Tucked in a quiet Bloomington neighborhood off France Avenue, willow branches arch over a small pond where the water is still and the view from the shoreline quaint.
But a deep inhalation is proof of the water's quality: Winchester Pond stinks. A thick film of duckweed and algae covers much of the pond's surface, swirled by the geese and ducks paddling through.
Now the 2-acre pond is home to a floating artificial island designed to make the water less scuzzy. Planted with bee balm, milkweed and native grasses, the island — two oval platforms tied together — attracts pollinators above the water as the plants' roots grow below, creating a man-made wetland that can help improve water quality.
The base of the island is built of fibers from recycled plastic bottles, injected with foam for buoyancy. It was provided by Midwest Floating Island of St. Paul.
"We know that one of these islands won't do all the work here," said Heidi Niziolek, the woman behind the effort to restore Winchester Pond. "But it's a start."
Since moving to the neighborhood about three years ago, Niziolek has worked hard to involve nearby homeowners in the effort to clean up their little pocket of nature.
When she first moved in across the street from the pond, she couldn't even see the water through the overgrowth of buckthorn and other invasive species. Her new neighbors warned her about the stench: "You're going to hate it," they said.
But Niziolek and her family decided they could make it better. Two years ago she persuaded neighbors to "adopt" the pond and set out to clean up trash and reduce the invasive plants contributing to shoreline erosion. She pushed homeowners to consider how they might reduce water pollution and brainstormed ways to beautify the area around the bench on the shore.
Since then, the project has received $15,500 in grants from Hennepin County and $7,000 from the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District. Some of the money was used to install three rain gardens in yards upstream, and Niziolek plans to use this year's grant to launch more floating islands and add more native plants.
The island was moved into the pond last year with the help of a canoe. Most of its plants were gnawed away by a muskrat, so it needed replanting this summer, Niziolek said.
"It's been a learning process to find ways to help nature while also not getting thwarted by it," she said.
Will take years
James Kujawa, an environmentalist with Hennepin County, said most applications for grant money come from neighborhood associations or groups, not individuals.
"Heidi and her husband, Dan, did an amazing job getting the education out there and encouraging interest and involvement among neighbors," Kujawa said. "That time and effort will go a long way."
Still, both Niziolek and Kujawa acknowledge that noticeable improvements in water quality may be some years off. Stormwater has run into the pond for decades from about 100 nearby homes, Niziolek said. The county is taking samples from the pond to track changes in the water quality.
"No matter what is done there, it's a retrofit effort and it'll take a while to see an impact," Kujawa said.
"It took 50 years for the pond to get to this point," Niziolek said. "But it might not take that much to push it back in the right direction."
'Our civic duty'
Whatever the result, Niziolek said there's one undeniable benefit to the work of the past few years: The smelly pond has at least brought neighbors together.
Cleanup and planting days have attracted a couple dozen homeowners, some of whom live just a few doors away from each other but had never met.
"We started this for the health of our little slice of nature, but it grew beyond that," Niziolek said. "The larger benefit is that we've created this community of people working together."
Though the film of green still floats on much of the water and it still smells a little funky, the pond is already becoming more of a destination for picnic lunches or people looking for a shaded reading spot.
Not long ago, the little bench on shore — now surrounded by lilies and hostas — was the chosen site for a marriage proposal.
"It's a joy to have this spot right by our house," Niziolek said. "But it's overloaded. It's our civic duty to try anything to help."