Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality: Citizens coming together to protect our lakes and streams

Early this year, Minnesota added over 500 lakes and stretches of river to its official list of impaired – read that “polluted” – waters, bringing the statewide total to over 3,600.

How can Minnesotans “fix” these waters that embody so much of our state’s identity? Government will certainly have a role, but every Minnesotan has an important part to play in keeping lakes and streams clean.

In 2009, the Friends of the Minnesota Valley and the Freshwater Society teamed up to promote Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality.

Members of the Honor Society at St. Anthony Village High School
gather for a Community Clean-UP.

Developed nearly a decade ago by the Friends, Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality are local projects that reduce polluted runoff flowing into lakes and rivers by cleaning up leaves and yard debris from city streets.

Any community group can participate – scout troops, a school class, a church group, a service organization or a group of neighbors. Volunteers rake and bag leaves, dirt and debris blocking storm drain grates. The organic material can then be composted away from area waters.

Phosphorus and nitrogen in the organic material feed the growth of algae, the plants that turn lakes green and slimy each summer.

Students gather a sample of street debris.

The Community Clean-Ups embody a powerful idea: Offer citizens a simple, effective action to take to protect the lakes and rivers they love.

Last fall, 1,914 volunteers from more than 40 communities cleaned up more than 26,600 bags of leaves.

This powerful citizen action has inspired the Freshwater Society to investigate the program’s impact more comprehensively.
In spring of 2011, in partnership with the Capitol Region Watershed District, the Como Lake Neighbor Network and University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Karlyn Eckman, the Freshwater Society developed a study to explore how participating in Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality affects participants’ yard-care knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP).

The study was conducted in two neighborhoods adjacent to Como Lake – a control neighborhood and an experimental neighborhood – and spanned spring and fall of 2011. The study began with a baseline survey in late winter 2011 before spring clean-up activities began, and a second-round follow-up survey toward the end of the 2011 fall leaf-raking season. This yielded two separate databases that could be compared.

Como Lake is a fairly typical urban lake. The primary source of water to the lake is urban runoff. The lake is listed as impaired, with 65 percent of the phosphorus that pollutes the lake already in the lake’s sediment, and 35 percent of the phosphorus coming from leaves, grass clippings, chemicals and soils carried by rainwater flowing across streets, parking lots and roofs in the area.

The first-round survey revealed a very high level of awareness among citizens about the impact of urban runoff and high concern for the lake. Even so, residents in the experimental neighborhoods who participated in Community Clean-Ups showed an increase in knowledge after the clean-ups. The same group showed an increase in their belief that they, neighborhood residents, share responsibility with the city to take action to protect Como Lake.

The Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley have also launched a long-term study to substantiate and refine the formula used to calculate the amount of pollution community members divert from Minnesota’s waters.

In partnership with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, using a protocol developed in collaboration with scientists from the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, the Freshwater Society is teaming up with community leaders to test the street sweepings volunteers collect during Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality.

The goal for the study, still in its early stages, is to measure the amount of pollution community members can prevent, giving cities a new way to measure the impact of civic engagement on the health of rivers and lakes.

The idea that civic action can significantly reduce the impact of urban areas on lakes and rivers is taking hold. This year is the Centennial year for the Girl Scouts. In Minnesota, the Girl Scouts of the River Valleys – working in partnership with the Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley – have adopted Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality as their Take Action Project.

On Oct. 13, the Girl Scouts plan to rally 54,000 Scouts, family members, community supporters and adult volunteers to sweep leaves, grass clippings and soil from Minnesota’s streets, parking lots, boat ramps, parks and other public spaces. It will be a step toward preventing some of that pollution that afflicts our waters.

(Updated Aug. 14, 2013)