Monday, July 20, 2015

Gervais in July

By Sage Passi

The jungle above Gervais Creek in July

Gervais Creek is never very far from my sight. I look out my office window every day and watch it flow peacefully past me under the weeping willows as it winds its way gently down to the Gervais Mill Ponds. Not long ago I heard a poem about the generosity of ordinary things. The poet, with observant mindfulness and gratitude acknowledges how a floor cushions the footsteps of a person who walks upon it and a towel accepts and absorbs the water droplets from a bather’s back. She ends with the question, “What could be more generous than a window?”

Every time a white egret sails by my window I am stirred out of the trance I am immersed in and brought back to wonder. How do you rediscover the story of a place that surrounds you in your day-to-day existence? A summer or two ago I was tasked with designing a staff training for one of our meetings. I decided to create a scavenger hunt around Gervais Mill Ponds that are adjacent to our office site. It turned it into a “walk about” game of observation and discovery reminiscent of the childhood ramblings I loved to experience around the lake and wetlands in my hometown.

Gervais Mill Pond in July

On my “bingo sheet” I included some cues like “named after a father and son team of botanists,” the teapot tree, a jumping fish and prompts like, “the year the mill was razed” and “the highest point of land you see.” Learning new facts and technical tours/presentations are typical fare but what I was after was getting people to be in the present and see things with new eyes, like a child.


Highbush cranberry, one of the many discoveries
on a recent Gervais "scavenger hunt".

Sometimes it takes a surprise visitor to draw you back into the “now”.

When a young woman from Ghana appeared out of the blue at our office on a Friday afternoon in July inquiring about the lakeshores of Lake Gervais and Gervais Mill Pond, I knew I was heading down one of those mysterious paths that takes me round-about into the present. I found myself grappling with what would be the relevant stories to tell about this place.I fell into trying to explain the relationship between nutrients and algae, run-off, and explaining the rain gardens that we built onsite to catch the stormwater. As she took notes, I wondered if any of this made any sense to her.

In the midst of our dialogue I learned that Sandra is a college student at St. Paul College. Her assignment for a biology class was to explore a lake/wetland and a natural place and find out what was living there – animals, plants, birds and insects. Her questions were simple but the answers are not.

I liked the approach her teacher was taking. Make it experiential. Go see for yourself. Look. Listen. Find a lake or a wetland and see what you see. 

At first, her choice of Lake Gervais seemed a bit of a mystery to me, but I learned that she lived in an apartment in Little Canada just up the road. She took out her cell phone and showed me a few photos she had taken at the lake. I told her I had been involved in a restoration along its shore. Time for a moment of reminiscence. I pulled out an old three-ring binder that had snapshots from back in the late 90’s when I was first beginning to involve students in restoration.


Shoreline restoration at Lake Gervais in May 1998

Her questions prompted me to remember about my first experiences with the Watershed District. For me it had all started on a winding road on a warm summer’s walk. I didn’t know at the time why, on my lunch break, I would be drawn from the hot concrete walls of downtown St. Paul to this lush and vibrant waterway I discovered along Keller Parkway. I stepped out of my car, walked down into a marshy area and my eyes caught the glimpse of a tall and regal stand of pink swamp milkweed. I would not know until the following spring that this “sighting” would launch close to a twenty-year career in native plant restoration for me.

Embraced by the generosity of the ordinary.

“Are the plants still there at Lake Gervais,” she asked? I knew I didn’t have enough time to drive over to the lake, but there was plenty to see nearby so I asked, “Would you like to take a walk?”

For the past couple of days I had been in the midst of calling people who have done shoreline planting projects on their land. I visited an older couple who live on Lake Owasso who decided that since their shoreline was weedy and messy anyway, why not replant it with native plants that would be more beneficial to the animals, insects, birds. Their shoreline is in its infancy, newly planted in the late summer of 2014. “A toddler,” I thought to myself when I stopped by for a visit.

A shoreline restoration planting on Lake Owasso, in its infancy, planted in the early fall of 2014

I also called another homeowner who did a shoreline project back in 2006. I asked him how his project was doing? His response was, “Well, it’s not exactly a work of art, but it’s doing what it does.” “In its early teens,” I thought. He seemed to be the best kind of parent for a project in that stage, honest and accepting.

