Monday, July 25, 2016

On the Trail of Gene and Imogene

By Sage Passi

The enthusiasm of young people can be very contagious!

Gene Whipple and Imogene Silver are two special young people whose creativity and passion for the environment inspired me when I first met them.

It is very gratifying to witness the enthusiasm young people express in addressing water and habitat issues and to see what emerging generations are able to accomplish. I often wish I had more opportunities to discover and follow up with students as they move into adulthood to discover how these experiences influence their own directions, post high school plans and career paths. Every so often I am lucky when someone I have worked with in the past reemerges in a new context. Magically and with some kind of serendipity, I cross paths with them and discover that they are engaging in environmental activism that builds on what we have worked on together in the past or heads off in a new direction.

It’s been encouraging to learn how Gene and Imogene's involvement has continued to grow and diversify since I met both of them in the midst of their work in watershed service learning projects in St. Paul a number of years ago.

Gene Whipple

You may remember Gene if you followed the Ripple Effect stories about our 2015 LEAP Award winners. Gene and his family were awarded a LEAP award for a rain garden project that Gene got involved with at his home in response to a request by nearby Battle Creek Middle School students who sent out a letter to residents near their school looking for a yard where they could install a project together. Gene also persuaded his neighbor to participate in this project, having witnessed a rain garden being built at his own school some years before when he was a student at Crosswinds School in Woodbury.

Gene Whipple and his father Alan Whipple install erosion blankets in their rain garden in St. Paul.

Gene Whipple's rain garden in the summer of 2013.

The route that Gene has taken since we first crossed paths has continued to build on this theme of environmental action. This winter I was happy to learn that the LEAP team had arranged a special award ceremony for his family, since they were not able to attend the ceremony in November. Gene was coming home from college to accept the award so I took the opportunity to reconnect with him and catch up on what he’s been doing since he left for college.

Gene picks out a hand-crafted bird bath as a gift
for winning a LEAP Award for his family's rain
garden project he built with Battle Creek Middle
School students and his dad in 2010.

Gene graduated this spring from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, with a degree in Sustainable Community Development. This major is one of the first of its kind in the nation. Through an interdisciplinary approach, students study the three elements of sustainability —  environmental, social and economic — in a comprehensive and holistic manner, blending the concepts of community organizing, urban/rural/regional planning, local and international economic development, and ecological restoration.

Several summers ago Gene worked with the National Forest Service to create and maintain a native seed nursery that is used for harvesting seeds for restoration projects. Gene said that he has always had a love for and interest in plants. In recalling the experience of talking his neighbor into participating in the rain garden project that he and the Battle Creek students installed between their two yards, Gene recounted a conversation that he had with Clarence, his neighbor, while he convinced him to collaborate.

Clarence posed the question,

“Is this going to be a problem with my grandchildren?”
Gene’s response was,
“This is going to be great for your grandchildren! They will be able to watch the butterflies!”

A monarch is drawn to a meadow blazing
star in Gene's rain garden.

Gene has sought out other opportunities to continue his environmental activism. While still in high school, Gene visited the Will Steger Wilderness Center during a service learning week. He said he found it fascinating to learn how a wilderness community functions every day. He had the good fortune of being able to return there to spend a summer during college taking care of the gardens at this center in the boreal forests in Northern Minnesota near Ely. The center is designed to be “a living example of viable carbon solutions and ecological stewardship, a demonstration center for devising new solutions to the seemingly intractable issues we collectively face.

 Will Steger Wilderness Center
Photo credit: John Ratzloff

Gene has been working for the past couple years at the Chequamegon Food Co-Op in Ashland. I asked him what he likes about the community of Ashland. Gene responded, “I like living in a small community where you know everyone but there’s also a mindset of a larger community. People here have an artistic sense and are full of ideas and at the same time we are so close to the wilderness. There is a culture of both activism and volunteerism in the community that responds to any sort of threat to the lake or environmental crisis.” He cited a recent rallying of action in response to the floods of the past weeks when the Bad River Reservation flooded and people stepped up to help when the roads to the reservation were cut off. 

Imogene Silver

Imogene Silver is a student who I first met when she was in David Barrett’s sixth grade class at Farnsworth Aerospace School in St. Paul. At the time, the Watershed District was delving into the first phase of research about the role of carp in the Phalen Chain of Lakes. Education about carp was infused into much of what we did in the classroom and in the field during those years. In the midst of our service learning lessons at Farnsworth, we were preparing to witness the large scale seining of carp on Lake Gervais.

