Friday, March 13, 2015

It's time to spring into action!

Check out what's happening this spring!

Turfgrass maintenance professionals, both public and private, will want to check out the Best Management Practices for Lawn/Turf Maintenance workshopThis free class will be held on Friday, April 10, at the Washington Conservation District Office. Learn more >>

Meet author Douglas Owens-Pike and learn how to create Beautifully Sustainable Landscapes that will succeed with the least amount of care using ecologically sound principles. This free event will be held at the Maplewood Library on Thursday, April 16. Learn more >>

Stop water where it drops! Learn how to create a plan to design a raingarden in your own yard with help from local experts at this free Design Your Raingarden Workshop on Thursday, May 14, at the Maplewood Nature Center.
Learn more >>

Discover the benefits of rain barrels at a Make 'n Take Rain Barrel Workshop on Monday, May, 18 at the Washington Conservation District. Rain barrels will be discounted $40 each as a special bonus to participants! Learn more >>

WaterFest 2015: A Water Wonderland, is a celebration of our clean lakes offering outdoor fun and hands-on learning about water quality, wildlife and more. Watch for details on this year's event to be held on Saturday, May 30, at Lake Phalen Park in St. Paul. Learn more >> For a Schedule of Events click here >>.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reflections from Retirement - Chapter 3

Former District Administrator Cliff Aichinger welcomes the crowd
at the Rainwater Extreme Management Makeover Grand Opening
at Maplewood Mall in September 2012.

Reflections on my greatest accomplishments

By Cliff Aichinger

Another month has gone by already. When I first began this new phase of my life, it was difficult for me to imagine not working every day (and thinking about it when I was not at work). However, as many have counseled me, there are many things that you find you can now do that you never had time for previously. I have found this to be very true.

What I have recently found is that vacations (they’re really not vacations any more, just trips) are even more relaxing and fun. Gone is the urge to plan every day and make the most out of the limited time you have away from work. If my wife and I want to take a couple more days to explore a city or take a slower route, we have the time and can relax doing it.

However, I recently found that I’m getting the urge to get back involved in watershed management. It’s hard to have a profession for 43 years and not want to keep tabs on what’s happening in the field and stay involved in some initiatives that held my passion for years. I have several ideas and I’m talking to people about options. We’ll see what pans out and how much time I want to dedicate.

This month I’m reflecting on my greatest accomplishments. This was a tough topic. Not that I couldn’t think of specific accomplishments, because there were many that made me proud. The problem was trying to decide which accomplishments shaped me as a person and influenced the direction and reputation of the District.

Cliff is honored with the "Grand Award" for the Maplewood Mall project
from the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) with
Barr Engineering partners, Erin Anderson Wenz and Matt Kumpka.

A reputation built on excellence

The accomplishment that makes me most proud is not a single project or program. What makes me most proud is developing the reputation of Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District as one of the best Districts in Minnesota. This accomplishment is not due to me alone. It is due to the long-term actions of the Board, staff and consultants. I tried to always look toward innovative and scientifically supported approaches to improve water quality and manage our limited natural resources. In reflecting on this more, one of the basic water management planning principles I have preached for years is to identify all water management issues in the District during the early stages of planning without focusing on financial concerns. This approach has resulted in the pursuit of programs and projects that may have eluded our attention in the past. Some of these approaches, like volume reduction, are now a major part of the District’s program. I think another measure of our success has been our ability and interest in collaborating and partnering with our communities on projects and programs. Our willingness to finance many of these efforts has opened the door to further opportunities.

A strong staff team and positive work environment

A yearly fall tour for staff and Board, initiated by Cliff,
has become a tradition that highlights key
projects and initiatives in the Watershed.
I am really proud of developing a strong
staff team and providing a workplace environment that has resulted in long staff tenure and job satisfaction.
I have had a couple of staffing problems during my time with the District, but they have  been few and far between. 

I am proud of my approach with staff, allowing them enough flexibility to be creative and innovative. I have always appreciated this opportunity in my past jobs and worked hard to pass this on to others.

The Spent Lime Stormwater Treatment project near Wakefield Lake tests the effectiveness of using spent lime in order to reduce levels of phosphorus in runoff before it reaches lakes and streams. Stormwater management groups may be able to use these results to design and implement low-cost innovative technology to reduce phosphorus from stormwater runoff.

Grant-supported innovative approaches

Moving in new and innovative directions can be a challenge. Boards and Councils will often oppose these programs because they are unproven and may not have been a published approach to the issue being addressed.

