Several years ago, my husband and I lived in a condominium, which was part of an association managed by fellow condo owners with too much time on their hands. The rules, designed to maintain uniformity, were trivial in nature. Bird feeders, vegetable gardens and decorative attachments to our privacy fences were not allowed. Rules also prohibited residents from owning dogs heavier than 15 pounds or leaving garage doors open. We read our association newsletter each month, giggling about the owner who was reprimanded for hanging a birdfeeder from his privacy fence (a double no) and then later fined $40 for refusing to take down the birdfeeder even though it was expressly prohibited in the association bylaws. Later, while babysitting for a colleague’s dog, we waited for the hammer of public scorn to descend upon us after our neighbor across the way peeked through her curtains and observed us walking down the driveway with a great big dog one day.
Nowadays, I worry that people might mistake me for a neighborhood snitch. While scouting out locations for a community raingarden project in a nearby town, my coworker and I noticed that people were eying us with suspicion as we rolled slowly through their neighborhood. In retrospect, they probably thought that we were either casing the joint or preparing to write a firmly worded letter to the city administrator documenting the frequent violations we witnessed of the garbage container storage ordinance (Ch 30-3, 30-4). I had similar thoughts recently when I was out walking the dog around Stillwater, spotted one of the new raingardens built to help clean up Lily Lake, and whipped out my cell phone to take a few photos. “There’s a lady with a baby stroller standing outside taking photos of our yard,” I could almost hear the homeowner saying, “and her dog just walked around in a circle and hog-tied her to the wheel of the stroller.”
The fact of the matter is that Minnesotans have built an astounding number of clean water raingardens in the past six years, including well over 100 in Stillwater alone. Now that I live here, I beam with geeky excitement each time I find one while out walking or running around town. The raingardens, which capture rain runoff and soak it into the ground, are part of a multi-pronged approach to cleaning up our local lakes and rivers. Last year, the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization (MSCWMO) worked with residents near Lily Lake to build 17 strategically located raingardens and seven more will be added next spring. In a parallel effort, MSCWMO and the McKusick Lake Association have helped to install more than a dozen raingardens near that lake as well. In addition, the City of Stillwater has begun incorporating raingardens into road repair projects as a way to reduce water pollution and meet regulatory requirements.
On the other side of town, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District (BCWD) has used its cost-share grant program to build nearly 60 residential raingardens to help clean up Long Lake and Brown’s Creek. Leading the charge is the Legend’s neighborhood, where 19 homes now sport one or more raingardens. Further up the road in Settler’s Glen, a cluster of homeowners known as the “Brown’s Creek Five” built their raingardens in 2008, which has since inspired others in their neighborhood to follow suit.
We don’t always recognize the collective impact of our individual actions, but in Stillwater residents have a right to feel proud. Monitoring data shows that all three lakes in town – Lily, Long and McKusick – have improved in the past six years and Brown’s Creek, a designated trout stream, is healthier as well. These improvements are a direct result of MSCWMO, BCWD and city led efforts, as well as 150 or more homeowners and businesses who have cared enough to plant a raingarden or restore a stretch of shoreline. I smile when I find these water-friendly gardens around town and sometimes I even stop to snap a photo. Undoubtedly some folks wonder what I’m doing, but I don’t mind. Yes, I’m out to catch people in the act, but unlike my former busybody condo mates, I’m looking for the good stuff, not the bad.