Farnsworth students watch the results of a large scale carp seining on Lake Gervais.
Imogene, an artist, took us all by surprise and initiated the design and sewing of a group of amazing hand puppets. She created an adult carp puppet and finger puppets representing young carp that fit inside the female carp, one for each finger. She also crafted a blue gill puppet and a prop that represented carp eggs made from small pompons hung from a wooden stick so that this native fish’s role in eating carp eggs and helping control their populations could be illustrated. Her puppet artwork was the exact ticket we needed to teach about carp in an imaginative way. I don’t know if she realized at the time how much of an impact her artistic contribution would make.


Farnsworth students uses Imogene's puppets to dramatize
the role of carp in degrading water quality.

A few years later, Imogene reemerged, this time at WaterFest. I heard there was a Johnson high school student who wanted to exhibit a science fair research project at our event. I said, “Great!” When the day arrived, there was Imogene displaying her science fair project. Her topic: 'The Effects of the Antibacterial, Triclosan on the Aquatic Organism, Water Daphnia'. Imogene learned about the dangers of triclosan when she attended a talk on the State of the Mississippi River presented by staff from the Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service at a watershed district recognition dinner she attended with her mother. She presented her research at a regional fair and won a trip to Houston to compete at an international science fair and then brought her research to the public at WaterFest.

Triclosan is a common ingredient in a variety of household personal care products, including liquid antibacterial soaps, dish detergents and toothpastes. Unfortunately, most of the triclosan in these products is washed down the drain, where the wastewater disinfection process converts triclosan into a chemical that causes dioxins to rapidly accumulate in the Mississippi River.

Despite research that shows these products provide no benefit to consumers, their use is proving to present risks to animal and human health including interference with thyroid and reproductive systems in laboratory studies. For an update on triclosan click link: triclosan.

So where did Imogene reappear next?

Urban Roots volunteers took a break to warm up by the fire at Phalen Freeze Fest.
Imogene Silver (center) is in the green scarf.

This winter, as I headed to Lake Phalen to take part in a night event, Phalen Freeze Fest, I saw a group of young women gathered by one of the fire barrels warming their hands. They were helping set up and doing a lot of tasks out on the ice that would engage the pubic on the lake during this winter celebration. There, standing by the fire in the midst of this team of Urban Roots high school volunteers was Imogene. I also later discovered that she was the performer inside the costume of the giant merganser puppet, Shingebiss, who played the main character in the pageant that night.

Imogene played Shingebiss, the wily Merganser who takes on Winter Maker.

I called Imogene this summer to find out what she’s up to now. She said she's in her fourth year working for the Market Garden program for Urban Roots. In this paid internship, youth plant, maintain and harvest small-scale crops within urban gardens. The program promotes entrepreneurship by teaching youth interns to manage gardens and crops for distribution to community supported agriculture (CSA), Farmers Markets, Roots for the Home Team, food shelves, restaurants and small-batch food preservation for seasonal sales. Program participants are also involved in creating sales and marketing materials for the Farmer’s Market and other retail outlets.

Urban Roots also hosts another intern program focused on conservation. These interns support and improve green spaces around the East Side, and participate in the restoration of local parks through removal of invasive plant material, native seed collection and installation of native plants. They learn hands-on skills through the installation and maintenance of rain and pollinator gardens in public and private spaces. Youth also engage in citizen science projects, such as insect surveys, water sampling, and forest inventories


Imogene and some of her garden bounty.

Since Imogene will be completing her last year of high school this year, I decided to ask her if she had some thoughts on what she might like to study in college. Her answer - engineering as it relates to sustainable energy. Talk about that spark of energy she has! I hope I can keep up with what she does next!

It’s been a special treat to catch glimpses of Gene and Imogene as they mature. It’s inspiring to see what they're doing with their energy and enthusiasm as they find unique paths to grow, learn and instill their passion for the environment in new directions. 

Shut it Off

By Anna Barker

Photo credit: Anna Barker

What motivates people to change?

That was my take-away question after participating alongside my fellow Master Water Steward from Woodbury and summer staff who put on the Puppet Wagon shows about smart water usage in our city parks during the week of July 11, 2016.   

How DO you change people’s behavior?

