Thursday, April 28, 2016

Watershed District Wins Sustainable Saint Paul Award

By Sage Passi
We are pleased to announce that Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District was chosen to receive the Environmental Education Award for our annual festival, WaterFest, during the 2016 Sustainable Saint Paul Awards event held on Thursday, April 20, in the St. Paul City Council Chambers. The winners were chosen based upon their exceptional environmental leadership and dedication to sustainability in eleven different categories. Mayor Chris Coleman announced the winners. Debbie Meister, Sage Passi and Tracy Leavenworth accepted the award on behalf of the Watershed District.

WaterFest is Honored
Dan Bostrom, Ward 6 St Paul Councilmember, praised the
Watershed District  for its community engagement at WaterFest.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (in rear) presented the award.
Photo credit Tracy Leavenworth

Dan Bostrom, Tracy Leavenworth, Sage Passi,
Debbie Meister, Mayor Chris Coleman

WaterFest, a free family celebration of our clean lakes, now in its seventeenth year, has been evolving and growing ever since Louise Watson, the Watershed District’s former Planner and Educational Coordinator, created it as a way to offer fun opportunities for outdoor hands-on learning about clean water, wildlife and land and water conservation. Activities on and around Lake Phalen include water games, a water arcade, geocaching, native plant giveaway, passport odyssey, live animals, music, landscaping, watershed and art exhibits, Voyageur canoes, solar pontoon boat rides, canoeing and kayaking, fishing lessons and a fishing contest.

Fourth graders from St. Peter's dramatize a story about water during a ceremony at WaterFest.
Photo credit Anita Jader

WaterFest, an event for all ages, has the vision that “everyone can play a role in protecting our water resources". This tradition of bringing the community together began in 2000 and continues to evolve with the creative and energetic support of the District’s consultant, Debbie Meister. She prepares for the event year round, engaging the community, soliciting sponsors, drawing in businesses, food vendors, exhibitors, organizations, cities, partners of the Watershed, schools and many volunteers to make this collaboration a success. In 2015, 3000-4,000 people of all ages attended WaterFest.

Debbie Meister engages recycling coordinators to make WaterFest a zero waste event.
Photo credit Sage Passi
The City of St. Paul partners with WaterFest every year with various outdoor activities.
Photo credit Anita Jader

The City of St. Paul combines their “National Get Outdoors celebration with Waterfest, sponsoring fun activities including a climbing wall, jump castle, archery, arts and crafts and sailing.
It is the partnerships that make WaterFest a successful event. Each organization brings its specific expertise to the event and provides a hands-on activity or exhibit.
Sustainable Maplewood's display highlights pollinators and reducing the use of pesticides.
Photo credit Anita Jader

RWMWD education staff work with schools throughout the year to engage teachers and students in water-related issues. In 2015, staff planned and implemented multiple field trips and service-learning opportunities for over 850 students in 30 classrooms, creating customized learning experiences for each group and collaborating with additional partners in the process.

Each year, Battle Creek Elementary students tour the flow of Battle Creek to Hwy 61 near the Mississippi River, exploring neighborhood rain gardens, storm drains and the history of the creek.
 Photo credit Anita Jader

St. Peter students used their study of electrical
circuits  to create a matching game that teaches
WaterFest participants about native plants.
Photo credit Anita Jader

Sage Passi, the Watershed District Educator, says, “This public event offers an opportunity for students to showcase what they have explored and projects they have completed throughout the school year. That goes for our other partners and the rest of the audience too. Overall it’s a venue where people can interact with others and talk about what they have been working on and learning each year.

The themes and the topics in the environment are constantly changing. It’s a chance to reconnect, meet new people, get inspired, try out new things and have fun!” 

"Make a Splash!" is the theme of WaterFest this year. This event will be held at Lake Phalen on Saturday, June 4, from 11 AM - 4 PM. To learn more about WaterFest, click the links below:

The Sustainable Saint Paul Awards:
Honoring Commitments to the Environment

The Sustainable Saint Paul Awards, now in its tenth year, was created under Mayor Coleman as a way to honor individuals and organizations across Saint Paul who demonstrate a commitment to the environment. By sponsoring these awards, the Mayor encourages all residents, businesses, community groups and non-profits in Saint Paul to follow suit and implement similar projects of their own in the future.  