One way to move forward on these programs is to get a grant to support the effort and develop research and monitoring data to support further implementation. The District has been very successful at securing grant awards to support these innovative approaches. The grant program often built the support for an approach that led to long-range programs funded by subsequent District’s budgets.

Out-of-the-box thinking

The tree trenches installed at Maplewood Mall use a design adapted
from Stockholm tree specialists to treat stormwater. They are part of
a large-scale stormwater retrofit project that is designed to infiltrate
or filter the runoff from 90-percent of the mall's parking lots.
As mentioned above, I am really proud of the completion of several major innovative projects. Many of these projects have received statewide and some national attention. As mentioned most of these have received major grant awards. The recent Maplewood Mall Project and the Living Streets Project are two projects that are major water management and engineering accomplishments that drew significant attention.

These were also major collaborative projects with significant financial and construction management elements. These were not easy projects. The Maplewood Mall project involved almost two years of coordination with Simon Properties before the four-year construction program began. The Living Streets project began as a planning program with North St. Paul and was completed as a construction demonstration project three years later in Maplewood. Several Barr Engineering staff managed both these projects with considerable involvement by a number of District staff. Other innovative projects I am proud of include the iron enhanced sand filter demonstration project, the Phalen shoreline restoration project, the Kohlman TMDL and implementation, the Carp research project, the Fish Creek project and enhancements and more.

WaterFest, a free May celebration of clean water, has become
a popular annual public education event for the Watershed District.

Successful in-house programs

I am extremely proud of the successful in-house programs including watershed education, wetland inventory and management, volume reduction cost-share program, natural resource and habitat restoration, the use of GIS in natural resource and watershed management, volume reduction rules and regulations, just to name a few. The District was a leader in many of these efforts.

Maplewood Mall's east and west entrances incorporate artful design
in the stormwater features (cistern, Rainy Day mural, Water-is-Life
interactive sculpture) and signage created by the District.

Art in the Watershed

Another accomplishment that I am happy to have initiated is the concept of “Art in the Watershed.” Art is a personal passion and I was glad to be able to incorporate this interest into my work.

Beginning with the District Office construction, I wanted to incorporate some elements of public art into the building. Shortly after the construction of our building we began a process with St. Paul Public Art to study the concept of watershed-based pubic art and initiate an “Artist in Residence” program in collaboration with Capitol Region Watershed District. This was a very interesting process and we learned much. The Maplewood Mall mural, cistern and the “Tree of Life” installation were a by-product of this effort. I hope that future projects will incorporate public art features.

District office demonstration site

The Watershed District office demonstration site features multiple
rain gardens, native planting areas, a pervious asphalt parking lot,
pervious pavers and a green roof on the garage.
A final major accomplishment I need to mention is the construction of the District office building. The Board and I knew that our role in watershed management was not going to diminish in the foreseeable future and that we needed to be more visible to our residents and communities. We anticipated that our own facility would give us increased credibility and presence, as well as an appropriate and efficient work place for our programs. The results were far beyond all our expectations. This project was another example of the District doing something original. Several Districts have now completed or are beginning their own District office projects.

This was a major endeavor by the District Board, but our justifications and the financial benefits were clear. One bonus was being able to incorporate innovative stormwater management practices into the project to demonstrate these approaches to others. This element alone has generated considerable attention for the District. We have given countless tours of our facility to local governments, state agencies, construction and engineering firms, student groups, and citizen groups, and others. Individuals and groups from as far away as Sweden, Australia and Uzbekistan have toured our building. It is hard to believe, but the District building will be 10 years old this coming November. We are still receiving attention for our innovative landscaping and the innovative stormwater BMPs (porous asphalt, green roof, rain gardens and native landscaping). There have been several changes to the building and site, but the original design and function remains. It created a great work environment for staff, good facility for meetings and activities, and a good education site for youth and adults.


I know I have left out a number of other activities and projects that some of you may feel particularly attached to. I would be happy to elaborate on other projects, programs, or events in future articles. Please comment below if you have particular interests.

Next month I plan to comment on my thoughts on significant future challenges for the District and watershed management.

Fifteen Days Undergound

Eric Korte and Dave Vlasin
District Water Quality staff, investigate the Beltline

By Sage Passi

Notes from the Underground

The mission that Dave, Eric and the Barr team have undertaken this past month puts a whole new spin on Notes from the Underground, the title for Dostoevsky’s existential novel I read in high school. When I heard that our water quality monitoring staff would be spending 15 days underground walking the Beltline and the Battle Creek tunnels I had to investigate.

