Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Crossing the Finish Line - Completing School Rain Gardens

Article and Photos by Sage Passi

A marathon rain garden planting at Maplewood Middle School with seventh and eighth graders

It's early fall and we’re just about finished with our big projects at three schools in the
watershed district at Maplewood Middle School, Weaver Elementary and Harmony Learning Center. The rain garden basins are dug, classes have been involved in the planting in the last couple of weeks, the plants are in the ground doing their job and the hard physical work is almost done. Our contractor will be completing the final plantings at Maplewood Middle School in the next week or so and it will be time to celebrate!

It’s been over a two year journey to get to this step in achieving our Clean Water goal of installing large scale BMPs at schools. Along the way, we’ve had to climb a lot of hurdles. Seeing the rain gardens completed at these three schools makes it all the more gratifying to have put in such a sustained effort. Next fall we will be completing three more gardens at Central Park Elementary, Roseville Area Middle School and Woodbury Elementary School. With all the lessons learned in this round, I have confidence that we can successfully complete our commitment to engage our targeted schools in achieving reductions in stormwater runoff from their large impervious surfaces.

One of three Maplewood Middle School rain gardens recently planted by students
Photo credit: Konnie Her

A number of years back, I wasn’t really sure it would be possible to accomplish something like this - breaking through the bureaucracy of school districts. I was very wrong. Sometimes it can be very gratifying to prove yourself wrong!

Involving the right people who have your back is essential. I couldn’t have done it without supportive engineers, a dedicated landscape architect, an encouraging watershed project manager, school district enthusiasm and some on-board teachers to back me up. 

Providing the scaffolding for this initiative was the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Clean Water Legacy Fund and our own Board of Managers who gave the green light to help fund the projects.

Barr Engineering and school district
staff discuss plans in the south rain garden.

Along the way, people gradually emerged who lent their support – from the District 622 Operations/Health & Safety Supervisor, Mike Boland, who advocated for the project to Ken Russ, the building engineer at Maplewood Middle School, who attended meetings with our technical staff and contractors and came out to provide tools and a hose, checked on our progress regularly and thanked us for our efforts when we were done.

As more people came on board, I began to have increasing confidence that, at the right moment, each of our partners would step up to the plate and help the projects come together. 

Waiting in the wings to play supporting roles were our faithful partners, Maplewood Nature Center, Ramsey County Master Gardeners and Ramsey Conservation District who provided staff and volunteers for the planting event.  

On the day of their planting, the Master Gardeners were there to back the classes up, but it was the kids who were the real stars.

Merlin Schlichting, Ramsey County Master Gardener, offers planting support for Weaver students.


“I want to be a Master Gardener,” announced one of the kids as she intently planted her gallon-sized plant in the ground at Weaver Elementary School.

Maplewood Middle School students beam after planting a new cultivar of goldenrod.
This species, little lemon, is being researched by the U of MN for its pollinator capacities.

Photo credit: Konnie Her

Digging on the berms took extra strength!


There were some tough areas to dig into, especially along the berm of the rain garden, but the students gave it everything they had. It took both teamwork and determination to get the job done.

An important task when planting potted plants is what we refer to as ‘teasing” or loosening the roots which helps the plants become less rootbound before they go in the ground. 

A Master Gardener heard a student proclaim, “I’m tenderizing the roots!”

“Teasing” the roots helps a plant recover from being rootbound, making it easier for its roots to grow into the ground.


Lessons Learned about Large Scale Plantings

Having experienced adult support was critical to the success of the project.

Ann Hutchinson, Lead Naturalist, and her
staff  at Maplewood Nature Center provided
expertise  and equipment for the mega two-
day planting at Maplewood Middle School.

I’ve had some really good teachers when it comes to learning how to manage a planting project of this scale.

Simba, our Natural Resources Technician, has been an excellent role model through the years with all our different watershed restoration projects.