"The businesses, organizations and residents that are putting sustainability and innovation at the forefront are truly affecting change in our community," said Mayor Coleman. "These awards are a way for us to highlight some of those innovators and encourage continued leadership when it comes to preserving and bettering our environment here in Saint Paul.” 

“It’s vital that we all work together to make our community more resilient,” said Council President Russ Stark. “These awards allow us to highlight progress being made around Saint Paul so that others are inspired to make their own contributions to our city’s sustainability.”

Award categories range from beautification, to energy efficiency, green building design and water conservation to youth leadership and local, healthy food. Winners include the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, the Community School of Excellence’s Asian Penguins, the CHS Rainwater Reuse Team, Frogtown Park and Farm, Mississippi Market Natural Foods Coop and Growing West Side. For a full list of this year's winners, visit

 If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered,
then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.
 ~ David Sobel 
To see a video of the awards ceremony, click on the links below.


A Ten-Year Journey Gives Birth to School Rain Gardens

By Sage Passi

Students at Crosswinds Middle School planting a rain garden on their school grounds.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It’s been “a long and winding road” to clean water... When I first started working for the Watershed District in 2001, I don’t think I even knew what a rain garden was. I was fixed on wetlands, shorelines and native plants. But “impervious” was becoming a new vocabulary word and run-off was soon to be a household term. 

One parking lot in particular stood out in my mind at that time on the East Side of St. Paul. It was soon to be forgotten, however, vanishing like a ghost just like Ames Lake before it had been displaced for forty years from the 1960’s to 2000.

An infamous parking lot, built on top of Ames Lake for the Phalen Shopping Center,
was torn down in 2000 to make way for Ames Lake to be "reborn".

In a major miracle, the parking lot that was built on top of a lake was removed and the lake was “rescued” and returned to its rightful home. It was a first in the nation. We were all impressed. The news even traveled all the way to China.

Ames Lake was reclaimed and restored after the shopping mall and parking lot were removed.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It was one parking lot down, a million to go. So when I drove to Crosswinds Middle School on the outskirts of Woodbury in 2007 and began investigating the possibility of a rain garden on the site, I was definitely a new kid on the block.

Crosswinds Middle School's future rain garden site.
Photo credit Sage Passi

Crosswinds, a sparkling new school in Woodbury, sat proud and confident on the edge of the mitigated wetlands. Battle Creek Lake to the north lay glistening in the distance. Memories of the Jordan Horse Ranch pasture that once sat on this corner of land were sadly only soft ghost whinnies in the wind. In their place rested a school lot with a large impervious parking lot.

As I perused the borders of the Crosswinds complex, I pictured the storm water run-off coming from its rooftop, stared at the catch basins in the parking lot and imagined the school on a rainy day. Somehow at that moment I knew that my relaxed summers were long behind me. There was work to be done. This school was getting a rain garden - two of them in fact. 

Watershed and Washington Conservation District staff work with school grounds staff
to do a soil augering and site assessment.

Photo credit Sage Passi

It was my first experience working with a team like this made up of Ann, the school principal, Anna Barker, a teacher, Jim, the ground staff person, Julie Vigness-Pint, our cost-share coordinator, Shawn Tracy, our technical advisor, and Jay Riggs, Washington Conservation District Manager. The stars were in alignment. Two large rain gardens were installed in the school yard in 2008.


Crosswinds rain gardens.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It would be nearly a decade before a similar configuration of action figures would implement the planning process for our Legacy funded Clean Water Grant School grant projects.

Currently, we are only weeks away from the shovel going into the ground. Five new rain gardens will be installed in School District 622 this summer and two next summer in District 623. This is thanks to the efforts of many people, including a supportive group of Barr Engineering engineers and landscape architects and other staff (leads - Erin Anderson – Wenz, Matt Kumka and Nathan Campeau) and guidance from our Board of Water and Soil Resources representative Mary Peterson.

This aerial view highlights the future location for Weaver Elementary School's
rain garden that will capture runoff from its parking lot.

Principals Kevin Wolfe, Pangjua Xiong, Becky Berkas, Sue Bartling and Tyrone Brookins are in support of the projects on their sites. District 622 Facility Grounds staff (Mike Boland, Mark Renstrom and Todd Lieser) have been very supportive. There is a group of engaged teachers and Ramsey County Master Gardeners waiting in the wings to involve students in the planting and care of the gardens and the District will hire assistance for maintenance in the summer time. A Clean Water grant and District funds will be used to finance the projects.