When Barr engineer Nathan Campeau came to our office last month on a Wednesday evening to set up for his Board presentation on the “Beltline and Battle Creek ” missions, he asked me if we had any old pictures of the Beltline. That request was just the impetus I needed to dig deeper to explore some more mysterious “tales from the underground”.

Sam Rediner, (left) and Nathan Campeau, Barr Engineering (right)
conduct an inspection in the Beltline tunnel.

I’d covered this beat before in a previous Ripple Effect blog article and had already become fascinated with the history of this extensive tunnel system built in the 1920’s that carries the flow of water from Phalen and Beaver Lakes to the river. Images of the earliest days of the Beltline’s predecessor tunnel with its “Platteville Limestone rubble-masonry walls, granite floor and gargoyles, with curiously wrought iron spouts that vomit water in the tunnel,” from an old 1894 Engineering News article description had lodged in my memory. 
Today the Beltline has over 33,000 feet of tunnels with five major branches. It’s almost five miles long. It contains circular and horseshoe sections that range in diameter from four feet to 12 feet. The velocity of the stormwater traveling through this pipe system can be quite intense. The design discharge for the beltline is 2,000 cubic feet per second.

The Beltline and the Battle Creek stormwater tunnel systems
 under inspection in 2015 are marked in red.


Old photos unearth intrigue about Beltline

I was not disappointed with my discoveries from that night’s research. The old photos I uncovered from our Laserfiche files added to my intrigue about the Beltline. I haven't seen a horse on a construction site in a long, long time.
The Beltline Sewer was constructed in the late 1920's with the help of teams of horses.

Phalen Creek tunnel construction in the late twenties

Cold, wet and in the dark

So, what has this team been doing?

Walking underground in a stormwater tunnel system, the team is performing detailed inspections of the Beltline Mainline, beginning at the Mississippi River and working their way upstream toward Phalen Lake. The task has to be done every five years. When they are done with their mission, they will have investigated a total of over 38,000 feet in both the Phalen and Battle Creek tunnel systems. The information they gather will be used to make recommendations for repairs for these sewer systems.

Writing observations in the inspection log.
Water from the pipe may be brown due to iron-enhanced bacteria.

That’s seven miles. Inch by inch. In the dark. In the cold. Underground. It’s quite a heroic effort, in my humble opinion.

When Dave and Eric finally came up for air, so to speak, after walking the Beltline for many days during February, I knew I had to document their story twenty-first-century-style.

Barr staff take notes during the the
entrance to the Beltline near the Mississippi River,

Here’s what Dave had to say.

“We entered at the Mississippi River’s edge. The first two days we had rescue services on site at both our entrance and egress locations. The pipe was slippery and at times there was standing water up to our knees and thighs. We needed more intensive safety precautions for those first days of inspection because that section of the Beltline was the most dangerous. If something happened up stream we could be washed away into the river... "

The Beltline drains to the Mississippi River.
This was the entry point for the tunnel inspections.

“Was it scary?”

I realized as soon as I said it that my question was rather understated. Downright lame as a matter of fact, but I get claustrophobic just trying to pull a sweater over my head.

“It could have been,” responded Dave.

“The whole inspection can be very, very dangerous. The likelihood of something happening is very slim. But you’re underground. It’s a confined space. You just never know if something can happen. A tanker spill could occur up above ground, travel to the sewer and get in the water… A bunch of things could happen. But the likelihood of any individual thing happening is very, very small."

Rescue Services were on hand when the team entered the Beltline at the river's edge.

Dave models tunnel safety gear.
The yellow tool is an air monitor.

Not for the timid

"So what other kind of precautions and safety measures do you need?" I asked.

My imagination is working overtime now. Dave continued with his explanation.

"When we enter, we use confined space equipment. We have a tripod, wenches and fall protection gear, harnesses, hard hats, insulated chest waders and boots. We also have an air monitor, a PFD (personal floatation device) and flash lights. We also bring supplied air just in case something would happen due to engulfment."

Just that word, “engulfment” makes my imagination run wild. Dave seemed pretty calm about it all. I can tell he is the right person for the job. He continued with his story.


A good support team is crucial

 Surface attendants monitor the team while
 they are underground to insure their safety.
“We have two separate surface attendants. We have one downstream and one upstream at the egress (exit).

