Community Clean-Ups fight phosphorus, algae

When a group of Como neighborhood residents in St. Paul decided in the summer of 2009 to get together to talk about Como Lake’s algae problem, they had no idea they would soon be leading a grassroots community collaboration to restore the lake.

But 16 months after its official launch, the Como Lake Neighbor Network has organized more than 100 Como neighbors and engaged

high school volunteers help with Community Clean-up
Como Sr. High Students Peter Vang,
Gaby Gretz and Pa Tao Her

two local government entities, two local non-profits, and a school to prevent phosphorus sources in neighborhood streets from swishing down storm drains and polluting Como Lake.

Once organic debris gets into storm drains and then into lakes and rivers, it breaks down and releases phosphorus. Just five 20-pound bags of leaves can contain one pound of phosphorus, which over time can fuel as much as 1,000 pounds of noxious algae blooms.

Many of the Como neighbors knew that leaves and grass and dirt were a problem for the lake and had a vague understanding that storm drains empty directly into the lake. But they were not taking action as individuals to halt the phosphorus pollution and the algae it feeds.

“My husband and I love living in St. Paul with a view of Como Lake,” said Amy Kirkpatrick, a neighbor network member. “From our front porch we can watch the ducks along the shore, bikers, walkers and the bald eagle that regularly perches in a nearby tree. But in recent years, we’ve been disturbed to see green algae creep across more and more of the lake each summer. To me, it was the lake’s visible call for help.”

In early 2010, members of the neighbor network attended a workshop offered by the Freshwater Society and Friends of the Minnesota Valley on how to organize a Community Clean-Up for Water Quality, a program developed by the Friends that has been highly successful in preventing phosphorus from reaching the Minnesota River.

The workshop participants took the model back to their Como neighborhood and developed a brochure to distribute throughout a 40-block area. They invited other organizations-the Capitol Region Watershed District, the City of Saint Paul, the District 10 Community Council, Conservation Corps Minnesota Youth Outdoors, and students from Como Senior High School-to participate in a “Como Lake Curbside Cleanup.”


Conservation Corps Minnesota Youth Outdoors
Conservation Corps Minnesota Youth Outdoors

On Oct. 16, Como neighbors filled 446 garbage bags full of organic debris from the curbsides and storm drains in front of their homes. The neighbor network and its partners then picked up the bags and emptied them at a Ramsey County yard waste site.

“That is how easy it is to begin developing a cleaner watershed,” said Sally Worku, neighbor network member.

Water bodies that are dominated by algae suffer from a host of problems. They can quickly lose the diversity of plants needed for food and habitat for fish and animals. Algae also rob water bodies of dissolved oxygen needed by aquatic life. In worst-case scenarios, this sets off a chain of events that can result in total ecosystem collapse. The oxygen-deprived “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is a dramatic example of the nutrient problem.

Taking the Clean-Ups statewide

The Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality program was developed by Friends of the Minnesota Valley in 2003. The program won a state award for pollution prevention in 2010. The Freshwater Society this year teamed with the Friends of the Minnesota Valley to take the model statewide, offering workshops and producing a community toolkit to teach citizens how to implement the program in their area.

“Anybody can do a Clean-Up,” said Lori Nelson, executive director of Friends of the Minnesota Valley. “It’s so easy, and it’s cheap, and it yields really significant results for just a really small investment.”

A Community Clean-Up for Water Quality can be organized by a small group of neighbors or by a coalition of local organizations, local government, and local citizens who’d like to clean up a whole neighborhood. Either way, the framework is the same: rake up the organic debris pressed against curbsides and covering storm drains; bag it up; count the bags; take them to be composted.

“Government agencies can’t do it all ourselves,” said Lee Ganske of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “We really need the involvement, the help, the participation of citizens of Minnesota.”

Fall 2010 Community Clean-ups

Roger Johnson, the president of the Lake Demontreville-Olson Lakeshore Homeowners Association in Lake Elmo, first heard about the Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality through the Freshwater Society in October.

He decided to try out the program and used a simple flier, provided by Freshwater, to invite his neighbors to take part. The next weekend, he and several neighbors filled 42 bags with leaves. He also suggested lakeshore-owning neighbors clean up debris along the water’s edge to improve the quality of their beach next summer. “Leaves and weeds on the shore produce future muck” he said.

Lynnette Anderson of Lake St. Croix Beach also used the Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality program model. She and her boyfriend went to Riverfront Park, where several cottonwoods had recently dropped their leaves. They filled 15 bags. She hopes to organize a bigger clean-up next spring and to invite her City Council to join the effort.

In Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Corrie Zoll of Metro Blooms used the Community Clean-Up toolkit to organize a clean-up with citizens who had recently worked together on a rain garden project. On Saturday, Oct. 23, the Powderhorn Park neighbors filled 52 bags in two hours.

The volunteers liked the project so much that they returned the following week and filled 48 more bags.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota used the Community Clean-Ups program in November for an employee service project and cleaned up debris around Blackhawk Lake in Eagan. The City of Eagan provided bag pickup and supplied a boat for employees to pick up shoreline debris. More than 100 bags of leaves were kept out of the lake.

In White Bear Lake, Rob Schroeder and his wife, Jill, organized a Community Clean-Up along curbs near the lake with help from the city and Veolia Environmental Services. It was the Schroeders’ second year to conduct a clean-up. Their crew of volunteers and homeowners filled 200 bags.

In the Prior Lake and Savage area, high school students teamed up with the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District to clean curbsides near Upper Prior Lake. Dick’s Sanitation provided bags and transported the leaves and debris-124 bags-to a composting site.

And in Rochester, Allison Plute from the city’s stormwater department, launched an intensive media campaign, encouraging residents to clean the curbs in front of their homes to protect the Zumbro River watershed. She issued a press release, wrote a newsletter article, developed an ad and poster and spoke on local radio to promote the effort during October.

Nine Girl Scouts from Troop 10982, their siblings and parents gathered on Nov. 8 in Orono to conduct a clean-up aimed at keeping leaves and phosphorus out of Lake Minnetonka. They collected 25 bags.

Clean-Ups are changing the PARADIGM

For members of the Como Lake Neighbor Network, the clean-up went beyond the traditional environmental education approach, which focuses on increasing citizens’ knowledge of how watersheds work, and added the dimension of community organizing and collective action.

As individuals, Como residents knew leaves, grass clippings and other organic matter were bad for their lake. But many of them thought any personal contribution they might make to solving the problem would be too tiny to make any difference. But when they heard their neighbors were organizing a community effort to fight phosphorus pollution, they were glad to do their part.

“No one enjoys algae scum and the accompanying odors. Ignoring it will not make it go away, but without the power and education, which comes with community organization, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as an individual,” says Lynne Menturweck, a member of the neighbor network.

It is this community collaboration aspect of the Community Clean-Up program that the Como Lake Neighbor Network credits for motivating citizens to take part.

Also the citizen-led orientation of the Community Clean-Ups is key. The success in the Como neighborhood would not have been possible without government partners willing to let citizens lead and willing to treat the citizens as partners. The network’s approach has been to frame the collaboration efforts and the clean-ups as an opportunity to contribute to the health of the lake in a way that government really cannot-house by house, street by street, neighbors working with neighbors.

This article was written by Janna Caywood, leader of the Como Lake Neighbor Network and one of the organizers of the network’s Community Clean-Ups last spring and this fall.

(This post was updated Aug. 30, 2013)