Matt Kumka, Barr Engineering, Mike Boland and Mark Renstrom from District 622
and Randee Edmundson discuss the design for Harmony Learning Center's rain garden.

Photo credit Sage Passi

The rain gardens will be installed by a contractor this summer at Harmony Learning Center, Maplewood Middle School and Weaver Elementary and planted in the fall by students with support of Ramsey County Master Gardeners. The project manager is Paige Alborg from the Watershed District. Next summer, rain gardens at Roseville Area Middle School in Little Canada and Central Park Elementary School will be installed and planted by students in the fall of 2017. We're still finalizing our sixth school location. 

The run-off from this Harmony Learning Center parking lot will drain to a rain garden instead of heading downstream to impaired Kohlman Lake.
Photo credit Sage Passi

Clean Water Grants for Schools

We spent two years assessing all the public schools in the District and prioritizing these sites with a $50,000 Legacy Accelerated Implementation Grant. We then narrowed our choices to eleven rain garden sites and prioritized those further based on their potential stormwater quality benefit, constructability, property owner concessions and educational value . 

Last winter we went back to the schools with preliminary concept plans and determined which schools were most committed to completing the projects. Soil borings and utility locates were conducted over the summer on six sites. Barr staff did preliminary estimates of the volume of water that could be retained, total phosphorus and TSS (total suspended solids) removal and prepared planning level estimates. 

In the fall of 2015 we wrote and secured a $150,000 Clean Water Partnership Grant for the construction of six projects over the next three years. In early winter seventy-five percent completed designs were presented to facility grounds staff and principals for their input. In the end five projects were chosen for completion over the summer of 2016 and next summer with a sixth project still to be determined. Construction will take place this summer with plantings in the fall. 

We have begun the process of engaging classrooms at Harmony, Weaver and Maplewood Middle School in educational activities that will complement the plantings for next fall.

Students check out a rain garden in the Casey Lake neighborhood in preparation for their own school project.
Photo credit Sage Passi

It's been a long haul leading up to these projects. Building a base of support has involved years of learning the ropes about coordinating teams, studying and improving the engineering and landscaping of rain gardens, getting familiar with native plants and cultivars, amassing and training a group of Master Gardeners to help students and residents build demonstration rain gardens in neighborhoods and at churches and developing curriculum and hands-on activities to go with the rain garden construction process.

Master Gardeners and students at L 'Etoile du Nord get a lesson from Ryan Johnson about soil auguring to determine the rate of infiltration and the type of soil.
Photo credit Sage Passi

L'Etoile du Nord fourth graders lift a heavy concrete slab
buried beneath their rain garden site.

Photo credit Sage Passi

Throw in a decade of involving kids in shoreline and habitat restorations at Lake Phalen, Keller Lake, Keller Golf Course and school yards and a couple of practice runs installing a small rain garden at L’Etoile du Nord and a rain garden at Battle Creek Middle School and there you have it.

Excavating a residential rain garden in the Battle Creek neighborhood.
Photo credit Sage Passi

I was pretty cautious about installing large-scale projects on school grounds. I wasn’t sure our school districts were ready for this level of engagement, or us for that matter. It’s a big commitment on the part of everyone. In some ways having a rain garden is akin to having a baby. You have to be prepared for the long haul.

I have been pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the level of support and commitment on the part of everyone I have interacted with in both School District 622 and 623. That makes a huge difference. People are getting more used to the idea of rain gardens. They see them in action in numerous places and have started to recognize and become familiar with the role they can play in helping to improve our water quality. For the light to turn green, I think I've been waiting for the courage, the experience, the partnerships and the stars to align again. It’s going to be fun seeing these rain gardens be born!

It takes a village… they say.

Battle Creek Middle School students team up to get the job done.
Photo credit Sage Passi

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Owl's Well that Ends Well

By Simba Blood - photos courtesy of Anita Jader & Dana Larson-Ramsay

A baby owlet trying to look fierce
after tumbling from its nest.
The LEAP (Landscape Ecology Awards Program) team met the evening of March 29th to work through some design ideas for our next generation award signs (stay tuned for further developments!). After a lively, fun and productive meeting, our crew began to filter out. As we were cleaning up the last bits of debris from the evening, Gail Acosta’s cell phone rang.