Maplewood Nature Center’s Lead Naturalist Ann Hutchinson taught me how to ask a lot of good questions when visualizing how to implement a project of this size. I drew on her and her staff’s expertise when planning for and implementing this mammoth operation. 

Thank you Maplewood Nature Center for master-minding how to manage the watering of large scale projects!

Scaling Back - Making Realistic Plans

About midway through the summer, after meeting with Maplewood Nature Center staff onsite, I stood back and reassessed my initial plan to plant all three gardens at Maplewood Middle School with students. The scale of their south rain gardens in back was enormous. As I started really paying close attention to all the details and the logistics, I went back to our planning team and the contractors and came to the decision to limit our volunteer planting to the front garden.

I wanted everyone to have a quality experience and be realistic about what we could manage. When I added up the factors of weather, equipment needs, staffing and short turn-around times for each class, I knew that it was the right decision to focus on a two-day planting. In the end, eight classes at this school had the opportunity to do something hands-on to help prevent pollution downstream!

Joey Handtmann (center), watershed district permit program intern, provides directions.

Defining clear areas for students to plant, distributing students around the planting areas and cutting down the planting time to two days made this project doable!

At Weaver, the size of the garden was much more manageable. But I had a different set of challenges: even more limited time, short shifts of fifth grade students (six rotations of 20 minutes per each half class) and only a small space to accommodate a lot of students. 

Planting in 20 minute shifts - That's efficiency!

116 gallon pots were planted by
Weaver fifth graders!

But after completing Maplewood Middle School, I knew what to expect and we were able to pull off our planting at Weaver in two hours! It was intensive, but the kids loved it and came away proud of their accomplishments. 

Harmony Learning Center rain garden

Checking out the fragrant giant hyssop

Investigating the inlet that brings water
from the parking lot to the rain garden.

At Harmony, we decided to involve both middle and high school students in the planting, as well as some of the adult ESL students who attend classes on the site.

It was a good opportunity to expand our message of stormwater stewardship to an adult audience.

Ramsey County Master Gardener, Kris Baird, assists
a Harmony High School student in planting.
Adult ESL students at Harmony are experienced gardeners who work in the
school's community garden They also added their touch to the rain garden.
Teachers Take the Lead in Teaching Stormwater Engineering
Two summers ago, just as we were beginning our site assessment process, I was contacted by a St. Paul Public Schools science coach, Molly Leifeld. She was working on a National Science Foundation-funded project, EngrTEAMS, which is run through the U of MN's STEM Center. STEM stands for Science Technology, Engineering and Math.

EngrTEAMS is an engineering, design-based approach to teacher professional development that helps teachers design curricular units for science topic areas within the Minnesota State Academic Science Standards. Molly asked if I could offer a hands-on experience for a group of ten 4th-8th grade teachers from three school districts who would be working on developing their own integrated curriculum units.

Maplewood Earth Science Teacher Julie Cazett with
RWMWD's Eric Korte and Wyatt Behrends at Maplewood Mall

The Maplewood Mall retrofit project had recently been completed. It was a great place to demonstrate these interdisciplinary concepts. I invited Barr’s engineer, Erin Anderson Wenz and our water quality monitoring coordinator, Eric Korte to meet us out at the mall to walk the teachers through the project and explore the water quality monitoring elements on the site. Two teachers on the EngrTeam, Julie Cazett and Sara Flanagan would eventually emerge as the champions for the cause at Maplewood Middle School, one of the schools we were considering for our Clean Water projects.

The mall tour sparked their interest in examining their own site for potential locations for rain gardens and other BMPs. When I later announced to them that their schoolyard had emerged as one of the top six target sites for BMPs from our assessment process, they were absolutely delighted! In the winter I was excited to discover how intensive a unit on stormwater engineering they were teaching their eighth grade earth science classes.

