Wearing hip boots, clutching dip nets and bearing bottle traps, more than 40 volunteers will fan out across the western suburbs in June to take readings on the tiny water organisms and plant life that reflect a wetland's health.

Looking to have fun and learn something, too, the volunteers get eight hours of training to properly identify the plants and animal life they find. The more diverse the aquatic life it supports, the healthier the wetland.

Because their readings may prompt a city to protect or even restore a local wetland, "you feel like you are doing some good," said Chris Carlson of Minnetonka, a six-year wetland volunteer.

Minnesota has more than 10 million acres of wetlands, compared with 2.5 to 3 million acres of lakes. The marshy lowlands are a home for wildlife, a stopover for migrating birds and a filter that cleans storm water before it goes into lakes and streams.

But annual wetland monitoring has fallen to volunteers because state money, time and energy is focused on keeping lakes and streams clean, said Mark Guerness, research scientist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "No one else is monitoring the quality of wetlands."

Hoping to fill this void, Hennepin and Dakota counties have been enlisting volunteers since 1997. Volunteers are recruited each year between February and May to be ready to take the field in June.

Dakota County has another group of 40 volunteers working in the southern suburbs.

The recruits are men and women of all ages with an interest in nature. They take their data collection seriously. But they also have fun.

"You get to put on the hip waders and get in the muck," said Mike Biermaier of Eden Prairie.

The volunteers

Skip Rosen of Maple Grove enjoys sloshing around in the water and seeing the various bugs. "I never knew there were so many different types of leeches," he said.

This is the second year he and his wife, Terry, will be taking readings.

"Wetlands are not swamps," she said. "They really are a purification system for our main bodies of water, so they deserve a lot of attention and a lot of importance because of that."

At their training sessions, the volunteers learned the science behind the data collection, Terry Rosen said. "We have a very intricate routine that we have to do. We do it the right way so the data comes out correct."

The couple re-upped this summer because "our experience was very positive. We wanted to get a little more involved in the community," Terry Rosen said. "You don't often spend quality time with others while you are wearing waders."

Having put in the effort to collect the data, the volunteers want their cities to use the information to protect or restore wetlands.

"It does matter that it goes to use," said Skip Rosen. "You can go by a wetland and see nothing but green scum across the top."

How data is used

Minnetonka has picked four of its 400 wetlands for volunteers to monitor this summer. It has monitored 11 wetlands through the program so far.

The city may take extra precautions to protect wetlands in the best health from the adverse effects of development or road construction, said Aaron Schwartz, natural resources specialist for the city.

Those that are not in good health may prompt an investigation into what is degrading their water quality, he said. "From the city's perspective it's a great way to get information that we wouldn't have otherwise about the health of our wetlands," Schwartz said.

Cities welcome the information, but whether it results in action often depends on whether anyone within the city champions the data. Volunteers are encouraged as part of their training to educate city leaders about the findings and to press to make wetland protection a priority.

While the state recognizes that wetlands can be polluted, lakes and streams have higher priority because people use them, Guerness said.

The goal is to expand volunteer monitoring statewide and get more people and local governments involved in wetland care, Guerness said.

"We need to do a better job of protecting our wetlands and we need a better idea of what the background health of wetlands is.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711