided to focus on willow removal in 2014 and complete some re-plantings of native prairie species on the north slopes of the lake next year if the park staff’s efforts to eradicate an infestation of crown vetch are successful. 

Nick Gasho, French Immersion fourth-grade teacher,
supervises the stacking of willow and cottonwood brush.

Teachers like Nick Gasho, Lequyen Tran and others led by Henriette Bissoy, the science teacher have been involving their students in hands-on learning about restoration ever since they began partnering with the Watershed District six years ago. Their principal, Fatima Lawson, has been a strong advocate for environmental service learning. At their former Bush Avenue school ground, they sought out many opportunities to engage students in watershed stewardship including planting prairie plants on the hillside to
resolve serious erosion issues and constructing a rain garden and butterfly gardens.

But this fall when they moved into their new location at the former Ames Elementary School just off of White Bear and Case Avenues, they discovered that gardening space was quite limited. So those once close-at-hand opportunities for involvement had dwindled. But with their move, new doors have opened up.

Planting the hillside restoration at their school.

The school is now within walking distance to both Ames Lake and Beaver Lake. Nick is taking advantage of it with full gusto. By the end of the year his students will have taken four walking trips to Ames Lake to experience its uniqueness through the seasons, study its
habitats, learn about water quality and work on several of its issues.

In February a French Immersion student augers
holes in the ice at Ames Lake to create access
for water quality sampling equipment.

In the fall the class walked around the circumference of the lake, studied its ecology and investigated some of its challenges including graffiti, vandalism and invasive species. In late February, on the day of the last big blizzard right before the snow came down fast and furiously, they walked the mile or so to Ames Lake to see what they could learn about water quality in the wintertime.

With the help of Dave Vlasin, the District’s Water Quality Technician, they drilled holes in the ice and measured some of the parameters used in water quality monitoring including dissolved oxygen and conductivity. They discovered very low oxygen levels, typical of a very shallow lake and somewhat high levels of conductivity that left them pondering about the implications. It was a good chance to raise awareness about the changes that occur seasonally with lakes and learn about methods to measure water quality.

Dave Vlasin, RWMWD, explains the functions of the Sonde Sampler, a water
quality monitoring tool.


On March 14 Nick’s class seized the moment to walk to the lake again. On a glorious pre-spring day they stepped into action to help out Ames Lake by teaming up with the Watershed District, St. Paul Parks and Recreation and Friends of the Mississippi River to help haul willow and cottonwood stands that had been recently cut by Minnesota Conservation Corps teams who have been using the area as a practice site to train their crews to use chain saws.

An invigorating way to spend an early, warm "spring" morning.

Removing cottonwood logs at Ames Lake.

Small teams of Gasho’s students hauled and stacked willow, cottonwood brush piles and logs to locations along the edge of the trail around the lake that could easily be picked up by a clam truck that will take the brush to either Pigs Eye where it can be mulched or to the District Heating where it will be burned to provide heat for the downtown St. Paul area. It was a good opportunity to learn cooperation skills, get a good workout, soak in the sun and improve the habitat at Ames Lake.

Tackling the large branches of willow.  The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension,
Wells Fargo Bank, and nearby townhomes (in background) were built around the
wetland since the restoration.

Next trip: a clean-up at Ames Lake in April with their other two fourth-grade classes. In May they get to take a trip to Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary to remove garlic mustard, visit a larger scale restoration project and learn all about the cultural and ecological significance of that area. Kudos for getting acquainted with their community and making a difference!

Mystery of the Month - March

Snow = water
An inch of snow is followed by a 5-7 inch snowstorm, which is followed by 4 hours of freezing drizzle. Patterns like this go on and on through winter.  What are we talking about for total inches of water as the spring thaw begins (and stops and begins again) this year?

As Minnesotans we know the drill, as spring gets closer, temperatures get higher and snow starts to melt. Recently the Water Quality crew went out to check the water equivalent of the snow. We are trying to figure out the amount of water that is in the snow. This gives us an early idea about the chances of flooding in the District. We did the test two weeks ago before the recent warm temperatures. 

At that time we found that there was about 4 to 4.5 inches of water in the snow pack. That is like getting a 4-4.5 inch rain storm. But thankfully the melt (usually) happens slower than a large rain storm because with warm days but below freezing nights, the process slows.

