Building partnerships to protect water

by Angie Hong 

NEMO (Non-point Education for Municipal Officials) is a program with a funny name but an important purpose – to provide local leaders with research and support to help them make informed decisions about protecting their water resources. Hosted by the University of Minnesota and the National Sea Grant College Program, NEMO delivers educational programming for city councils, watershed boards, county commissioners, and advisory committees. This fall, NEMO coordinator John Bilotta helped staff from the city of Forest Lake and the Rice Creek and Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed Districts to plan an educational tour and workshop in Forest Lake. During the September 11 NEMO workshop, 40 local leaders boarded a bus to visit project sites in the city and learn how they are helping to keep Forest Lake’s lakes and wetlands clean.

First, they heard about the city’s new street sweeping program and how it will help to keep phosphorus out of the lakes and extend the lifespan of city stormwater ponds. Then, they traveled to the Forest Lake Area High School to hear about two new water reuse projects under construction at the school and Forest Hills Golf Club. Themes from the workshop included teamwork and partnerships, using research to inform action, and planning for growth and resiliency. During his workshops, Bilotta likes to talk about what he calls “the three Ps” – planning, policies and practices – and how communities can use those three different strategies to protect water resources while still supporting vibrant economies and using tax money wisely. In Forest Lake, for example, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District and Emmons and Olivier Resources found that the city could purchase and operate its own street sweeper to keep more phosphorus out of city lakes for the same price it was paying to hire a contractor two times a year. Along the St. Croix River, cities in the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization have found that they are better positioned to get grants after researching and identifying priority restoration projects in the WMO’s plans. Throughout the evening, speakers at the Forest Lake workshop emphasized the importance of using research to guide watershed protection and restoration efforts.

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John Bilotta (WRC, Extension Water Team) speaks to Forest Lake stakeholders about enhanced street sweeping and benefits to water quality

Comfort Lake – Forest Lake watershed administrator Mike Kinney talked about using the Pareto principle, a concept from economics, to focus on a few key projects that will have the biggest impact on water quality. “There are lots of things we could be doing,” he explained, “but we need to focus on the ones that really work.” In the example of the stormwater harvest and reuse project at Forest Hills Golf Club, the project will save 260 million gallons per year of groundwater and prevent 70lbs per year of phosphorus from running off into Shields Lake, which flows to Forest Lake. Combined with a whole-lake alum treatment in Shields Lake, the project will keep 250 pounds of phosphorus out of Forest Lake annually, which will help to reduce algal growth and make the lake’s water clearer.

Perhaps the best value of NEMO workshops is the unique opportunity for local leaders to network, learn from one another, and build partnerships for action. Often, a conversation begun on a boat or a bus will translate into a new grant application or research project later that year. Participants leave with a sense of purpose and a list of concrete actions they can take to protect water in their communities. In Forest Lake, leaders agreed there was a lot to be proud of, even with more work to do."

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water and a primary partner with John Bilotta and the University of Minnesota Extension NEMO Program.  Contact her at 651-330-8220 x.35 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org
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his article first appeared in the Forest Lake Times.