When we enter, as we work our way back up the pipe system, attendants leapfrog back and forth while we continue up the pipe so we always have one person ahead of us and one person behind us.

When they do the leap frog in the middle of the day we break for lunch. We spend the whole day in the pipe."

Daily safety meetings are held to prepare the team for issues
that may come up during each inspection.


If you hear three horn blasts ... get out!

"We have a safety meeting each day to run through the potential hazards. Everybody is involved… surface attendants included. We use traffic cones around the manholes. We try to have a vehicle parked near the manhole and have a surface attendant within a few feet of the manholes. Every half hour we check in using a two way radio. If for some reason the two way radios don’t work we switch to using air horns. Then we use a series of air horns – we use one horn blast to communicate that we are ok and the surface attendants confirm that they have heard us by waiting until the sound waves from our signal fade and they repeat this horn blast so we know that they have heard us. In case of an emergency we switch to a three horn blast."

Moral of the story: If you hear three horn blasts you head the other direction and get out!!!

Graffiti, bats and waterfalls ... oh my!

I inquired, "What are you finding in the tunnels?"

Dave answered,

“Small cracks
that your fingernail can’t get into, exposed reinforcement bar, old blocked pipes that are capped, surface aggregate that’s coming through, surface damage, possible failures, sags, pipe deformations, sediment deposits, graffiti, roots, vermin, raccoon scats, one live raccoon. A pair of beady eyes at the end of a tunnel.

We have a coding system for a variety of conditions we observe and record using NASSCO’s Pipeline assessment and certification program. Everything gets recorded."

Graffiti in the Beltline

A waterfall caused by a seep draining
into the Beltline tunnel.
“Did you see bats?”

Dave shook his head. “No bats.” No small favor. 
“Can you tell me anything else about the experience?” I’m digging around for anything else here…..

“Initially it’s very interesting to do the inspections, especially the first few days. Come that third day in a row, it can be a grind. You are fifty feet below ground, there’s no daylight. Sections were really cold.

One of the nice things about being fifty feet below ground is that the tunnel buffers the wind. Near Lake Phalen, though, with the big trash racks exposed you’ve got the big wind coming through,"  Dave continued.

"The afternoon chili lunches help a lot.”

The end mission:
Get done before the spring rains start

In the coming few days, Dave Eric, Nathan and Sam will be heading into the “Mechanic” stretch of the Beltline pipeline and then finish off with the Battle Creek Tunnel inspections. That’s still another three to five days to go.

They have to get done before the spring rains fall and the lakes start thawing. This year is an awfully early spring. Let’s hope their mission gets accomplished.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Every Rain Garden Needs a Little TLC!

Rain gardens needs TLC to remain strong, beautiful and functional.

By Paige Ahlborg

With winter on the way out and spring quickly heading in, it’s time to start preparing your rain gardens for summer. What exactly does that involve? How can a rain garden be prepared for April showers so that it will display the most beautiful May flowers? Look no further; here is a basic guide to taking care of your rain garden.

Early Spring

As the snow begins to melt, it leaves a path of sediment and debris that must be removed. This list will guide you through some necessary maintenance activities:

Remove sediment from the inlet in spring.
  1. Shovel sediment from inlets, outlets and the bottom of the rain garden.
  2. Remove trash, excessive leaves, grass clippings and other debris.
  3. Clear any blockages to the inlets and outlets in order to allow proper water flow both in and out of the rain garden.
  4. Add mulch as needed to maintain a 3” depth and reduce the need for weeding and watering.
  5. Prune plants, if needed, as they become green.
  6. Leaving some stalks 15 inches or more will provide habitat for nesting pollinators, native bees and other beneficial native insects.
  7. Install new plantings in bare areas if necessary.
  8. Dispose of all accumulated material properly.

Add mulch when needed to maintain a 3" depth.

Late Spring/Summer

As the seasons change, so do the maintenance needs. These tasks can help you keep your rain garden in tip-top shape.

If weeds or invasive plants are present, pull the plants from the roots to prevent them from returning.
  • The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website is a good resource for identifying common weeds and providing methods to control them.
  • Make a list of the native plants in your rain garden to help distinguish between desired and non-native species.
  • Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District’s Lake Phalen Walking Tour and Plant Guide is another resource and provides a good list of many of the native and
    non-native species that may be in your rain garden. 
Spot treat perennial weeds with an appropriate herbicide if necessary.

