Community Clean-ups fight pollution and algae

Leaves bagged by volunteers await pick-up in White Bear Lake.

Jill Schroeder raked leaves from parks and storm drains, her husband and his parents diligently stuffed and tied bags, her kids jumped in a massive pile of leaves and White Bear Lake stretched sparkling in the background.

On this sunny Saturday, three generations of Schroeders along with a handful of friends and honor society student volunteers worked to preserve their treasured lake.

Nicole Wennen and other volunteers clean leaves from Matoska Park in
White Bear Lake.

Together, they removed 97 bags of leaves from parks and storm drains that otherwise could have washed into the lake, endangering its healthy blue water.  Many people think of pollution as chemical discharges, plastics and trash, but a leading cause of deteriorating water quality in Minnesota is less obvious:  stormwater runoff containing leaves, grass clippings and loose dirt.

The organic material and soil that wash into lakes release phosphorus, which promotes the growth of algae.  To capture the potential runoff before it washes into the lake, citizens across the Twin Cities are participating in Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality.

An essential part of these projects was the Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality Toolkit produced by the Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley.  The kit, part of  the Freshwater Society’s 2010 – The Year of Water campaign, provides an instructional DVD on phosphorus pollution, fact sheets and step-by-step instructions for groups planning to organize clean-ups.

“Not only did Lake Avenue benefit from the beautification,” Jill Schroeder said, “but anyone who spends time on White Bear Lake will appreciate our efforts all summer long.”

Other Community Clean-Ups were planned in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul, St. Cloud, Eagan and Coon Rapids.

Minnesotans are realizing their “sky-blue waters” are in danger.  Forty percent of Minnesota lakes are polluted, and storm water runoff is a leading cause.   A hundred pounds of leaves washing into a lake can yield a pound of  phosphorus, which can cause up to 1,000 pounds of algae to form.

Part of the pollution solution is as simple as raking and bagging leaves that could wash directly into lakes or into storm sewers that flow to lakes.

“The city is ecstatic that we’re doing this,” Schroeder said, “They’re one hundred percent for it.”

Brent Thompson, an engineer in the City of White Bear Lake’s stormwater management program, stopped by the April 10 clean-up to thank the volunteers for the work. “The lake is our pride and joy,” he said, “We have to keep it as clean as possible.”

addison--web300 jilwithrake300
Addison Schroeder, a fourth grader, cleans
leaves and phosphorous from a storm drain.
Jill Schroeder organized the clean-up at White
Bear Lake.

The clean-up conducted by the Schroeder family and friends was mostly a preventative measure.  Due in part to its size (2,500 acres) compared to a small drainage area (2,300 acres), White Bear Lake is clear today.  But that hasn’t always been the case.

In the 1970s and ’80s, phosphorus levels were higher, water clarity was two-thirds of what it is now, and there was twice as much algae. In response, sanitary sewer service was extended to most of the communities around the lake and standards for septic systems were improved.

The city and the Rice Creek Watershed District also have taken a number of steps to reduce pollution from runoff.  Regulations now require that many new projects with concrete or asphalt surfaces be designed so that much of the rain that falls on them infiltrates into the ground and enters the lake only indirectly, rather than flowing directly overland or through storm sewers.

A system of perforated, 36-inch, underground pipes filters debris from runoff.  Rain gardens were placed along the lake in a 2007 Lake Avenue renovation.

Janna Caywood and Como Lake
Heavy algae on Como Lake.

The Schroeders’ cleanup began at Matoska Park and continued along Lake Avenue, following the lake’s northeast shoreline.  People walking or biking past the clean-up offered encouragement and thanks to the volunteers.

While the clean-up has obvious environmental benefits, the Schroeders also view it as an lesson for their children.  “There are too many people who don’t volunteer,” Jill Schroeder said.  “Kids are so involved with the after-school sports thing they don’t have time for anything else.  I’m trying to change that.”

Schroeder, a certified interior designer at Pope Architects, credited the company for providing resources for the clean-up and piquing her interest in green solutions.

Inspired by the success of this clean-up, she is already planning clean-up events for this fall and next spring.

In St. Paul, Janna Caywood, Mike MacDonald, Bob Hale, Sally Worku, and Amy Kirkpatrick also organized their own neighborhood clean-up.  Unlike White Bear Lake’s neighbors, these Como Park neighborhood residents have seen their local lake overwhelmed by pollution.

Como Lake grows ugly mats of green algae in the summer due to the more than 20 storm drains emptying  runoff  into it.  The 72-acre lake drains 1,783 acres in parts of St. Paul, Roseville and Falcon Heights.

“It is such a visible call to help to see that green slime on the surface,” said Kirkpatrick, a member of the Como Lake Neighbor Network that organized the clean-up with assistance from the Capitol Region Watershed District.

“I’m so thankful the Freshwater Society is willing to share this,” Caywood said of the toolkit she used to help plan the clean-up.  “As citizens, we have a role to play,” she said.  “Government cannot do this important work alone.”

The Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley created the toolkit based on clean-ups the Friends have been organizing for six years. The Friends and Freshwater are seeking state funding through the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources to produce more kits and conduct training workshops.

Information on the clean-ups and the toolkit can be found at or by contacting Cherie Wagner at