When Sandra walked into our office I was on the phone confirming the Owasso site I had visited for a future stop on a garden tour. I’ve concluded from experience that most people like “infants” so this new project seemed the most enticing for a tour.

I had a destination in mind for my Ghanian visitor. Gervais Mill Ponds, long past their infancy, were constructed in 1994, but they still have quite a charm about them. And they are gainfully employed providing services upstream and downstream. These three ponds treat 1,790 acres of land upstream. Their dimensions are engineered to slow down the water flow so that pollutants will settle out to the bottom of the ponds and not go into Lake Gervais.

A caption on one of the signs near the treatment ponds
Sandra and I began our stroll down to the ponds. On our way we passed by the District’s office grounds, that are resplendent this time of year with the array of orange, pink, purple and blue hues of butterflyweed, purple coneflower, purple prairie clover and hoary vervain. After a couple of photos she shot from her cell phone, her battery was close to dead. I ran back for my camera.

Butterflyweed, purple coneflower, purple prairie clover and hoary
vervain ablaze in the upland around the District office.

As we crossed the road and approached the bridge over Gervais Creek, I directed Sandra’s attention to the gravel berm just below the Noel Drive overpass. It was placed there for flow control of the creek during the 2006 winter cleanout of the Noel Drive culverts. It remains there to slow flows for in-stream sediment settling where maintenance dredging can be most cost effective.

The berm across Gervais Creek helps some of the sediment settle
out before it reaches the Mill Ponds.

At the entrance to the park I pointed out a historical monument. When we were back at the office, Sandra had asked me how Gervais Lake and Creek got their names. I recounted the story of the French Canadian voyageur, Benjamin Gervais, who had settled in Little Canada in 1844 to build a farm and mill. Just across the road at the entrance to the park is a replica of the grindstone he used to grind corn and wheat. His grist mill was the first commercial grain mill built in Minnesota. I told her that the Dakota, from the village of Kaposia on the Mississippi River, were friends of Gervais when he had a land claim near Fort Snelling. They had guided him up through the creeks and lakes and along this channel to find new land for his farm and mill. This area was their summer hunting and fishing grounds until treaties drove them off their land.
A replica of Benjamin Gervais' grist mill stone rests above the creek.
As we wandered down along Gervais Creek, I pondered its changes over time. As more settlers continued to move in, more farms were carved out of the native forests and prairies and residential areas slowly developed. The creek that once powered a mill was ditched to drain excess stormwater away from farm fields, muddy streets and houses. Ditching this creek meant that it was straightened out so it was no longer a meandering stream. The creek became known and managed as County Ditch 16, a drainage ditching flowing into Gervais Lake. It would be years before calling it Gervais Creek became commonplace again.

We continued down the walking path along the creek to the first pond. When the treatment ponds were created native prairie and wetland seeds were sown. I can remember coming to the ponds with RSVP elders and sixth grade students from St. Paul to plant plugs along their edges, long before the District purchased land nearby and built our office. 

As was typical at the time, no on-going vegetation management was conducted and invasive plants quickly dominated the park. Invasive weed control efforts began in 1999. Since that time, the park has seen a gradual shift in the plant community to one rich in colorful native prairie and woodland species. Most recently, a cooperative buckthorn removal project between the City of Little Canada and the Watershed District, with assistance from Ramsey County Correctional Facility Greenhouse staff, has made a major improvement in the quality of the woodland surrounding the ponds. With its abundant native flora, Gervais Mill Park attracts a wide variety of diverse urban wildlife.

Two river birch entangled
by wild grapevine

Perhaps the Joe Pyeweed, towering cup plant or arrowhead that Sandra and I were now looking at were offspring of some of those first wetland plants we reintroduced to the area.
Water lily and arrowhead provide habitat for aquatic wildlife.

As we circled the pond, the egret that frequents the area made a guest appearance. Overhead green herons were diving through the air and hovering above the pond. A golden dragonfly perched on a leaf, its landing eased by its soft cushioning grasp.

A dragonfly lands on a Joe Pye Weed.