“No! Oh no! Oh, that’s too bad!” she exclaimed. Of course we all crowded around to support Gail in whatever this dire news was. “My neighbor Aimee found a baby owl on the ground. Poor thing! What do we do?”

Fortunately this predicament did not flummox our fearless leader, Dana Larson-Ramsay, in the slightest. Dana is the manager of the HB Fuller Wildlife Preserve and an experienced naturalist. “It’s got to be a baby great horned owl. They start hopping out onto branches long before they are ready to fly. Scott & I have rescued them before.”

Dana put in a call to her husband Scott, a naturalist at the Wood Lake Nature Center, and went off to find some sturdy gloves. The remaining LEAP team members - Gail, Anita Jader & I - all filed out and rendezvoused at Gail’s home, excited for the opportunity to see (and photograph) an owlet.

Scott Ramsay securely fastens a bushel
basket to a tree to serve as a nest for the owlet.

Gail’s neighbor Aimee led us to a little open woodland behind their homes. At the base of a tree we found the fluffy adorable owlet, trying desperately to look fierce. We all stood a respectful distance away, worrying a bit for the youngester and taking many photos. Dana and Scott arrived within moments and began organizing the rescue. Gail was tasked with finding a bushel basket to serve as a nest, while Aimee’s father Jerry produced a sturdy stepladder. After some debate, a friendly white cedar was selected as the appropriate spot for the owlet’s new home. Scott filled the basket with a nice bed of wood chips and oak leaves, and scampered up the ladder to anchor the nest in place.

Then came the moment we’d all been anticipating (a bit fearfully on my part). Scott donned the leather gloves and headed in for the rescue. The little owlet hissed, and clacked his beak, but did not even hop away as Scott picked him up and tucked the baby into his arms. He settled right in and seemed quite comfortable.

The owlet is ready to be moved
to the new nest.

We all had to take the opportunity to pet the owl, and snap many more photos.

Left: Scott holds the baby owlet as Aimee and her sons, father Jerry, and Gail Acosta take a closer look. Right: A rare shot of Anita Jader on the other side of the camera.

Left: I had to take my turn too. Right: Dana and Scott - proud owl godparents.

As we were occupied in this pleasant task, we noticed two adult owls flying about in the area, landing in nearby trees and keeping an eye on us. That seems to be a good indicator that they would find their relocated offspring and continue to care for him, as turned out to be the case.

An adult owl observes
the rescue mission.

Dana took charge of the nestling while Scott once again climbed the ladder. The owlet was settled into his new home, and we all indulged in a few verbal high-fives and trundled off ourselves, hopeful for the young owl’s chances of success.

We received this update from Dana the following day:


“I talked to Gail this afternoon...the Mom (could be either parent owl) went to the new nest/bushel basket as soon as we left yesterday, climbed in with the owlet and stayed in the new nest all night and morning. The Dad (or other parent) was seen by Gail's next door neighbor catching something on the ground behind the trees this morning and he brought it to the nest for the Mom to feed to the baby! He flew over and checked on them several times. We were concerned about the cold rain last night and that the baby would be sheltered by a parent and it was! (The cedar tree branches above it help too.) All is well with the rescued baby.”

Two weeks later, Anita stopped by Gail’s, borrowed a stepladder and took this shot of the much more mature owlet peeking up from his nest. Gail reported he was out of the nest often, and particularly liked hopping about on the branch just above his nest.

Two weeks after being placed back in the tree, the owlet as matured
and settled in to his human-made nest.

He has now fully fledged and abandoned his human-provided home. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to pet an owlet and learn more about great horned owls. If you ever come across a stranded owlet, it’s definitely a bonus to have a couple of professional naturalists and a photographer to share the experience with!

The Summer Interns have Arrived!

The mornings are bustling with activity and the Fleet Farm Tub-o-Cheeseballs has returned. Two sure signs that field season and interns have arrived! 

We have five seasonal interns who have started up this month. Three of them were with us in past years, and two are here for the first time. Hear from three of them here as they write about what brought them here (or back).

Matt Brust, Water Quality Intern, Returns

I'm happy to be back working with the wonderful staff at the Watershed. This summer I hope to expand on my knowledge and skills I gained during the 2015 season as the Water Quality Intern. I found myself enjoying this type of work more and more as last summer went on.

