Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May 24th Celebration : 'Water Is Life' and 'Rainy Day,' two public art installations at Maplewood Mall

By Sage Passi

The leaf blades of the Water is Life sculpture, created by Cecilia Schiller and
Willis Bowman silhouetted against the sky at Maplewood Mall.
On a beautiful spring evening on May 24 in 1983, I gave birth to my daughter, Crystal. I watched her grow up to be an artist and somehow it feels fitting to witness the unveiling of two new works of art on that same day, thirty one years later. This time around there’s lots to be celebrated again. Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District invites the public to the dedication ceremonies for two new public art installations, Water is Life and Rainy Day, at the Maplewood Mall on Saturday, May 24 from 11 AM to 1:00 PM. These works are real labors of love.

The mural Rainy Day, created by David Aichinger, Jessica Turtle, and
Christy Schwartz is enjoyed by St. Peter School visitors.

The stunning public art pieces at Maplewood Mall have been birthed over the past year and a half. The designers/crafters of these two projects have dedicated innumerable hours, tapped into their creativity and energy, masterminded their way around numerous challenges and teamed up to bring their vision and message to light. Their artworks highlight themes about the interactions between water, nature and the built environment.

The Water is Life sculpture waits to be unveiled.  The wood trunk of the tree
(wrapped in a tarp) harbors musical chimes underneath the bark that play when
the turbine leaves rotate.
The festivities will begin at the mall’s west entrance (near Kohl’s) at 11:00 AM with the unveiling of the interactive sculpture Water is Life, followed by a procession through the mall to the east entrance at 11:30 for a ceremony to honor the completion of the mural, Rainy Day. Performances by students from Farnsworth Aerospace, Harding High Earth Club and St. Peter’s School with original poetry will be the centerpieces of the celebration. A reception with an opportunity to mingle with the artists follows.

St. Peter's fourth graders rehearse for the art dedication ceremony on
May 24th at Maplewood Mall.
Artist Cecilia Schiller, together with Willis Bowman, created Water is Life, an interactive, water driven, tree-shaped sculpture to encourage the community to share in the responsibility of protecting water and keeping it clean. The Tree of Life sculpture is activated by rainwater from the roof that drains into a turbine, rotates the branches and plays a melody on chimes inside the trunk. Viewers can also make the sculpture move by turning a wheel on a crank box adjacent to it.

Cecilia and Bowman set up the sculpture at
Maplewood Mall's west entrance.

Rainy Day, the large tile mural provides a dramatic backdrop for the Watershed
District's stormwater management features.

Schiller’s idea for the sculpture was developed over the course of a year by interacting with watershed district staff, volunteers and community members and exploring sites and waterways within the watershed. Its Tree of Life motif carries the message about the interconnections between water and life. Ultimately she chose the location at Maplewood Mall for its unique challenge to use rainwater in creative ways and the opportunity it offered to reach a large and diverse audience while promoting ideas of innovative water stewardship efforts and their benefits in a fun, inviting way.

Tessera Mosaics artists, David Aichinger, Jessica Turtle and Christy Schwartz created the large colorful, playful ceramic and stone tile mural, Rainy Day to draw attention to the interplay between nature and the built environment. Created as a backdrop for the Watershed District’s dramatically decorated cistern and the rain garden surrounding it at the mall’s east entrance, the mural entices visitors to find images embedded in the design that include a belted kingfisher, honeybees, walleye, sunfish, ferns, a mushroom, a lizard, 3 ants carrying a pretzel, a turtle with a crayfish, a western bluebird as well as many other creatures and plants that share the local environment with humans.

A spider, one of the many smaller images
incorporated in the mural.
The mural challenges the audience to contemplate their own actions in the environment. At the same time it inspires an appreciation of the beauty and capacity of long- rooted plants in the mall’s rain gardens to help water soak into the ground and keep downstream lakes and the Mississippi River safe from potentially harmful pollutants that would otherwise run off from the mall’s parking lots, rooftops and roads. Their work helped inspire the poetry that St. Peter’s students will be performing at the event.

St Peter's students write in their journals about the mural's messages.
Schiller received an initial grant to develop a preliminary design in 2012 and additional funding from Forecast Public Art St. Paul in 2013 to build and install Water Is Life at Maplewood Mall. Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District gave input and matching funds. The Jerome Foundation provided additional funds. The Rainy Day mural was funded by Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.

Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District is partnering with Maplewood Mall, Harding High School Earth Club, St. Peter School and Farnsworth Aerospace School for this event. 

We hope to see you there!!  It will be a great time for folks of all ages.

For more information contact Sage Passi, Watershed Education Specialist at sage.passi[at] or at 612-598-9163.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Many Languages of Water: Celebrate Water Is Life at WaterFest! May 31

By Sage Passi

Dej yug siav. Biyo waa nolol. Agua es Vida. L’eau est la vie! In any language, Water is Life!

Harding High Earth Club rehearses at their school for the Water is Life 
celebration at WaterFest.
Join in the festivities at WaterFest to celebrate the many languages of water. Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District and the City of St. Paul invite you to participate in the Water is Life celebration and procession that begins at 11:00 AM on the bridge north of the Pavilion in Phalen Park on Saturday, May 31. Then follow the parade to the dedication celebration at the west side of the lake at the waterfall that has recently been restored by St. Paul. For the rest of the day take part in the many varied activities of WaterFest throughout the park on St. Paul’s Get Out of Doors Day!

Harding High heads off to the Lake Phalen waterfall in late April
to practice for the waterfall dedication ceremony. 
Harding High Earth Club students, Farnsworth Aerospace third and fourth grades and a class from St. Peter School will kick off WaterFest with a ceremony on the bridge that honors the many personalities, roles and seasonal attributes of water. Water drawn from the many lakes, creeks and wetlands in the District will be symbolically merged to acknowledge that “water connects us all.” Bev Blomgren and Sage Passi have been working with students for several months to create performances for both WaterFest and a dedication ceremony at Maplewood Mall for the interactive Water is Life sculpture and the Rainy Day mural unveiling on Saturday, May 24. **Read more about the Maplewood Mall Ceremony here **

Bev Blomgren coaches Farnsworth students who will be
performers in the Water is Life celebration.  The "Eagle"
puppet is one of the many characters in the production.

Water is water.

It is fog, frost and sea.

When autumn comes chasing,

Water comes racing.

Water can be a

Leaf river

A fire snuffer

An eagle flyway

A salmon highway.

Farnsworth fouth-graders dramatize water's ability to "snuff out" fire.
The limestone walled waterfall at Lake Phalen on the western side of the lake was created in the 1950’s. “Originally, there was a well dug with it, and water flowed from the well to Lake Phalen to supplement the water levels, which were receding at times,” says Brian Murphy, St. Paul’s landscape architect who directed the redesign efforts.

The waterfall on Lake Phalen's western shore was built in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Dormant for many decades, the waterfall will be “turned on” at WaterFest to circulate water to and from the lake.
Harding High Earth Club prepare for the waterfall dedication
ceremony on May 31st.
A lift station for the waterfall will draw water from Lake Phalen through an intake structure located in the lake. The water will be pumped up the hill to the upper basin and cascade to the lower basin. There are two channels with decorative grates that lead from the lower basin through the plaza to a cascade at the shore where the water will return to the lake.

Shannen Lachkameya, Harding High's Earth
Club advisor and a student in front of one
of the grates that carries water from the
waterfall to the lake.

Efforts to restore the waterfall began several years ago with the development of the updated Phalen-Keller Regional Park master plan, a document that offers guidance for the future of the two adjoining parks that draw more than 1 million people annually. 

Watch on our website,, for schedules and maps showing the Waterfall Dedication and other exhibits at this year's WaterFest on May 31st! 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mystery of the Month - May

By Sage Passi

The former Phalen Creek valley - now Heritage Park.


What happened to Phalen Creek? 

The tale of this hidden stream lurks beneath the surface, sometimes emerging, then vanishing underground while bringing along with it a cast of characters.

Tunnel Vision – Inside the History of Phalen Creek

Phalen Creek (1910).  Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
If you've lived on the east side of St. Paul for eighty plus years and done things like take the street car to White Bear Lake or witness the building of the tunnel that replaced the trout stream that ran through the Phalen Creek valley a hundred years ago, then step right up. You are my kind of person. I’d like to interview you. I've always had a fascination with making the invisible visible. Call me a reverse magician, if you will. John Emkovikis, a long time resident of the East Side of St. Paul, I am told, is one of those people who could bring those buried stories out into the open. I was encouraged to meet this walking “history channel” by Kathy Sidles, another east-sider who is an advocate for the preservation and protection of the green corridor that connects the Phalen Chain of Lakes with the Mississippi River flood plain downstream. But, like the creek he is elusive (at least for the moment) so I’ll have to be patient and rely upon some other sources of information. Thank goodness for Google……

Kathy Sidles pitches the protection of the green corridors along Bruce Vento
Trail to L'Etoile du Nord fifth-graders as they explore the old pathway of Phalen Creek.