As we stood in silence on the edge of the water, we were awed by the generosity of these “ordinary” things. The wind on the pond, spreading ripples across its glistening surface, had the last word.

A wood duck house perched above Gervais Mill Pond

Accepting Nominations for 2015 Watershed Excellence Awards

Linda Neilson (CAC), with Dave and Donna Nelson
2014 winners of the "Buckie" award for their outstanding work in buckthorn removal

Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District is now accepting nominations for our 2015 Watershed Excellence Awards. The awards recognize individuals, organizations, government entities, businesses and agencies that have demonstrated outstanding achievements in water resources management, watershed stewardship and civic engagement. The purpose of this award program is to increase visibility and honor the accomplishments of exceptional “leaders” who participate in activities in a variety of contexts and levels of involvement within the district. The Citizen Advisory Commission works with District staff to review the nominations and determine the winners. The award ceremony will be held in early November.

Nominations can be sent to Sage Passi, Watershed Education Specialist, at or by mail to Sage Passi, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, 2665 Noel Drive, Little Canada, MN, 55117. The nomination deadline is August 10. Please include the name of the nominee, the award category, your own name and contact information and a brief description of the nominee’s contribution or accomplishment in one of the following categories:

    Innovation in Government Award
    Recognizes and celebrates excellence by a government agency in implementing innovative policies, programs or projects to protect and improve water quality within Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.

    Outstanding Partner Award
    Recognizes an individual, group or business that effectively collaborates with Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District to achieve exceptional results in water resources management and stewardship.

    Roger Lake Stewardship Excellence Award
    Recognizes an individual who has, during his or her lifetime, played a significant and long-term role in watershed management and demonstrated leadership in natural resources stewardship.

    Citizen Engagement Award
    Recognizes an individual or organization that effectively facilitated citizen participation
    efforts to improve and protect water quality.

    Youth Engagement Award
    Recognizes a teacher, youth organizer or organization that has demonstrated exceptional commitment and capacity to engage youth in watershed education and stewardship initiatives.

    The “Buckie” Award
    Recognizes an individual(s) who have persevered very enthusiastically through the most trying of conditions while engaging in watershed and natural resource management in Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. Please note: the title of this award may have a new “nickname” each year dependent upon on the type of activity involved. For example, the “Buckie” award for outstanding work in buckthorn removal.

We are not limited to the six award categories listed above, although we will only be giving out a maximum of six awards each year. If you have a suggestion for another category and want to nominate someone in that category, please feel free to do so. We welcome and will consider these kinds of creative suggestions!

Individualized blown-glass spheres were designed by Artist Eric Sommers
for each of the Watershed Excellence Award winners in 2014.

The Watershed District is currently seeking artists to develop a concept sketch for our 2015 award design. We are offering a stipend of $50 that will be offered for artists who develop a concept design that could be produced and delivered to us by November 5, 2015. The award should be a manageable/normal size and weight. We will be selecting the award design winner by the beginning of September. We will be asking the artist chosen to produce 4-6 awards within an approximate two month period and we are willing to pay $100 to $150 each. Here is a link to information about our 2014 award design.

Proposals should include: 

  • A sketch of the design
  • A description of the materials to be used
  • A way to incorporate a small engraved plate for the award winner's name, award name and year or way to have the information engraved directly onto the award
  • The proposed cost of production for each award.

The artist will be recognized at the award dinner on November 12 and invited to attend. 
If an artist is interested in submitting a proposal, please send an e-mail to Sage Passi and let her know that you intend to submit a proposal by August 8, 2015. Actual proposals can be emailed to Sage at, or sent to Sage Passi, RWMWD, 2665 Noel Drive, Little Canada, MN, 55117. If you have questions, please call Sage at 612-598-9163. 

Jack Frost, Former RWMWD Board Manager, Passes Away

RWMWD has lost a dear friend. Jack Frost, a 19 year Manager of RWMWD, and the first
recipient of the Roger Lake Stewardship Excellence Award, passed away July 15.

Jack had a long, dedicated career as a professional engineer. In his 34 years as a water
resources coordinator for the Metropolitan Council, Jack was known for his working knowledge of wastewater, stormwater and overall water management issues in the region.