If there are areas of bare soil erosion, add 3” of mulch where it has been depleted. Add additional plants if necessary.

In drought conditions, water newly planted rain gardens with 1” of water weekly. Established rain gardens should not need additional water unless plants look distressed.

Continue to clear inlets and outlets of debris, sediment and trash.

If standing water is present for 48 hours or more after a rainfall, it is an indication of a malfunction that will require further study and action. Call your contractor or RWMWD to get advice on how to correct drainage issues.
Fall is a great time to add additional native plants to bare areas!


Rain gardens require maintenance before the snow falls. Here are some ways you can help make your spring cleanup a lot easier.
  • Fall is a good time to prune plants when they have gone dormant. Leaving some plants uncut provides winter cover, bird habitat and visual interest.
  • Fall is a great time for additional necessary plantings.
  • Divide plants that have become too large.
  • Remove excessive leaves from the bottom of the rain garden.
  • Continue to keep debris and sediment from inlets and outlets.

Like any garden, a rain garden requires some love and attention. Hopefully this article will help you maintain a strong, beautiful and functional rain garden.  

If you need assistance with weed and plant identification, feel free to call Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District at 651-792-7950. 

The Lake Phalen Walking Tour and Plant Guide is available to purchase at the District office. This field guide designed for native plant enthusiasts highlights over 170 species of native and invasive plants with numerous color photos and is a valuable tool in identifying plants.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Composting Made Easy!

By Paige Ahlborg

What is Composting?

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), compost “is a mixture of decaying organic matter”. Organic matter on the home front is abundant, from orange rinds and banana peels to coffee grounds and filters. Your composting options are endless. Not only is compost great for gardening, it helps reduce the amount of waste being disposed of in our landfills.

Composting organic matter (leaves and grass clippings) from your yard is a great way to keep these materials out of the street and away from impervious surfaces such as sidewalks and driveways where they can be picked up by rain that will wash them into our sewers and then into our lakes, wetlands and streams. This keeps them from contributing nutrients that feed algae and turn those water bodies into less desirable places for animals, birds and humans. If you don't have room to compost your own yard waste in a compost bin in your yard you can bring it to any of the county's yard waste sites in your community.

Check out these websites for schedules and locations for yard waste drop offs: 
Ramsey County link 
Washington County link

Composting Made Easy!

Many people are interested in composting but do not have the yard space or the ability to have their own compost bin. Ramsey County offers FREE organic waste recycling opportunities. Residents of Ramsey County are encouraged to bring their organic materials to the Ramsey County Yard Waste site (except Arden Hills). Organics can be collected from daily use around the home or from events such as hosting a block party, graduation, family reunion or any other gathering. If you are planning an event, Ramsey County can provide you with various containers for waste (standard recycling containers, organics containers and more).

To get started recycling organics in your home, collect organics in a compostable bag. Compostable bags are available for FREE at every drop off site or at Shoreview City Hall. They can also be purchased at any local store, just be sure the bag is compostable and labeled biodegradable. Then, simply bring your organics to one of Ramsey County’s many yard waste sites (except Arden Hills). Dumpsters are clearly marked at the yard waste sites for organic recycling. Before you leave, remember to grab more compostable bags for your next batch of organics.

Tips to Get Started

  • Remember that these bags are meant to break down. It is recommended not to store organics in a compostable bag for more than one week.
  • Line a trash can or another small container with a compost bag to start collecting organics.
  • Store full bags outside in the winter (in an enclosed area) or in a freezer until you are able to bring them to the compost site.
  • Find a neighbor who is also interested in organics recycling to share the responsibility of taking organics to the drop off site.
  •  A commercial composter is used for this program. They use equipment that breaks down materials that cannot be composted in a backyard situation. If you have a backyard compost bin, consider taking advantage of this program for those items you are not allowed to place in your backyard bin such as meat, grease, and bones. 

What is Compostable?

  • ALL food waste! (vegetables, fruits, meats, oils, grease, bones, fish, grains, dairy, egg shells, coffee grounds… the list goes on and on!) 
  • Non-recyclable paper (greasy pizza boxes, paper towels, paper cups, tissues, wrapping paper, boxes, etc.)
  • Anything that has a “compostable” logo on the item or packaging
  • Cotton balls, cotton swabs, pet fur, hair, lint, full vacuum bags (containing organic materials only)
  • Bird seed and pet food

What is NOT Compostable?