The answer is CBSM…
“The cornerstone of both sustainability and health is behavior change. If we are to move toward a sustainable and healthy future, we must encourage the adoption of a multitude of actions (e.g., waste reduction, water and energy efficiency, active lifestyles, hand washing, vaccinations, etc.). To date, most programs to encourage such activities have relied upon disseminating information. Research demonstrates, however, that simply providing information has little or no effect on what people do. But if not ads, brochures or booklets, then what?" (

Over the last decade a new approach ... community-based social marketing ... (CBSM) has emerged as an effective alternative for delivering programs to foster sustainable behavior. Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr is the founder of community-based social marketing. Recommended by Time magazine, his book "Fostering Sustainable Behavior” has become requisite reading for those working to deliver environmental program to promote water efficiency, waste reduction, energy efficiency, conservation, modal transportation changes, watershed protection and other sustainable behavior changes.

Community-based social marketing is a unique approach to fostering both environment and health related behavioral changes and is now being utilized in thousands of programs across the globe. It has become the foundation for the trainings and programs of the Freshwater Society and Master Water Stewards in the effort to develop Community Leadership for Clean Water.

Master Water Stewards Stephanie Wang (left), Anna Barker (rear), David Rittenhouse and Idelle Peterson (right) work on a rain garden design at a spring rainscaping workshop.

Since January, my fellow Master Water Stewards-in-Training and I have been attending classes, participating in online instructional modules and doing the “brain work” to develop a set of skills that will enable us to use CBSM (see for more resource access) for both education and outreach and to facilitate and implement infiltration projects with the goal to “Stop it Where it Drops!” and keep rain where it belongs: nurturing and nourishing all the plants in our ecosystem and keeping stormwater runoff, with its accompanying possible pollutants out of our amazing freshwater streams, ponds, wetlands, lakes and rivers in Minnesota. 

Master Water Stewards Anna Barker and Brian Bohman visit a test site to compare how different types of engineered soil clean stormwater run-off from Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s parking lot.

For the past seven months, we learned about the Big Picture issues facing our fresh water resources; about the Problem as it affects our daily lives; that there are no “silver bullet” answers but that a Treatment Train of Solutions exists that can be customized for effective local projects with community involvement and partnerships. We learned that we CAN contribute to behavior change that has positive impacts on water conservation and water quality. Then Stephanie and I aligned our needs here in Woodbury with the Mission and Vision of the Master Water Stewards and put a plan of action into place for our educational capstone project. 

Please go to the Woodbury’s city website and check out their June 16 newsletter to access their latest water quality report and the City Council Strategic Initiatives update. We used the new parks and trails map and navigated a route that aligned with the Woodbury Puppet Wagon during the week of July 11th, which was designated as Water Week, with the puppets engaging the audience in reasons why they wanted humans to become more “Water Wise”. Then the audiences were directed to where Stephanie and I had set up an interactive display borrowed from the Washington Conservation District and had bubbles floating in the air to draw the attention of our young audience and their caregivers! 

Anna Barker and Stephanie Wang incorporated Washington Conservation District’s new interactive water conservation displays during the Puppet Wagon week.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Owens, City of Woodbury

By our count, we had 467 in attendance during the eight shows that we were involved with and had teaching props set up like toothbrushes (up to one gallon of water a minute can go down the drain if left running while you brush your teeth!) and empty tuna cans that CAN be set out under sprinklers for children to play in and then SHUT IT OFF when the cans are full up to their one-inch level, (one inch is the weekly limit that Woodbury wants residents and businesses to comply with for irrigation water efficiency). We also passed out native flower bouquets and free wildflower seed packets from the Washington County Master Gardeners to encourage pollinator/butterfly-friendly low-irrigation lawns and rain gardens.


Woodbury children explore ways to cut down use of water in their homes and yards with hands on activities in the kit.
Please see the fun water conservation music video with a parody of Taylor Swift’s song “Shake it off” to hear the catchy tune that the children and I had ringing in our heads as we left our lovely parks, happy and ready to make our water use footprints child-sized!

Here’s to a Water Wise August!

You can become a Master Water Steward and work in your community to address water issues. Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District is seeking eight new volunteers to join the next round of training session which start in October. For an application and more information go HERE or contact Sage Passi at Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District by email or phone at 651-792-7958.

