Plastic wrappers, diapers, toys and syringes travel into Lake Hiawatha only to land in Sean Connaughty’s trash bag.
Since May, the local resident has collected more than 1,500 pounds of trash spilling into Lake Hiawatha.
Connaughty, 49, spends his mornings and evenings with his dog, Abby, using his grabber to pick up the garbage in and around the Minneapolis lake. It can be lonely and disheartening work, but he keeps at it out of love for a lake that has become one of the dirtiest in the city.
“The sad thing is I keep having to go ’round and ’round,” he said. “Every time it rains, you get a whole new batch that comes through the storm drain.”
The growing amount of trash has neighborhood residents like Connaughty concerned. He posted about the issue on an online forum that quickly turned into an outpouring of support and interest from the community.
Connaughty created an experiment to test how the trash was getting into the lake and showed his fellow neighbors on the forum. He placed a golf-ball sized green ball in a storm drain next to his house. Two weeks later, he found the ball in the lake.
Trash is carried downstream to the lake via Minnehaha Creek and stormwater drains.
“Historically, Lake Hiawatha has had much more trash than any of the other lakes,” said Rachael Crabb, water resources supervisor for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
The creek is a stormwater outlet for most of the communities upstream and flows to Lake Hiawatha, she said.
Stormwater from the Corcoran, Central, Bryant, Northrop neighborhoods and others wash into the lake from a storm pipe at the north end of the 55-acre lake. Stormwater from the Hiawatha Golf Course also makes its way into the lake.
In the Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park Master Plan, there is a proposal to permanently close Hiawatha’s beach in part because of the debris that finds its way into the lake, said Adam Arvidson, interim director of strategic planning for the park board. The master plan would close the beach and turn it into a naturalized shoreline with a boardwalk, a proposal that could take at least a decade to implement.
Connaughty and others discourage people from swimming in the lake due to the debris and regular outbreaks of E. coli, a bacterial infection brought on by human and animal feces that finds its way into the water.
Hattie Saloka does not allow her 8-year-old son, Connor, to swim in the lake. In the spring, Connor was playing on the beach during a school trip to the lake when he found an insulin syringe and poked himself. Saloka had to bring Connor to the doctor to be tested for HIV and hepatitis C.
Connor’s test results came back negative, but the experience was terrifying. “How horrible would that be if he happened to pick up HIV because of that,” she said.
Most beachgoers head to Lake Nokomis for a swim. Nokomis has a more controlled system to deal with stormwater, said Steffanie Musich, park board commissioner. “The water quality is much better than Lake Hiawatha,” she said.
A weir, a river barrier, keeps the Minnehaha Creek water from flowing into Lake Nokomis, she said.
The city, the park board and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District agreed to work on reconfiguring stormwater flow at the Hiawatha golf course after the area flooded in 2014.
The stormwater would filter through pumps on the golf course instead of being dumped into Lake Hiawatha, said Brian Shekleton, vice president of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.
Connaughty said he has a more immediate solution to alleviate trash in the lake.
He proposed a plan at his neighborhood association to install a vegetative catchment to collect trash where the stormwater flows in on the north side of Lake Hiawatha.
Connaughty would construct the catchment with harvested live and dead weeds, and other native vegetation from the lake.
After piquing the interest of neighbors, he plans to present his proposal to the park board.
In the meantime, Connaughty will continue picking up trash and stenciling on storm drains. The city offers kits for residents to stencil, “Please do not pollute, drains to the Mississippi River” to prevent trash from ending up in storm drains.
Doris Overby, a 72-year-old neighborhood resident, said Connaughty is taking steps to fixing a much larger problem of the “garbage dump” the lake has become.
“It’s really remarkable that a neighbor takes on that responsibility because of his passion for the neighborhood’s safety, health and quality of life,” Overby said.
Connaughty, who teaches art at the University of Minnesota, isn’t just throwing away the trash. He has plans to turn it into a statement.
At the end of the summer, he plans to unveil an art exhibit created with the trash he found near the lake.