Kathy, this spring, while helping kids pick up trash in the ravine that used to host this old winding Phalen Creek, told me about this friend of hers who has some first-hand stories about this now “invisible” creek that ran from the south end of Lake Phalen to the river.

“Ask him about the swimmer who was catching fish in his pants,”... Kathy challenged me. 

I asked our local GTN filmmaker Chuck Turning if he would help me interview John. But my phone calls to John this weekend didn't get me anywhere yet, so this journalistic rendezvous is has been put on my short bucket list. When Chuck and I collect John’s stories, if that comes to pass, we’ll certainly bring them to light. In the meantime, I've had to delve into some other resources.

“What happens to the water when it leaves Phalen Lake?” is a question I often pose to groups of students when we are exploring the watershed’s pathways. The answer to Phalen Creek’s story lies buried somewhere in the layers of geography, geology and the history of St. Paul’s development over the past hundred and fifty years.

Phalen Creek, for many years was a spring fed stream that rumbled out of the lake, through a ravine and valley (known as Swede Hollow today), through a mile wide gap in the white sandstone cliffs above the Mississippi River and then down through a wetland to the river below. Surrounded by trees and wetlands, it served as a corridor for songbirds and other wildlife. In the 1800’s the local Dakota, who lived in valleys near the river, traveled this creek from the Mississippi River on their way up to Lake Phalen and then to Lake Gervais and Gervais Creek where they had their summer hunting and fishing grounds. In the early eighteen forties they told Benjamin Gervais, the French Canadian voyageur, about this route. He had a claim near Fort Snelling, was looking for more land and they told him to follow the creek up north from the Mississippi River to a place where he could start a farm and build a mill.

Much earlier, according to Steve Trimble, who published an article for the Minnesota Historical Society in Saint Paul Historical says that, “When Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest and explorer was paddling up the Mississippi in 1680, his group met a Dakota war party who detained him and beached his canoe at the creek’s confluence with the Mississippi River. He is usually considered the first European person to visit Phalen Creek.”

Phalen Creek, named after the nefarious Edward Phalen , a trapper who had a land claim on the creek and was accused of perjury, murder and left town), was heralded by various other names including McCloud Creek and Mill Creek. In 1844 Phalen sold his claim to William Dugas, who built Saint Paul's first saw and grist mill there. Horace Winchell, a local geologist documented many mills located at one time along its stretch.

In the creek’s ravine, later known as Swede Hollow, immigrants arriving first from Sweden in the 1850’s, then from Italy, Poland and eventually Mexico settled along its banks. While these residents drew their drinking water from artesian wells, they used the creek for washing, watering their small gardens and put their outhouses on stilts across the stream.

Outhouses sat on stilts above Phalen Creek that ran through Swede Hollow.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Here’s a quote from a former resident of Swede Hollow, Nels M. Hokanson,
“In Swede Hollow residents instituted cleanup days…Women and boys raked the garbage strewn alleys. Later…the boys waded in the creek to keep the mass of refuse in the center until it disappeared in the tunnel. When the day was over, Swede Hollow was neater and cleaner than it had been in a long time.”

I’m glad to say we have a different approach today to keep this refuse out of the storm sewers that have replaced what was once known as Phalen Creek.

Clean-ups 2014 style.  French Immersion fifth-graders pick up trash along
the Bruce Vento Trail, in the ravine of the old Phalen Creek

The water that would have traveled along this route is now piped through a sewer or directed to the soil below by BMPs (Best Management Practices) such as the rain gardens and pervious pavement in Heritage Park and other points along the way.

French Immersion fifth-graders test out the
pervious parking lot in Heritage Park in St. Paul,
created in the former Phalen Creek valley.
To decipher more of Phalen Creek’s history, tracing the creek’s route backwards from the river to the lake and looking at its geological past is helpful.

Phalen Creek bypassed these white cliffs and ran through a gap in the hills to the Mississippi River.