 Baby Josephine, Anna Barker's first grandchild
Photo credit: Kate Barker

Through a Summer Lens

By Sage Passi

Grass Lake in Shoreview

Summer has a different feel. It’s a time to slow down, look at things through a different lens and enter a different rhythm. As Summer Solstice approached I knew I’d be crossing the divide into the true essence of summer, so to celebrate the emergence of this season, I signed up to take a Nature Photography tour sponsored by the Wild Ones Big River Big Woods Chapter. I’d wanted to connect with this newly formed chapter of Wild Ones in the East Metro area ever since I learned of their existence earlier this year, so this seemed like a great way to make contact. I was ready for a summertime adventure and they were holding the tour at Grass Lake in Shoreview. I’ve never really explored that area to any extent, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get to know a place that has recently been added to our watershed district.

The Nature Photography Tour gathered at the lookout for Grass Lake.

We gathered in the parking lot and walked along a short path through the woods to a viewing area surrounded by a circle of large stones. As we approached the look-out, I soon became filled with awe for the stillness, the brightness, the expanse of sky-painted water and the gold-tinged olive mats of vegetation anchored in the wetland. As we gazed in the distance, we could see the slow movement of water fowl on the horizon. Eventually a heron strolled leisurely along the edge of the marsh. Our photography guide, Susan Chaplin, a retired biology professor advised us to focus in on a small area for an evocative photo, but I found myself mesmerized by the great expanse and beauty of the complete panorama. This was, after all my first real introduction to Grass Lake.

There are no watershed district managed water bodies in the Grass Lake subwatershed. Grass Lake is a sixteen-acre Minnesota DNR public water wetland located in Shoreview. Grass Lake is entirely surrounded by the Grass Lake Nature Preserve and Snail Lake Regional Park, which are owned and operated by the Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Department. The parks include parking areas and trails, although there is no direct access to Grass Lake. While commonly referred to as a lake, Grass Lake is not actually a lake. The entrance to Grass Lake Nature Preserve is at 470 Gramsie Road, at the intersection of Gramsie Road and MacKubin Street in Shoreview

Susan offered us several options for exploring the park and practicing our photo shooting, but the group consensus settled on a hike to an osprey-viewing spot accessible by traversing across the park to another part of the wetland so we could have a closer vantage point. We set off down the road, stopping briefly at its edge to learn about the county’s efforts to restore a prairie where farm fields had once been. We stopped to notice the wildflower bergamot and discovered some of the invasive plants that pose challenges for the native species planted in this prairie restoration.

Ramsey County has been working on restoring prairie in Grass Lake Nature Preserve.

We soon left the road and began our journey by cutting through the tall grass along a make-shift trail. 

Heading toward our destination to see the osprey nest.

The pungent air of the summer evening captured our sense as we headed toward a swampy part of the park. Some people paused to snap photos of the wetland through the tall bushes.

Eva Ecola, Wild Ones Big River Big Woods Chapter
 President, stopped to research a plant on her phone.

After taking a route through a shaded woodland area we came around a bend and headed down a damp path to the wetland to reach our destination for setting up the spotting scope. Far off across the water on the top of a platform we could see a nest piled with sticks perched high above the water. Our guide focused the scope’s lens on the nest. We each took turns peering through the eyepiece at the mother osprey perched on the nest. 

The osprey, also known as fish eagle, sea hawk, river hawk and fish hawk, is unusual in that it is a single living species that occurs nearly worldwide. Its diet consists of almost entirely fish.

An osprey in flight
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I learned from our hike leader that the mother osprey almost never leaves the nest. In the heat of the day, the female stands on top of the nest and spreads out her wings to shield and shade her young. Her mate brings food to her every twenty minutes or so we’re told. I imagined the male osprey in its constant search for food, diving down to catch its prey in the sparkling water of Grass Lake. I kept taking turns at the spotting scope often, hoping to catch a glimpse of the osprey’s arrival with a fish in his talons. But instead I watched the female, constantly turning her head, watching anxiously in all directions for signs of her mate. Their lives are intimately connected. If I stayed a lot longer I know I would eventually witness this exchange.  

I had no telephoto lens of my own to capture the majesty of these marsh birds’ dedicated life to raising their young and their strategies for survival. But I have stories in my head and images in my mind’s eye that will last for a long time. And sometime, perhaps on another summer day, I will return for another glimpse of the wild beauty of Grass Lake.