Over the next year I expanded our connections with other teachers at the school and developed a relationship with the seventh grade science teachers, Mary Dvorak and Sarah Hiniker, thanks to connections made by Master Naturalist Cathy Troendle who organized field days for seventh graders at nearby Southwood Nature Preserve. Participating in the field day helped me to cement a partnership when it came time to ask them to be involved in the rain garden project.

Mary Dvorak, 7th grade science teacher, assists with planting at Maplewood Middle School.

At Weaver, we had been working with classes for many years so it was a natural extension of our connection and Maplewood Nature Center’s ongoing collaboration with them to engage them in the rain garden project. We created lessons for the fourth graders so that when they moved up to fifth grade in the fall of this year, they would have some background and ownership of the rain garden project.

Randee Edmundson, a Citizen Advisory Commission member and an educator who has worked on watershed issues for years, had strong connections to Harmony Learning Center. She has taught there in multiple programs and helped us provide lessons for students in multiple classes.

Thank you to everyone who has made this Clean Water initiative a success!

The completed Weaver rain garden

2017-2026 Watershed Management Plan Comments Wanted

Following a nearly two year process of gathering information, insights, concerns and ideas, the next generation RWMWD Watershed Management Plan is ready for its final review. The District is seeking comments on the plan at a public hearing.

Wednesday, October 5th at 6:30 PM
In the District Office Board Room
2665 Noel Drive, Little Canada

The Plan is intended to serve a wide audience. A Strategic Overview provides a broad, easy-to-understand, summary of issues facing the District and actions intended to address those issues. More detailed information about District operations, programs and projects is provided in an Operations and Implementation section (Section 4). The Plan also includes detailed information about resources and District actions in 25 major subwatersheds, including seven subwatersheds of the former Grass Lake Watershed Management Organization incorporated into the RWMWD in 2013.
The Plan draft is available on the District website at the links below:

Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home

Wild Ones Big River Big Woods, in partnership with Wild Ones Twin Cities and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, will screen Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home, a 90-minute environmental, education documentary focused on showing how and why native plants are critical to the survival and vitality of local ecosystems.

Thursday, October 27, 7:00 - 8:30 PM
Ramsey County Library
2180 North Hamline Ave, Roseville (map)

Hometown Habitat features renowned entomologist
Dr. Douglas Tallamy, whose research, books and lectures on the use of non-native plants in landscaping, sound the alarm about habitat and species loss.

Tallamy provides the narrative thread that challenges the notion that humans are here and nature is someplace else. “It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t be that way.” Inspiring stories of community commitment to conservation landscaping illustrate Tallamy’s vision by showing how humans and nature can co-exist with mutual benefits.

The message: “We can change the notion that humans are here and nature is some place else. It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t be that way.” Each individual has the power to conserve resources, restore habitat for wildlife and bring beauty to their patch of earth.

The goal: Build a new army of habitat heroes! 
To watch a short preview, CLICK HERE.

Filmmaker Catherine Zimmerman is an award-winning director of photography. She is celebrating her 40th year as a documentary filmmaker, working primarily on education and environmental issues.

This event is co-sponsored by:

  • Wild Ones Twin Cities
  • Wild Ones Big River Big Woods (East Twin Cities Metro)
  • Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District


What is the State of the Mississippi River in 2016?

By Sage Passi
Photo credit: Sage Passi


Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) recently released their second edition of the State of the River Report. In 2012 the first issue of the report was released. That report helped precipitate a series of river management milestones, including the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock, statewide phase-outs of triclosan and coal tar sealants and improved targeting of state clean water funds.

It will be exciting to see what milestones emerge in coming years in response to the latest report. 

The 2016 report, available online here, highlights fourteen key indicators of river health and ecological health and presents each in a way that non-scientists can understand. The report examines the status and trends of each indicator and suggests strategies for improvement moving forward. 

The report breaks these indicators into five categories related to flow, swimming and recreation, ecological health and other river contaminants. 