  • Plastics, metals, glass, Styrofoam, wood, rubber and liquids
  • Diapers (including biodegradable diapers)
  • Kitty litter, animal feces, and dead animals
  • Normally composted items that are tainted with chemicals (paper towels used for cleaning)

Where to Take It?

Take your organics to any of Ramsey County’s Yard Waste sites EXCEPT for Arden Hills. The sites are open limited hours in the winter to allow for year round composting!

Article Sources:

Mystery of the Month: Catch-Me-if-You-Can Grass

Phragmites —Native or Not?

By Carole Gernes

What sly, new, invasive grass mimics its closest relative so well that it can slip under our radar until its take-over is well underway?

The chameleon is the non-native invasive common reed grass; Phragmites australis australis; a European subspecies of a common reed that has become invasive in the United States.

Historically, it has been traced to an East Coast shipping yard, where it was thought to have entered the U.S. as ballast. It is a perennial, up to 15 feet tall, with large golden or purplish flowering heads in the fall. 

These plants spread via a thick underground stem (rhizome) network, resulting in a dense monoculture that is difficult to walk through. As the infestation grows, it excludes and replaces beneficial native plants. This grass has overtaken large portions of Great Lakes shoreline.

Phragmites rhizome

Part of the problem with this plant is the difficulty in differentiating it from the native, North American, common reed, Phragmites australis americana. Clues to identification vary with the season. 
In late winter and early spring, check to see if the plants have leaves attached to the stems and large, intact, thick fluffy, golden brown, seed heads. If so, the grass is likely the invasive subspecies.
 Early spring invasive common reed (Phragmites australis ssp. australis)
Photo credit Ken Graeve; MNDOT

If flower heads are few, thin, ragged-looking and leaves have fallen off from winter weather, it is likely a native plant.

Early spring native common reed (Phragmites australis ssp. americanus)
Photo credit Ken Graeve; MNDOT
In summer, look at the color of the plants. The invasive plant has bluish tinged leaves. The native plant leaf is more yellow-green. On close inspection, the native plant will have green stems throughout, with areas on the stem (nodes) that area a reddish-maroon color. If you rub your fingers along the stem of the invasive plant, it will feel slightly rough and look dull. The native plant’s stem will feel smooth and look shiny.

 Invasive common reed                                                                     Native common reed
Photo credits Ken Graeve, MNDOT
Once plants begin to flower, you may notice differences in the size and color of the flowering heads. The invasive variety has larger, fuller looking tops, which may have a golden or purplish color. The native plants have smaller, thinner, golden-colored flowers.

Invasive Phragmites australis                                                           Native Phragmites americana
Photo credits Ken Graeve, MNDOT

Because this past winter saw less snow than usual, some stands of common reed have been difficult to identify. The most definitive characteristics require measuring flower parts and other small parts.

Phragmites species begin to bloom in late summer to fall. Isolated patches do not set seed; they spread by rhizome. Size of infestations increase quickly in areas where additional, genetically diverse, patches are introduced, starting seed production. Seeds are set very late - in late October to early November. Once viable seeds are set, they jump-start spread of the plant.

Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative is a good resource for more information about invasive phragmites. Download a PDF version of the Phragmite Field Guide to help you distinguish between native and exotic forms of common reed.

How can you help?

If you find a suspected infestation, contact coordinator Carole Gernes at 651-792-7977 or
Volunteer! Free trainings for the Invasive Plant Patrol citizen science program will be held in March and April.
  • Saturday, March 28 - Shoreview Community Center  To register, contact Carole Gernes at 651-792-7977 or
  • Saturday, April 11 - Maplewood Nature Center  To register, call 651-249-2170 or online at
  • Saturday, April 25 - Tamarack Nature Center  To register, call Melanie Harding at 651-407-5350 extension 119. 
Note:  All class times are 10 am – 2 pm, with a 30-minute lunch break. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Impact of Applying Salt on our Streets

Only 4 pounds of salt are needed to treat
1,000 square feet of icy surfaces.
That's only 1/2 cup of salt for one parking space.

By Nicole Soderholm
If you’ve been an avid reader of this blog over the past couple years, you probably recall reading some articles on the dangers of a “high sodium” diet for Minnesota’s water bodies. (See The Slippery Slope of Salt article from January 2014). We’re referring, of course, to using salt for deicing streets and sidewalks. While we haven’t had much snow this winter, it's helpful to reflect on how we treat our streets.