At the Watershed District, Jack’s ability to blend technical understanding of water management approaches with his innovative, practical approaches to water quality and flood control, was a major contributor to thoughtful, considerate, and innovative Board actions. His service as the Board Treasurer was very much valued by the Board and staff. Jack’s budgeting skill and financial management contributed to the Watershed District’s high accounting standards and our routine clean audit reports. Valuable systems he developed are still in use at RWMWD today.

Please join us in extending our deepest sympathy to Jack’s family. We are grieving for the loss of a remarkable individual.

Uncovering Retrofit Opportunities at Commercial Properties

By Paige Ahlborg

Proposed rain garden site at Rosetown American Legion in Roseville

Focusing on areas with large impervious surfaces as target areas for installing Best Management Practices (BMPs) to improve water quality is a goal of the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. In the past three years the District has been successful in implementing grant and cost share projects with churches to implement retrofit BMPs.

Our latest focus has turned to commercial properties, including strip malls and other retail centers. In 2014, the District received a Clean Water Legacy Fund Grant to assist in the site analysis process.

Identify Priority Sites

The project goal for the commercial site assessment was to identify the highest priority sites in sub watersheds with impaired or ‘at risk’ waters for retrofit BMPs that will assist the District in meeting stormwater volume and nutrient reduction goals.


Paige Ahlborg, Watershed Project Manager,
conducting a site assessment
Potential retrofit sites were first identified using GIS data which resulted in a list of over 1,500 properties. To narrow the field, the project team developed a strategy to weigh each site based on criteria that included total acreage, percent impervious surfaces, proximity to water bodies and presence of existing BMPs. This resulted in 54 sites slated for site visits, further assessment and ranking. 

ArcGIS Collector Map

Visit and Prioritize

The team visited these top sites and prioritized them, using grading criteria developed for this project. A letter grade A through F was applied to each of the potential BMP sites. The grade was based on a summary of observed site characteristics including stormwater quality benefit, estimated construction expense, and potential educational value. As a result of the site grading process, eight “A” properties and twelve “B” properties were identified. These sites became the basis for the site meetings with property owners.

The goal of the project was to meet with ten property owners and develop concept plans for BMPs on their properties. Out of the twenty A/B sites identified, the top sixteen candidates were contacted and ten meetings were held to inform and educate the property owners of the District’s overall goals, as well as to describe the potential partnership and installation of a BMP on their property. An important part of this project involved interaction with the commercial property owners to facilitate this collaboration and to lay the groundwork for the District to effectively work with commercial property owners into the future. 

BMP Retrofit Location Map

Install Retrofits

As a direct result of this project, three commercial properties will have rain garden retrofits installed in 2015 and potentially six sites will move forward with rain garden retrofits in 2016 and 2017. The three to be constructed this year are Rosetown American Legion in Roseville,  Taurus Manufacturing and Dey Enterprises in Vadnais Heights.

The District hopes to continue to implement grant projects like the ones described here in order to continue growing the public’s awareness of BMPs and work towards a greener, healthier watershed.

White Bear Marketplace: Redeveloping for Water Quality

By Paige Ahlborg

As a local unit of government, the Watershed District is tasked with stormwater management and ensuring the quality of local water bodies. Two ways RWMWD accomplishes this are by implementing a permit program and a cost share program. 

  • Through our permit program, new and redevelopment construction projects must comply with the District's stormwater management rules. These rules require that development which disturbs over one acre of land must provide water quality best management practices (BMPs) onsite.
  • Our cost share program offers technical and financial assistance for stormwater BMPs that surpass those required by any city or District permits.  
Construction began in April of 2015 for the White Bear Marketplace development

The former Kmart building located off I-694 and White Bear Avenue in White Bear Lake is currently being redeveloped into a retail center known as White Bear Marketplace. The property owners and project engineers easily complied with our permit standards, but from the start the developers were interested in going above and beyond these requirements by installing additional BMPs on the site. 