Lark Weller (National Park Service) and Trevor Russell (FMR), authors of the report, were guided by advisors including multiple state agencies, the University of Minnesota, The St. Croix Watershed Research Station, and Metropolitan Council Environmental Services.

These are several issues in the report that stood out as Weller and Russell summarized the State of the River Report 2016 at the Science Museum on the evening of September 22.

Let’s start with some of the good news …

The metro river is home to a resilient population of bald eagles.

Photo credit: Rusty Mathiasmeier
Currently the metro river is home to approximately 55 active nesting sites. This is approximately a 35% increase since 2011, indicating a strong and stable bald eagle population. Research is tracking this productive eagle population, which averages about one and a half nestlings per nest, well over the threshold for a healthy population. Research has shown that cottonwoods, eagles’ preferred nesting trees, are not regenerating successfully in the metro river corridor. Research into cottonwood regeneration methods holds promise for sustaining a healthy population, but it is important to develop and implement a river reforestation plan to ensure healthy habitat for eagles in the future.

Some native mussels are being reestablished in the metro river.

The Higgins eye pearly mussel, a freshwater native
mussel, has been reintroduced into the Mississippi
River in the Twin Cities. Results look promising. 
Photo credit: USFWS
The discharge of untreated waste to the river through the early 1900’s eliminated the mussel population downstream of St. Anthony Falls. Since then mussels have responded favorably to improved sewage treatment, the separation of storm sewers from sanitary sewers and other water quality improvements.

Mussel habitat downstream of the confluence with the Minnesota River is degraded, most likely due to high loads of sediment and other pollutants. However, some mussel species have returned and this lower reach of the river now supports 28 of the original 43 native mussel species. Upstream of St. Anthony Falls there are now 18 native mussel species. Ongoing efforts to reintroduce native mussels into the river will be important to their continued recovery.

There has been an increase in the diversity and quality of the river’s fishery, particularly smallmouth bass and walleye, since the 1970’s.

The trophy walleye fishery between the Ford Dam and the Hastings Dam is one of the highest quality urban fisheries in the United States. The small bass fishery upstream of the Coon Rapids Dam is considered world-class. It is estimated that more than 129 species of fish (120 native, 9 introduced) live in the river up to St. Anthony Falls. An estimated 86 species are now found above the falls.

There are catch and release regulations for the river between the Ford and Hastings Dams for walleye, sauger, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, as well as for muskellunge, above the Coon Rapids Dam. These fish may be caught, but must be returned alive to the water. These guidelines were established to protect and maintain high quality fish populations.

Now for the not-so-good news


There are a number of indicators that are cause for concern. The river is impaired by excess sediment, bacteria and phosphorous. Fish consumption guidelines are in place throughout the river due to elevated levels of contaminants like PFOS and mercury. The river meets standards for chloride, but levels are increasing throughout the metro area. River flows have multiplied to worrisome levels. Nitrate concentration has increased substantially. Invasive Asian carp continue to move upstream. 

There are several emerging issues on the horizon - microplastic fibers, pharmaceuticals and triclosan-derived dioxins in the metro river pose uncertain risks to aquatic life and health. Additional research and collective action are required to mitigate their potential long-term impacts.

Let’s look a little closer at five of these issues and what you can do about them

FMR has a Stewardship Guide that highlights the “top 10” stewardship actions that you can take with your friends and neighbors to help protect and restore the Mississippi River and its watershed for future generations. Download it hereThere’s also a Teachers Guide.

Metro river flows have increased by 24% over the last seventy years.

The timing, amount and intensity of rain and snow can impact river flow which naturally varies seasonally and from year to year. There are positives and negatives to high and low flows. High flows can cause erosion, degrade habitat and carry more pollutants into the river system. But they can also restore natural floodplains and dilute concentrations of some key pollutants. Low flows tend to deliver less pollution to the river, but they can also amplify the effect of sources like wastewater treatment plants.