Author, geologist, historian and urban speleologist (cave scientist) Greg Brick describes the creek’s history in his book, Subterranean Twin Cities.
“Geologists surmise that this gap, where the creek found its way to the river, was carved by a preglacial precursor of the Mississippi, flowing down from the north. The Mississippi has changed course several times in the past million years or so and has only lately carved its present gorge. The topographic depression left by the previous river became the place of post glacial drainage. Phalen Creek ran through the gap, together with its largest tributary, Trout Brook.

“The Mississippi floodplain is a muddy place and was even more so before engineers tamed the river. Imagine a stream of water from the surrounding uplands directed down on top of all that mud, and you get an idea of what the early Trout Brook-Phalen Creek delta was like. No wonder it was described as a “bottomless bog” in Josiah B. Chaney’s classic Early Bridges and Changes of the Land and Water Surface in the City of St. Paul.” -Greg, Brick, Subterranean Twin Cities

Here are some other facts about the creek that emerged from perusing Friend’s of the Mississippi River Field Guide.
A train coming from the south of Fort Snelling, 1890.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
“The Phalen Creek and Trout Brook streams flowed into what was a cove of the river in high water. Boats could penetrate to where Third Street is now in high water, but in low water it was an impenetrable marsh. Back in the mid to late 1800’s the railroads, anxious to expand their reach, were looking for a way to build railway yards in this delta. In the 1860's, trestles were run across this marshy area and between the line of sandbars along the river's shore. The land between these tracks and the firm shore was filled. The bluff between the upper and lower landings was blasted back to allow railroad construction and Dayton's Bluff was cut back. Later construction of Shepard and Warner Roads finished filling the marsh.” FMR’s Mississippi River Field Guide

Brick, in Subterranean Twin Cities goes on to say, 

“Bridging the streams would have required expensive stone-arch culverts. So instead, in one of the most dramatic cut and fill jobs in municipal history, Baptist Hill, a mound of glacial debris fifty feet high, formerly located where Mears Park is today was carted eastward after the Civil War under the direction of city engineer David La Curtice and dumped to fill the creek’s delta wetland. In the process, Phalen Creek and Trout Brook were left at their original lower level- already well on their way to becoming subterranean.”

In 1893 city engineer George Wilson undertook the task of putting the lower reaches of these two streams underground. This became known as the Canal Street sewer. An article published by Wilson in Engineering News in 1894 describes intricate details of the underground sewer such as Platteville Limestone rubble-masonry walls, granite floor and “gargoyles, curiously wrought iron spouts that vomit water in the tunnel.” Construction of this sewer system continued into the twentieth century. So meanwhile what happened to the rest of the creek?

A section of Phalen Creek open sewer between Third Street and East
Sixth St. being enclosed, St. Paul, 1936.  Photo Courtesy of the
Minnesota Historical Society.
The Phalen outlet on the southwest shore
of the lake during high-water.
Unless you are a student of watershed maps you might not know about Lake Phalen’s rather innocuous outlet at its southwest corner where the creek once exited the lake. Today there is a larger outlet and pipe system that carries this water into the Beltline Interceptor and into the Mississippi River. This large network of sewer pipes holds some of the secrets of the creek’s transformation. The Belt Line tunnel, constructed in the 1920’s to capture storm sewer run-off from the East Side of St. Paul, is almost 5 miles long. It was named after the Twin City Belt Railway. The Beltline Interceptor extends from the outlets of Lake Phalen and Beaver Lake to the Mississippi River. It is an important part of the District's drainage infrastructure - it not only collects a large percentage of stormwater runoff from St. Paul's east side, but also conveys runoff from the entire Phalen Chain of Lakes Subwatershed and the Beaver Lake Subwatershed to the Mississippi River. Large sections of the Beltline Interceptor are cast-in-place concrete “horseshoe” pipe, with heights of 7, 8, 9, and 12 feet, and buried up to 30 feet underground. Its velocity can be quite intense. The design discharge for the beltline is 2,000 cubic feet per second.

So why did the creek get put underground?

