Lake-Area Residents Serve as Water Stewards for Minnehaha Creek Watershed District

Lake-area residents build rain gardens to encourage clean-water practices.
Water gardens like Kathleen Miller’s, at left, help slow erosion and filter out harmful pollutants for local lakes and streams.

Kathleen Miller’s garden has a secret. In the spring, summer and fall, below the flowering black-eyed susans, cardinal flowers and liatris and just beneath the switchgrass, smoke bush and other plants, passersby might never know that a rain garden quietly filters out pollutants and guides rainwater into the earth and away from storm water systems.

Not be confused with water gardens for aquatic plants, rain gardens are slight depressions in the earth that help slow the flow of storm water to ease erosion and capture rainwater and pollutants to prevent them from draining into the storm water sewer system and into lakes, rivers and streams.

Miller’s kidney-shaped rain garden, in the front yard of her Wayzata home, is about 300 square feet, nine inches at its deepest point, and chock full of flowering plants that are attractive to bees and pollinators. Other native plants provide strong root systems that are able to travel deeper into the soil, providing channels through which rainwater filters into the soil. “We are so fortunate to live in a state that values clean water,” Miller says. “I just really wanted to rise to the challenge and see if we can make a difference.”

In discovering new ways to support clean-water initiatives, Miller became a master water steward through a cooperative program of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) and the Freshwater Society. The 14-week intensive classroom training program is offered over a 10-month period. It prepares volunteers to organize and build projects to address issues surrounding storm water management. Miller and program partner Linda Scott constructed Miller’s rain garden as part of their capstone project. Miller also conducts informal education with her neighbors, attends neighborhood events to discuss the initiative and invites people to visit her garden to learn more about its benefits, which include capturing an estimated 47,314 gallons of water a year, along with 0.13 pounds of phosphorous (which can lead to algae build-up in lakes) and 22 pounds of suspended solids (sand, grit and so on).

Miller’s commitment to the water steward program doesn’t end in her own yard. “I look at every house and think, ‘Wouldn’t this be a good place for a rain garden?’ ” she says. “I see opportunities everywhere.”

Becoming a water steward takes more than a passing interest. Qualified applicants must attend at least one informational meeting, be proficient in basic computer skills and Internet browsing, be comfortable with public speaking and meeting facilitation, be willing to serve as a community resource, complete all class sessions (attendance is mandatory) and complete a capstone project. Maintaining certification requires completion of at least 50 hours of community service on restoration efforts and attending at least eight hours of continuing education.

The program’s grant-funded, three-year pilot phase ended in 2015, says Telly Mamayek, MCWD director of communications. “Starting in 2016, it will be a self-sustaining program. Sponsoring organizations will contribute a base amount of $2,500 for each enrolled steward and the cost for participants to enroll in the program is $200.”

Ava McKnight and Myrtle Turnquist worked on a rain garden project at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka as part of their roles as water stewards. Two rain gardens totaling 2,009 square feet collect runoff, according to McKnight. “The rain gardens provide improved water quality, soil erosion control, wildlife habitat and public outreach,” McKnight says. Parishioners of St. Luke are taking notice of their rain gardens, enjoying the “aerial activity” above them. “The native plants draw bees, butterflies, birds and beetles, which find food, nesting sites and provide pollination to the plants,” McKnight says. “The monarchs have been flocking to the gardens, which make the parishioners happy, knowing they are helping the butterflies’ fragile state.”

For more information about enrolling in the water stewards program, visit the website here or call 952.471.0590.