In developed areas, hard surfaces such as roads, roofs, driveways and parking lots contribute run-off that increases flows into nearby water bodies. In agricultural areas, row crops and artificially drained fields result in increased runoff which typically leads to higher flows downstream. These seemingly small changes in runoff, spread over a large landscape have significant impacts on river flow and hydrology.

Much of Minnesota’s native prairies and wetlands have been converted to row crop agriculture. While native landscapes absorb and transpire water effectively, annual crops only consume water during a portion of the year, allowing a great share of annual precipitation to enter surface waters. The Minnesota River, an important influence on the Mississippi River, has significantly more flow per unit of precipitation than it used to. Increases in rainfall due to climate change may also be responsible for a portion of recent increases in river flows. 

What Can You DO?

Farmers can adopt changes to cropping systems, increase perennial vegetation on the landscape during spring and fall (before and after row crop establishment and harvest). Residents and cities can install rain gardens, rain barrels, pervious pavers, green roofs and restore native landscapes.

Parts of the river are impaired with excess bacteria posing health risks for recreational users.

Many parts of the river from its confluence with the Crow River (in Dayton) downstream through St. Paul have average bacteria concentrations that are too high. These reaches are “impaired” for E. coli. It is recommended that swimming or other recreational contact be limited in impaired sections of the river and that it be avoided everywhere in the river within 48 hours of a rainstorm (including storms upstream). Recreational users are advised to be especially cautious downstream of storm drain outlets. For a map of impaired stretches of the river, see page 17 in the report.

What Can You DO?

Clean up your pet waste, make sure septic systems are up-to-date and reduce run-off at home and in your community.

Portions of the river are impaired with too much phosphorus.

Historically wastewater treatment plants have been significant sources of phosphorus to surface waters in Minnesota. Metropolitan Council wastewater treatment plants have made phosphorus reductions of 88% since 2000, significantly helping the river. Overall 57% of phosphorus in the metro Mississippi River comes from the Minnesota River in an average flow year. Because remaining phosphorus pollution is largely linked to unregulated agricultural runoff, future improvements will require substantial reductions in cropland, pasture and rural runoff, along with curtained stream bank erosion.

What Can You DO?

This rain garden was built by Mitzi Knutzen with assistance from Master Water Stewards, Anna Barker and Stephanie Wang, to reduce sediment in Battle Creek which flows to the river. 
Photo Credit: Sage Passi

You can reduce the run-off from your lawn or driveway by planting native plants, building rain gardens and directing your downspouts to your lawn so the rain soaks in instead of picking up dirt and other phosphorus containing materials that can be carried into the sewer and then to the river.

Residents can also help by using lawn chemicals wisely, (use phosphorus free fertilizer), use phosphorus free dish-washing detergents and soaps, pick up pet waste and keep grass clippings and leaves out of storm drains. 


Levels are increasing throughout the metro area.

Salt brine sprayed and dried on a road surface for anti-icing before a snow storm

The river is currently well below the state’s chloride standards to protect aquatic life. However, many tributaries, lakes and wetlands fail to meet these standards. Thirty-nine tested metro area water bodies are impaired for excess chloride with another 38 close to exceeding standards. Twenty-seven percent of the metro area sand and gravel wells exceed federal guides. Chloride levels in the metro area increased by 81% from 1985-2014.

What Can You DO?

Residents can do their part by using de-icing chemicals sparingly and not apply traditional rock salt in temperatures below 15 degrees F when it is no longer effective.

More smart winter maintenance information is available at
Simple Tips to Protect Our Water.


Fibers are the most common microplastic in the river.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that end up in the environment through the breakdown of litter, car tire wear, or after plastics in clothing and consumer products are washed down the drain. Consumers may be most familiar with microbeads, which manufacturer began adding to facial washes, toothpastes and other products as an abrasive agent in the late 1990’s. They began showing up in surface waters by the mid-2000’s. Wastewater facilities are not designed to remove these contaminants.

