Efforts to clean up bodies of water across Washington County got a big financial boost with the approval last month of more than $1 million in grants from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
The money comes from state Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment funds raised by a small sales tax (three-eighths of 1 percent) approved by voters in 2008, and will fund 10 projects, said Angie Hong, water resource education specialist with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. The state board decides how those earmarked funds are dispersed.
Those projects are on top of those already in the works in the county's seven watershed districts and one water management organization. Projects are also being supervised by the county and local governments.
While those agencies are funded through property taxes, the grants, Hong said, "are basically a bonus. These are special projects that usually have a pretty big price tag."
The two biggest projects are in Forest Lake. Nearly $361,000 will be used to modify an existing wetland in Bixby Park to improve water quality and reduce the amount of dissolved phosphorus that ends up downstream at nearby Comfort Lake. The lake, just outside Forest Lake's city limits in Chisago County, is on the state's "impaired waters" list — the goal is to bring it up to standards. The project, overseen by the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District, is part of the larger effort to transform Bixby Park, formerly a city compost site, into a 100-acre nature preserve in the northwestern corner of the city.
"A lot of the land we're talking about is labeled 'parkland,' but most of it is really wetlands," said Greg Granske, the watershed district's engineer.
Some time in the past, he said, a ditch was put into the wetland, short-circuiting its natural ability to filter out phosphorus and other materials.
"We want to kind of turn back time and bring back the character that wetland had before," he said.
The city also received $382,000, which will be used to help clean stormwater that runs into Clear Lake's four filtration basins and a sediment pond to intercept the water and prevent materials like phosphorus — which cause summer algae blooms that harm fish and clog boat motors — from reaching it.
Two projects are specifically aimed at protecting the St. Croix River.
The Washington Conservation District, which works to protect both soil and water, received $216,130 to work with willing rural landowners in the southeastern part of the county to keep water from washing fertilizers, soil and other materials into the river, and also to keep it from causing erosion and creating ravines.
Potential trouble spots are identified first by aerial photos, then verified by studies on the ground, Hong said.
The district then works with landowners to identify solutions, which could include installing sediment basins that capture fast-flowing water and drain it out more slowly, or taking steps such as planting cover crops on land that is otherwise left bare in the winter and prone to erosion.
The Middle St. Croix Water Management Organization also received $127,000, which will be used to help communities along the St. Croix update their zoning codes and ordinances to ensure that stormwater pollution from new developments doesn't get into the river.
The other grants include:
• $100,000 to the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization to continue working in Stillwater to install neighborhood rain gardens to keep stormwater from city streets out of Lily Lake. Another $57,000 was awarded for similar projects at nearby Long Lake.
• $33,500 to Brown's Creek Watershed District to figure out a solution to the problem of why the popular trout stream sometimes has temperature spikes that make it too warm for the fish to survive and reproduce. Hong said it's possible that the warm water comes from a wetland complex, and is due to stormwater draining over hot pavement on summer days.
• $21,350 to Washington County to work with landowners to seal abandoned wells, which are a direct conduit to groundwater and prone to contamination.
• $50,000 to the Washington Conservation District to work with homeowner associations on a variety of projects to conserve water and reduce stormwater runoff.