Since my first day back, I have been able to be out in the field doing a variety of work. Recently I’ve been able to help with tasks that are new to me, like controlled burns at golf courses in the District and lake chloride sampling.

I obtained my degree from Vermilion Community College in Natural Resource Technology Forestry and Wildlife in 2014. Before I started working here, I volunteered for two years as an apprentice with Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa. My first apprentice location was Anoka Conservation District where I worked with water resources. The second season I was the apprentice at Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District where I worked with Urban and Agricultural BMP’s. Recently, I have been working as a Zamboni Driver for the Forest Lake School District.

In my time not dedicated to working, I enjoy traveling to new places for camping adventures, riding dirt bikes and motorcycles, fishing on the St. Croix River and enjoying the outdoors with friends and family.

Thanks staff, for having me back. I am looking forward to yet another great experience this summer.  


Introducing Joey Handtmann, District Inspector Intern

I am thrilled to be working with the great people here at RWMWD and to be making a real difference in our community. During my time at the University of Minnesota, I achieved my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, Policy and Management. Since then, I have worked with both public and private organizations to effectively manage natural resources, mainly in urban settings. Additionally, I have been a part of the Al’s Breakfast crew for about five years, serving up omelets and waffles and developing an interest in sustainable, locally grown food.

Outside of work, I spend a third of the year curling at the St. Paul Curling Club’s winter league, seeing bands at First Ave. and enjoying all of the new taprooms popping up over the Twin Cities.

Being able to put my skills as an environmental scientist to serve the public is a tremendous source of pride for me. I’m looking forward to working closely with my new team and residents within the district!



Welcome Back to Carrie Taylor, Natural Resources Intern

Carrie Taylor helping with a controlled burn
I'm happy to be back for a second season to work with the Natural Resources team.

Highlights over the winter included skiing with my family - when there was enough snow to ski on. My three-year-old daughter gleefully got on skis for the first time and skied alongside us, making her own tracks in the snow. My seven-year-old daughter was braver and zoomed down the steep icy hills on her cross country skis.

I especially enjoyed the blue bird winter days when the sky was clear blue, the sun was shining and the snow sparkled like diamonds. On one of the coldest weekends of the winter I skied at Jay Cook State Park. It was absolutely quiet in the winter dormancy. The only sound was the creak of trees as I skied on a ridge line with only wild natural land surrounding me and the St. Louis River in sight.

Now that spring has sprung and I'm back working with the District, there is a flurry of activity. The birds, frogs and toads are singing, leaves are bursting and plants are emerging, all giving color to the land. Some of those colors are from pesky weeds. We have already begun scouting out and removing weeds on sites. Also, we have recently completed several controlled burns, leaving behind black patches of land. But, it won’t be long and they will be bursting with native prairie plants.

Every day is like an adventure keeping up with what is needed in the District. This "field" season I look forward to working to restore the west side of Keller Creek, maintaining many of the other sites and observing the changes in the District as the seasons change.


Our two additional interns will be featured in a future Ripple Effect post.

Mystery of the Month - May 2016

Here we have a concept model for the proposed remake of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Or maybe it’s a piece of 1930s art glass. Perhaps a decorative fountain head for a water feature?

If I was unable to convince you with any of those suggestions, you are an astute (and skeptical) observer. What we really are presenting is the head of one of our showy aquatic flowers, the yellow pond-lily.

Nuphar seeds.

This common water plant has a good number of aliases. Common names for our featured flower include yellow waterlily, bullhead pond lily, cow lily and spatterdock. And with this plant, even the scientific name is up for debate, with many sources calling this species Nuphar variegata, and others insisting on the more cumbersome Nuphar lutea spp. variegata. Yellow pond-lily is a rooted aquatic plant, capable of growing in water up to 7 or 8 feet deep but more often found in much shallower water.

Yellow pond-lily is closely related to white waterlily (Nymphea odorata) and shares some of the characteristics that make them beloved and despised. Both are showy, attractive plants but also are capable of forming dense colonies, especially in nutrient-rich waters, that pose a significant impediment to watercraft. Yellow water lily is important to many wildlife species. Nuphar leaves and shoots are grazed by deer and other herbivores, they provide habitat for fish spawning, and the seeds are a food source for ducks and other waterfowl. Look for blooms in mid-summer to early fall.