Water watchdogs

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June 6, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
Construction underway for Mississippi Watershed Management’s new riverfront home in Northeast

The new riverfront headquarters for the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization is actually one big science experiment.

Staff will monitor a rooftop “salsa garden” of edible plants, comparing the water that pours off the green roof to water that pours off an empty roof nearby. They will plant and uproot different types of trees over time, so they can measure how much water the trees suck out of the ground. And they will check to see if pharmaceuticals and other new pollutants are starting to come down in rainwater.

“Our entire site is really all around that discovery piece,” said the organization’s executive director Doug Snyder.

Construction is now beginning on the new headquarters at 2522 Marshall St. NE. The building is a big upgrade from the MWMO’s current headquarters, where it is one of several tenants in the old Grain Belt Brewery. By the end of December, about a dozen staff members will move into their new digs, and they will finally have the chance to stash their water monitoring equipment onsite.

The building isn’t exclusive to a handful of staff, however. The entire first floor and much of the second is devoted to educating the public about water conservation. It will open to the public during business hours, with a “wet classroom” for school groups and interactive exhibits that the Science Museum will help develop.

Outside, people can stroll past a new pond and an urban tree lot with a gravel bed — scientists have discovered that gravel gives tree roots more breathing room 
than soil.

Staff will install pervious pavers to provide a demo for passersby and determine how much water the pavers actually absorb.

“They’re expensive, there is no doubt about it,” Snyder said. “You may as well make sure that you’re getting the best value 
out of those practices 
over time.”

Beyond the trees and pavers, a ramp will take visitors right down to the shoreline. The site will likely include a canoe and boat landing, and staff are considering a floating boardwalk as well for water sampling.

“We want all people to experience being right next to the river,” Snyder said.

A new bike trail will run from the boat landing under the Lowry Bridge to hook up with Edgewater Park on the other side.

The facility will also hook up to its immediate neighbors. It will collect almost all of the stormwater from Tony Jaro’s River Garden next door, sending the water toward the pond and Cottonwood trees, where layers of sediment are designed to filter out pollutants. A cistern will hold up to 4,000 gallons of water — about 80 rain barrels — and it will keep the trees alive during dry spells. The facility will collect all the water pouring off the roof of its other neighbor, Siwek Lumber, and it could even collect water from the street as soon as the city signs off on it.

What is the MWMO?

You’d be forgiven if the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization isn’t instantly recognizable to you.

“It’s one of those almost anonymous intergovernmental agencies,” said Victor Grambsch, a citizen advisor to the organization who lives in Northeast.

But he noted that MWMO helps decide the fees we pay for stormwater runoff — and water bills can be big.

The MWMO’s work also takes the spotlight when we see Minneapolis beaches along the watershed close due to E. coli contamination. In the Mississippi River, E. coli concentrations are flunking state water quality standards during some of the summer months, meaning that the water is occasionally considered unsafe for human contact.

“Ingesting the water is our biggest concern,” said Water Resources Manager Udai Singh.

The agency has spent much of the last decade pinpointing spots where E. coli contaminates empty into the river, and it’s preparing to work with the state on a plan to deal with the problem.

The MWMO does more than monitor the river, however. It gives out a slew of mini-grants for projects that promote water conservation. And it’s currently working to improve a boat landing near the University of Minnesota’s river frontage, so that river access is improved for monitors and even emergency workers.

“When the I-35 bridge collapsed, there was a huge problem with getting rescue people out onto the river below the falls — there was no good place to do that,” Snyder said.

MWMO funding is also paying for caches of emergency equipment, so any toxic spill on the river can be contained quickly.

Snyder said he wants the new headquarters to show visitors how their lifestyles impact water resources.

“Most people don’t make those connections,” he said.

Some types of energy production require lots of water, for example, such as coal and nuclear plants that use groundwater for cooling.

“The idea here is that they’ll walk into the building and they’ll start to see that those connections are there,” Snyder said. “Most every decision you make, whether that’s buying a product or something, has a water component to it just like it has a carbon component. It’s trying to call that out in a more explicit way, and just get people thinking about those decisions.”

Reach Michelle Bruch at michellebruch82@gmail.com.