A one-of-a-kind storm water park and education center

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) in Northeast Minneapolis is an innovative building with state-of-the-art storm water management practices on site, a geo-thermal heating and cooling system in place, and solar panels on the way.

The striking design of Hudson, Wis.-based architect Michael Huber is unmistakable and, best of all, the building and grounds are open to the public, functioning as a storm water park and education center, as well as the district watershed office.

Located at 2522 Marshall Street NE, there is free parking in the parking lot south of the building and also plenty of on-street parking. The public is welcome to enjoy the interpretive park displays and tour the interior spaces from 8-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Michelle Ross, MWMO specialist in professional training and community learning said: “Our work here is all about finding better ways to save, re-use and clean storm water.”

Minnesota has 46 watershed districts, most of which are named after the primary river or lake in their watershed. The MWMO sits astride the east bank of the Mississippi River, against the backdrop of the Lowry Avenue Bridge.

The exterior of the building integrates corrugated metal into its design, referencing the long industrial history of the neighborhood. But that industrial history is changing.

With several recent acquisitions of land along both sides of the river, the Minneapolis Park Board is looking to enlarge the park and bike trail infrastructure north of St. Anthony Falls. The locks are now permanently closed to protect the spread of Asian Carp and other invasive species. The US Army Corps of Engineers has stopped dredging the river bottom, and the river along this stretch will be allowed to return to its more natural state.

In addition to housing MWMO’s 16 employees, the building has many other flexible uses.

Beginning in January 2016, MWMO will host a citizen-training program called Master Water Stewards. Modeled after the highly successful Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs, this course will meet on alternate Tuesday nights through mid-summer. Each participant will then have four months to complete their capstone learning project, putting their new-found storm water management practices to use in an approved neighborhood project.

Ross, who administers the program for MWMO said: “You don’t have to be a scientist to apply. We actually prefer having a wide variety of students in the class. The most important thing is that people are interested in connecting with their neighbors, and that they’re committed to doing hands-on environmental stewardship.”

The Master Water Steward program is offered at no cost to participants at MWMO. “We’re hoping for representation from across our watershed, and we don’t want cost to be a barrier,” Ross said. “In addition, the capstone projects will be fully funded by district mini-grants. These are the same $3,000 mini-grants that neighborhood groups can apply for to improve water-quality on their property.”

The MWMO building is interesting to visit anytime, but especially after a rainstorm. That’s when the demonstration features of the building really come to life.

In the back, there are two flat roofs side by side. One is a conventional rubber membrane, the other is a “green roof” designed to let rain filter slowly through growing plants and into the porous layers beneath. A downspout extends out from each roof so you can see how much run-off the first one creates, and how little the second one does.

A 4,000-gallon cistern, which holds enough water to fill 100 bathtubs, is situated in the front of the building. It collects run-off from the roof of MWMO and the building next door. The stored water is released in dry periods to irrigate the many mid-sized trees in a tree trench that meanders across the property.

The MWMO completely re-built their site by removing tons of soil contaminated by industry, restoring the riverbank and implementing several best practices of storm water management. The Storm Water Park and Learning Center are appropriate for all ages, and the watershed district is encouraging citizens to think of the space as their new backyard on the river.

Inside the building, MWMO has committed to an on-going rotation of water-themed art exhibits.

The water quality of our river matters as much here as it does downstream.

While there is much work that still needs to be done, conditions are getting better.

“The water quality of the Mississippi River is improving,” Ross said.