In December of 2015 the US Congress passed legislation to phase out plastic microbeads from personal care products, effective on July 1, 2017.

While microbeads have captured the attention of consumer advocates and lawmakers, it is fibers rather than microbeads that are the primary source of microplastic pollution in the metro river. These fibers come from synthetic fabrics such as microfleece, polyester and nylon and are shed during machine washing, as well as through atmospheric deposition. Many are dense and sink, especially in low-velocity waters. 

Avoid buying synthetic fabrics that contain microfibers
which may be harmful to aquatic life in the river.

Microplastics can block or damage feeding apparatus, digestive tracts and circulatory systems in invertebrates, fish, mussels and birds. Studies have documented liver stress, early tumor formation and potential reduction in feeding. They also may pose some human health hazards such as intestinal inflammation, effects on gut flora and the immune system. See the report for more information.

Recently the U.S. Geological Survey, in partnership with the National Park Service, began sampling river water, sediment, and fish and mussel tissue for microplastics in the metro river. Preliminary results indicate that fibers are the dominant type of microplastic in these samples. Fibers represent about 90% of the microplastics accumulating in metro river sediment.

What Can You DO?

Download the smartphone app from www.beatthemicrobead.org to scan product labels and determine whether they contain microbeads. Consumers can also choose clothing made from natural fibers, avoid single-use plastics such as plastic bags and take-out containers, and remain careful not to litter or flush plastic materials down the toilet.


While the challenges we face are complex and daunting, the river today is healthier, thanks to the actions of those who have come before us. The return of abundant wildlife to a once-troubled river is evidence that restoring the Mississippi is possible through shared commitment and decisive public action. With strong leadership and action by river supporters we can pass on a healthier and more resilient Mississippi River to future generations.

Photo credit: Sage Passi

Thank you to the State of the River 2016 report for much of the text in this article.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Green Cleaning Tips for a Healthy Home

By Paige Ahlborg
Cleaning is a necessary evil. We all need to spend time doing it, but cleaning with toxic chemicals isn’t good for us or the environment! 

If you are like most people, there are at least five different cleaning products under your kitchen sink or in the bathroom right now. Each has a warning label telling you what will happen if you get it on your skin and eyes. These chemicals are also harsh to breathe in, and that is unavoidable when you are disinfecting the kitchen or bathroom. It is almost as if you need to put on a HazMat suit to scrub the toilet. 
Choosing green cleaning products will change the way you clean your home while also saving money, our lakes and rivers and the health of you and your family.
Below are a few green cleaning tips to help you get your home spotless without breathing toxic air or putting harsh chemicals down the drain. 


It's easy to create your own green cleaning supplies.
By using items you probably have in your kitchen right now, you can make cleaning supplies of your own that are safe for both you and the environment. 
  • A simple solution of vinegar and water can be used in a spray bottle to cut grease on your stove and countertops. It can also be used to clean floors, windows and other appliances.
  • Does the air in your house need a little freshening up before guests come over? Mix your own odor eliminator in an empty spray bottle with water, vinegar and a few drops of your favorite essential oil. 
  • Baking soda and fine steel wool can remove dirt from the grout in the tub, shower, around the sink fixtures and in other places where crud tends to collect.  
  • To clear a clog in the bathroom drain, use a mixture of white vinegar and baking soda to break up whatever might be stuck in your drain.

Not ready to make your own cleaning products? Clean green by using eco-friendly products.

Many companies are creating their own line of cleaning products that are friendlier for the environment and less toxic to you. They are usually affordable and concentrated so they go a long way. Green cleaning products are available in most of the big chain stores or online. Not all green cleaning products are created equally. 
Visit Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning to determine the best products to use in every area of your home. 
It only takes a few easy steps to get started with a green cleaning routine in your home. Safely get rid of all those chemical-based cleaners and start using something natural for a deep down clean that is safe for both you and the environment.