Column: Minnesota communities join forces to launch water education campaign

Angie Hong

In 2013, Sean Connaughty began collecting litter along the shores of Lake Hiawatha in South Minneapolis, eventually transforming the discarded bottles, pens and rubber duckies into an art exhibit for the Sandbox Gallery. Motivated partly by a desire to clean-up his local lake, and partly by gross fascination, he collected more than 150 bags of litter in three years’ time.

On the other side of town, May Lee, a Master Gardener who grew up in Laos, has taken a different approach to protecting water resources in her community. Lee operates a certified organic farm, growing vegetables on land within the Wilder Forest in May Township, which she sells at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market and donates to Neighborhood House and Second Harvest. In her spare time, she teaches classes and works with students at Farnsworth Elementary to plant native seeds for clean water and habitat projects.

The newly revamped Minnesota Water — Let’s Keep it Clean! website (cleanwatermn.org) was created to share stories of everyday Minnesotans taking action to protect our water. It is part of a larger effort to help people to get involved in their own communities. Led by Hamline University and the Metro Watershed Partners, acting together with more than 60 cities, counties, watershed organizations, nonprofits and government entities, the goal is to educate and engage the public in protecting Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater resources.

In addition to Connaughty and Lee, other local water heroes featured on the website include a group of neighbors near St. Paul’s Como Park who join forces every fall to rake leaves out of their streets so that they don’t end up decomposing in the lake; Joe Knaeble, an Uptown Wedge resident who shovels up excess salt from the sidewalks near his home each winter; and Nor Olson, a woman living in Stillwater Township who converted her large rural lot to native prairie. Each story ends with links to resources to help people get started on similar projects in their own yards and neighborhoods.

Watershed Partners began 20 years ago when a dozen partners in the Twin Cities area pooled funding to create educational exhibits about water for the Minnesota State Fair. Over the years, the partnership grew and evolved, taking on issues such as phosphorus in lawn fertilizer, and helping cities to meet storm water pollution prevention requirements.

Hamline coordinates the program through its Center for Global Environmental Education, with guidance from a steering committee comprised of participating organizations.

Most of the partners are located in the Twin Cities area, though a few smaller cities in greater Minnesota also participate. In addition to the Minnesota Water — Let’s Keep it Clean! campaign, group members meet monthly, staff an interactive exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair, and organize professional trainings.

With the new website up and running, Watershed Partners is moving forward into the next phase of their campaign — engaging citizens to reduce storm water pollution.

“A lot of people will participate in a community clean-up event once a year, but we want people to commit to keeping neighborhood streets, sidewalks and storm drains clear year-round,” said Project Manager Jana Larson.

Minneapolis and St. Paul recently worked with Hamline to create an “Adopt a Storm Drain” program and Watershed Partners is exploring how the program might be expanded to additional cities. The group may also create toolkits that citizens could use to organize clean-up events in their neighborhoods.

“Everything that is in the street can get washed into a storm drain and end up in nearby waterways,” said Lyndon Torstenson, a ranger with the National Park Service and member of the Watershed Partners steering committee. “If everyone chipped in to keep litter, leaves and grass clippings out of our streets, we’d see a lot less pollution in metro lakes and rivers.”

To learn more about the Minnesota Water Let’s Keep it Clean! campaign, visit cleanwatermn.org.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water, mnwcd.org/emwrep. Contact her at 651-330-8220 ext. 35 or [email protected]