One answer lies in what was happening during major storms in Lowertown in downtown St. Paul. During especially heavy rains Lowertown used to flood very badly. Brick explains,

“The problem was focused at the meeting of the waters, the junction of Trout Brook with Phalen Creek. Water couldn’t get through the tunnels fast enough and backed up into the adjacent streets. When the waters of Como Lake got plugged into the Trout Brook system, a new difficulty must have been created: a much greater volume of water was channeled into Lowertown during rainstorms. To compensate, Lake Phalen was unplugged from its natural watershed by walling off the old tunnel at Ocean Street, and Phalen Creek was made to drain into a wholly new tunnel, the Beltline tunnel which runs mostly under Johnson Parkway and discharges to the Mississippi River near the former St. Paul Fish Hatchery." 

Brick  refers to the two now mostly underground streams, Trout Brook and Phalen Creek on the east side of St. Paul as the Urban Nile or the Industrial Mesopotamia. They are not the most flattering nicknames. In his book, he describes his wet-suit journeys through the underground sewer systems that now replace the creek’s above ground journey. Sometimes harrowing, always fascinating, his tales get at the underbelly of Phalen Creek’s meandering story.  The size of the area that drains stormwater through this system is the prompt for many of the Watershed Districts efforts to clean the water upstream before it enters this maze of pipes. 

If you’d like to learn more about Phalen Creek’s underground history, Brick’s book is a fascinating read. Then take a jaunt through Swede Hollow where the creek is day-lighted and finish this visit off with a trip to Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary where the creek once flowed.

You won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Summer Interns

Many of our staff have been out in the field doing prescribed burns, installing monitoring equipment, starting native restorations, battling invasive plant species and more as another exciting field season gets into full swing.  This means our seasonal interns start to come aboard to help make it all happen, and get some good experience at the same time. 

If you read this post the last two months, you met our first three interns who had already gotten their boots dirty.  One more began in late May, just in time for us to put him hard at work for WaterFest.

Let's wish a warm welcome as the interns introduce themselves.

Welcome Tim Murphy, 

This is Tim, trust us.  In this photo he is
working with the Natural Resources crew
on a prescribed burn at Keller Golf
Course. We will work towards
getting a better picture soon!
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with RWMWD and all of the great staff here! I am currently a University of Minnesota student pursuing my degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy & Management. This past fall I interned at the Nature Conservancy, which provided me with a breadth of knowledge about the natural resource field. In addition, I have also given Segway tours of Minneapolis for 7 years now. During the upcoming summer, I will be working with the cost share and permit programs to gather information about their effectiveness and also aid in understanding how the costs of these programs compare to their benefits. Outside of this project, I also pose as the utility man for the District, filling in wherever extra help is needed! This summer will bring many new adventures and learning experiences, and I can already say that I am enjoying my time.

Welcome Back to Jake Lindeman, Natural Resources Intern

I am happy to be back working with all the great people at RWMWD and continue to build upon the experience I gained as a natural resources intern from 2010-2012. I have a bachelor of science in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior from the University of Minnesota and have spent the last couple of years completing a graduate certificate for my secondary life science teaching licensure.

My long term career goal is to transition into environmental education later in my teaching career. I plan on taking opportunities like this internship to continue to build my knowledge in ecology and conservation. I am looking forward to spending the summer outside working with our natural resources!

Welcome Back to Wyatt, Water Quality Intern

Wyatt, 2014 Water Quality intern, removes a manhole
cover at Maplewood Mall to check monitoring equipment.
"I am very pleased to return to the RWMWD as a water quality intern.

In the two years since my natural resources internship with the district I have been focused primarily on finishing my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, which I achieved in December of 2013. In the time not devoted towards education, I held a summer geotechnical internship testing physical properties of soils in altered sites, and continued working a part time outdoor retail job in Minneapolis.

My flexible schedule has allowed me to have some great experiences lately pursuing new and exciting skiing and camping opportunities. I look forward to the new challenges and rewarding experiences this season is sure to bring while monitoring water throughout the district."

Zola checks out some of the greenhouse-grown
MN native plants the Natural Resources  team
will be using on a restoration this spring.

Welcome Zola, Natural Resources Intern

"I am very excited to join the team at RWMWD! Before beginning my internship, I served two terms with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa's Youth Outdoors program as a crew member and crew leader. Between my time as a crew leader and natural resource intern, I have worked in the exciting atmosphere of Psycho Suzi's Motor Lounge.
As a natural resource intern, I am looking forward to further understanding Minnesota's diverse ecology and applying this to a degree in the Environment Science field. While not interning and hosting, I look forward to rock climbing, playing trivia, and going to as many patios as possible! I look forward to a season filled with learning, challenges, and a multitude of new experiences."