The Bad News: Our Freshwater is Turning Salty

High salt (chloride) concentrations have been increasing in Minnesota’s metro lakes and streams for decades as our population grows and land becomes more developed. Many water bodies have been listed as impaired for chlorides. Chloride impairment means that the lake or stream in question is receiving too much salt to support its intended uses (examples: swimming, fishing, recreation, etc.). 

Salt often finds its way to our water resources from roads and sidewalks via our storm sewer system. You may even notice that roads appear white in the winter, or that salt can do a “number” on your car. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), it only takes 1 teaspoon of road salt to permanently pollute 5 gallons of water.

Image from the video
Improved Winter Maintenance: Choices for Clean Water
Mississippi Management Organization

Permanently, you ask? Remember that salt entirely dissolves in water, so once the salt is in our lakes and streams it becomes impossible to remove without using expensive desalinization systems.

The MPCA has also detected increased salt concentrations in our groundwater, a primary drinking water source for many Minnesotans. In a report released on the condition of Minnesota’s groundwater based on data collected from 2007-2011, the MPCA concluded that 30% of wells in the Twin Cities metro area had chloride concentrations that were too high.

Road salt is impairing streams and lakes in the Metro area,
but it is also impacting our groundwater according to recent studies by the MPCA.
Photo by Chesapeake Stormwater Network.

The Good News: We Can Reverse the Trend!

We’ve all driven in slippery conditions and can probably agree that deicers are necessary for public safety. Water professionals do not generally recommend eliminating this practice altogether, but it has come to light in recent years that there are smarter ways to apply salt that result in more economic and environmental benefits for all.

In fact, many professional road salt applicators are already making great strides in improving the times and rates at which they apply salt. The results? Safer roads, cost savings, and decreased salt runoff to our water resources. To date, over 4,000 individuals from local governments and private companies have attended voluntary grant-sponsored training to become certified in road salt application best practices. Funded by a 319 grant from the EPA through the MPCA, the trainings are taught by Fortin Consulting at various times and locations throughout the state. Visit their website for more information. 

Since many of our readers are not professional salt applicators, let’s review what WE can do as individual homeowners to contribute to the cause.

The next time a snowstorm hits ... later this spring or next winter ... follow these tips.

Shovel Early and Often.

Shoveling is still the most effective and environmentally friendly means of snow removal. When the snow starts to fall, try to shovel early in the storm and throughout its duration to prevent ice formation.

Cartoon by Randy Bish

Less is More.

When it comes to salt, you need less than 4 pounds of salt per 1,000 square feet to do the job. A good way to remember this formula: This is about equal to half of a large coffee mug of salt for an average-sized parking space. Test it out on your driveway sometime so that you can remember what the application looks like. Adding more salt does not increase the speed of melting, but it will increase the amount of salt that winds up in our nearby water bodies.

Image from the video
Improved Winter Maintenance: Choices for Clean Water
Mississippi Management Organization

Know Salt's Limits.

Sometimes in Minnesota it’s simply too cold for salt to be effective at melting ice. Regular ol’ salt does not work below 15 degrees F. Adding more and more salt when really cold temperatures hit just doesn’t work. Instead, use sand for slippery areas or a different deicing product designed for lower temps.

Sweep Up, Clean Up.

When salt has done its job and you’re left looking at salt particles on dry pavement, sweep up the remaining product so that it doesn’t get washed away during the next snowmelt or rainstorm. The best part is you can reuse this leftover salt for the next storm.

Identify Ice-Prone Areas.

We’re all familiar with that one dip in the pavement or section of the driveway that collects water. These are the biggest problem areas when it comes to ice. Try to identify these areas and fix them during the summer. Not only will your property be safer in icy conditions, but there will be fewer areas that require salt.

Hire a Professional.

If you choose to hire someone to remove snow for you, look for a contractor that has earned a salt applicator certification. A list of contractors, as well as other information on road salt, can be found on the MPCA’S Road Salt and Water Quality webpage.

Watch this Video.

Improved Winter Maintenance: Choices for Clean Water is a video filmed by Senator Foung Hawj that answers these questions:
  • What are the best tools homeowners can use to keep driveways and sidewalks safe?
  • What deicers work under icy conditions and should we be using them?
  • What do deicers and sand do to our lakes, streams and groundwater?
If you care about the health of our waters, watch this video to find out what you can do to minimize your impact on the environment as you manage snow and ice on your property.