This property drains to a series of wetlands which flows to Willow Creek and eventually Kohlman Creek. Kohlman Creek is on the state impaired list for water quality so is a high priority area for District stormwater improvements. The RWMWD Board of Managers was thrilled to see the improvements proposed for this site and unanimously approved District funding of $100,000 through our cost share program towards the stormwater improvements. In total the site will install three filtration basins, which will help reduce the volume of stormwater and the pollutant load that leaves the site. The basins will capture stormwater that runs off the roof and parking lot every time it rains.
The District is excited to work with White Bear Marketplace on this project and is happy to see developers committed to taking the extra steps to help improve water quality.
Learn more at the White Bear Marketplace redevelopment project website and visit the District website for additional permit and cost share information. 

Breaking ground at the White Bear Marketplace in April 2015 were,
Joe Ryan, Oppidan; Curt Craig, Cub Foods; Mayor Jo Emerson; Mike
Cub Foods, Nicole Soderholm, RWMWD; Samantha Crosby,
associate city planner; 
Drew Johnson, Oppidan; and Paul Tucci, Oppidan.
Northern Tool also submitted
an application to anchor one end of the center.
- Photo by Debra Neutkens

Ten Ways to Help Reduce Storm Water Pollution

By Kendra Fallon
  1. Reuse rainwater. Collecting rainwater in a rain barrel is a simple and inexpensive way to help reduce storm water runoff. This collected water can be used to water gardens or plants indoors.  
  2. Plant a rain garden. Water runoff from impervious surfaces such as roofs, driveways and sidewalks can be redirected to a rain garden. A rain garden is full of native, drought-resistant plants that absorb rainwater and break down pollutants naturally. 
  3. Try out pervious pavers. Pervious pavers can be used to help soak up rain water rather than letting it run of into the storm sewers. Pervious pavers can be used for walkways, driveways or patios. In larger projects, pervious pavement is a good option. 
  4. Practice water-friendly car maintenance. Take your car to a car wash facility where the water is diverted to a wastewater treatment basin, rather than washing your car on your driveway or street. Check your car regularly for leaks – oil and gas residues left on the road ends up in our lakes and streams. 
  5. Don’t pour hazardous products into street gutters or storm drains. Once they enter the storm drain system, hazardous chemicals end up lakes and streams, harming fish, birds, and other wildlife. Visit for locations in the District that collect hazardous waste. 
  6. Plant a shoreline restoration habitat. Adding a garden of native plants on the shoreline of any waterway can help to filter out some of the pollutants before it reaches the water.  
  7. Limit your use of pesticides and fertilizers. Pesticides can harm aquatic life such as fish and amphibians and fertilizer releases phosphorus into our waterways, which can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen and block sunlight in the water.  
  8. Make sure your trash doesn’t end up in our waterways. Make sure all of your trash ends up in a trash can. Check your trash and recycle bins to be sure they’re securely closed.  
  9. Put your cigarette butts in the trash. Don’t drop cigarette butts on the sidewalk or throw them into gutters or storm drains. The plastic cigarette filters don’t break down in the environment. They also release toxic chemicals, including arsenic and lead and can get trapped in the digestive tracts of fish, birds and many sea creatures. 
  10. Clean up after your pet. Bacteria, parasites and viruses that live in pet waste can wash into storm drains and end up in our natural waters without being treated.
Contact the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District to learn more about how you can help control storm water pollution and learn about the BMP Incentive Program where you could receive funds to help install some of the Best Management Practices (BMPs) mentioned above in your yard.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July Garden Tour on July 20

July is a great time to get out and check out some of our watershed projects and see what’s in bloom.

We invite you to join us in a tour in Shoreview and Roseville on Monday, July 20, that we have created for the Owasso Garden Club and the public.

We'll visit several rain gardens, bio-swales and a new shoreline restoration project on Lake Owasso with staff from Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District and Rice Creek Watershed District.

Dawn Pape, author of Mason Meets a Mason Bee" and host
for one of the garden stops at a book signing at Barnes and Noble

At one of the stops we’ll visit the garden of Master Gardener Dawn Pape and author of "Mason Meets a Mason Bee". 

To join the tour, meet at Presbyterian Church of the Way parking lot at 3382 Lexington Avenue North in Shoreview at 6:15 PM and we’ll carpool to our three sites. We plan to return between 8:30 and 9:00 PM. Our first stop is at 5901 Birchwood Street in Shoreview.

For more information contact Sage Passi at 612-598-9163 or by e-mail at