Shadows and sun setting in Grass Lake Nature Preserve

Join us on October 27, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. when Big River Big Woods, in partnership with Wild Ones Twin Cities and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, will screen the 90-minute film, Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home, at Ramsey County Library, 2180 North Hamline Ave in Roseville. This film shows how and why native plants are critical to the survival and vitality of local ecosystems and tells the stories of seven different communities and how they succeeded in creating native landscapes.

School, Church and Commercial Site Projects Move Forward

By Sage Passi

Barr Engineering and District 622 Facilities staff meet with the contractor on site at Maplewood Middle School in July.

Teamwork, technical know-how, creativity, persistence and a commitment to clean water - all add up to a recipe for success when it comes to completing the eight rain garden projects in the timeline this summer. Below is an update on our progress.

Heavy Lifting at Schools Almost Complete

Rain garden construction underway in early July at Maplewood Middle School.

It has been nearly three weeks since earth-moving equipment began construction in School District 622. The installation of rain gardens at three schools; Maplewood Middle School, Weaver Elementary and Harmony Learning Center, a large scale effort in the planning stages for close to two years, is nearing completion. The process has been going smoothly and we are excited to be closing in on the finish line.

Over a period of two years, we assessed all the public schools in the District for potential stormwater retrofits that could infiltrate water from large impervious surfaces and then prioritized those sites using funds from a $50,000 Legacy Accelerated Implementation Grant. Barr Engineering spearheaded this assessment and helped us narrow our choices to eleven schools based on their potential stormwater quality benefit, constructability and educational value. Those sites were further prioritized and five sites were chosen for rain garden installations in 2016 and 2017. A sixth site is still being determined. 

In the fall of 2015 RWMWD wrote and secured a $150,000 Clean Water Partnership Grant for the construction of six rain garden projects using supplemental funds from the Watershed District. After numerous planning meetings with school district staff, a bidding process with potential contractors, pre-construction meetings and the “heavy lifting” of construction, these projects are in the ground! Here are some snapshots of each of the projects at the three schools.

Maplewood Middle School is by far the largest project. They have one rain garden at the road entry to their north entrance and two adjoining large rain gardens at the south end of their east parking lot.


Harmony Learning Center’s rain garden is located near their lower parking lot adjacent to the ball fields on their site.

Weaver Elementary School’s rain garden is the smallest project of the three sites, although it looks pretty large in this photo! The rain garden takes run-off from the school's back parking lot, as well as some roof run-off.

We’re making plans for the planting of these rain gardens this fall with school volunteers and assistance from Master Gardeners and other partners including Maplewood Nature Center and Harding Earth Club. Incorporating an educational component has been an important priority endorsed by teachers and administrators at each of the schools. We chose a hands-on approach in addition to lessons in the classroom because the Watershed District has a strong emphasis on service learning. It takes a lot of coordination, but we know student involvement can have a big pay-back and impact.

Three New Church Projects Cross Over the Finish Line…Next Step are the Plants

One of two rain garden basins installed at Parkview United
Church of Christ in White Bear Lake.
Construction of these church rain gardens is almost complete with funds from another Clean Water Fund Grant. These projects are located at Parkview United Church of Christ and St. Stephen Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake and Christ United Methodist Church in Maplewood. These rain gardens will be planted this fall and a dedication ceremony will be held with each congregation.

Staff are working with two more churches to potentially install rain gardens next summer and are still looking for one additional church partner. If you attend a church within RWMWD and think that their site would be a suitable place for a rain garden, please contact Paige Ahlborg either by emailing Paige or calling her at 651-792-7964. She will setup a site visit to determine if there are rain garden opportunities on the property and if it qualifies for the grant. 

Active church teams at both St. Stephen Lutheran Church (pictured above) and  Parkview United Church of Christ helped to make their projects successful.

Retrofit Projects at Commercial Sites are in Motion

Construction at Wells Fargo in Woodbury

Staff are also moving forward with retrofit projects at commercial sites around the District. Currently a project at Wells Fargo in Woodbury is underway. Next month, we will remove a portion of the parking lot at the Slumberland on Suburban Avenue in St. Paul and replace the area with a native prairie planting. We have never done a project like this, so we are very excited to work with Slumberland on this project.

It’s been a very busy summer and we are looking forward to seeing the outcome of these collaborations with schools, faith communities and businesses.

We want to thank all the partners who have made these projects possible, with special appreciation for the support from our Clean Water Land and Legacy Grants.