Do it Yourself (DIY) Snow Gauge - It’s easy to try this at home 

  1.  Get two 5 gallon buckets with straight sides

  2.  Cut out the bottom of one of them

  3.  Find snow that hasn’t been disturbed

  4.  Place the bucket with the hole in it, into the snow all the way to the ground

  5.  Shovel the snow out of there, into the other bucket

  6.  Let the snow melt and then measure how deep the water is.

Or take a look at a map of snow water equivalents across the country.


Look for the Tab marked Select Physical Element
Then Select Snow Water Equivalent

Let us know what you get!

Friday, March 14, 2014

What you Missed at MECA

Don Shelby speaking on climate change implications for erosion prevention in Minnesota

March 5-6, 2014 marked the annual Minnesota Erosion Control Association (MECA) conference. The conference was held in Plymouth, MN this year and was attended by two District staff members. MECA is an organization comprised of people involved in various construction and stormwater industries: state regulators, local government units, contractors, engineers, and more. Since its creation 25 years ago, MECA has worked to communicate the importance of erosion prevention and sediment control practices. The organization assists in educating members and citizens about innovative construction techniques and materials. The overall goal of these activities is to prevent pollution and protect water resources throughout the state of Minnesota.

The MECA conference is an exciting annual event in which the organization updates attendees on the year’s projects including workshops, tours, demonstrations, trainings, and publications. MECA has a member-elected Board of Managers and represents various industries in the erosion/sediment field. MECA also uses its annual conference to host a trade show in order for members to learn about new and innovative methods/technologies concerning slope stabilization, vegetation reinforcement, and inlet protection (to name a few). The trade show is also an opportunity for local landscaping and restoration providers to advertise their services.

Investigative journalist, author, and former WCCO news anchor Don Shelby was this year’s keynote speaker at the MECA conference. He provided thoughtful remarks and opinions regarding climate change and the importance of erosion prevention in preserving the nation’s topsoil and preventing pollution. It is the opinion of this author (if I may) that Mr. Shelby is an incredible public speaker and accomplished the near-impossible task of keeping a large room of people awake and engaged at 8:00 in the morning!

This year’s presenters spoke on a variety of interesting topics including: streambank restoration, construction oversight programs, large-scale BMP maintenance, slope stabilization, dewatering challenges, land use ordinances, and compliance/enforcement. RWMWD’s very own Paige Ahlborg gave a presentation on the District’s BMP maintenance pilot program. Check the Ripple Effect’s previous publications from 2013 to gain some more insight on this innovative program looking at the annual cost of BMP maintenance! (The True Costs of Maintenance, and Pilot Program Recap: Year 1)

District staff enjoyed attending this year’s MECA conference and will be able to use the information they've learned to apply to the District’s construction permit program and future restoration projects. Visit www.mnerosion.org to learn more about MECA’s history, ongoing activities, and resources available.

Carp Wars - Environmental Forum for the Public - April 28th

Carp Wars Environmental Forum will discuss the battle to stop common carp and other aquatic invaders from destroying diversity in our lakes and streams.

When:  Monday, April 28th, 2014  7:00 pm
Who:  Dr. Peter Sorensen, Director of the MAISRC and Professor in the U of MN Dept. of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.
Where: H.B. Fuller Company (1200 Willow Lake Blvd. Vadnais Heights, MN)
Cost: Free (light refreshments provided)
Questions:  Watershed District: 651-792-7965
                     Evening of Event: 651-236-5921

RSVPs appreciated via our Eventbrite site: ***Click Here to RSVP***
  • Discover the common carp’s secrets to success.
  • Learn how researchers have uncovered this fish’s amazing survival skills, and are using carp behaviors to successfully win the fight against this adept invader in the Phalen Chain of Lakes and other waters.
  • Hear Dr. Peter Sorensen enlighten you about the fascinating research he is leading and the creative solutions his team has developed to control invasive carp.
  • Learn about the unique collaboration underway at the new Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC) where the University of Minnesota, the MN Dept. of Natural Resources and others strive to find biologically and economically sound ways to address the increasing number of aquatic invasive species threatening Minnesota’s waters.
Area residents, community and civic leaders are encouraged to attend.
You won't want to miss his captivating story!

Dr. Peter Sorensen is the Director of the MAISRC and a professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. His boyhood intrigue at the diversity of fish species caught by commercial fishermen began his path to a Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography and a love for research. He helped identify some of the first sex pheromones in fish and now works with students on projects to address fish behavior, physiology, and chemoreception.
 Sponsored by the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District and H.B. Fuller Company

Reid Swanson, Justine Koch, and Natural Resources Intern Janna (left to right) pull
carp out of a net barrier on a District creek.