Lake Protector

A small Minnesota city captures a big award for meeting stormwater challenges in the face of rapid growth brought on by migration from the nearby metro area
Lake Protector
From left, Becky Wozney and Shane Nelson from Hakanson Anderson Associates with Toni Hirsch and Bruce Satek from the City of Independence in front of a wetland near the new town hall. (Photography by Stephen Geffre)

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The 2010 Blue Star Award for Minnesota’s best stormwater management went not to a big city like St. Paul, not to a mid-sized city like Rochester, but to the small rural community of Independence. The city has minimal water and sewer infrastructure, but its dedication to water protection and public education gave it the edge.

“It was a great surprise to be recognized for our clean-water initiatives,” says city administrator Toni Hirsch. “For the small size of community that we are, and for the little amount of infrastructure we have, we are doing a good job of protecting our water. We take a proactive approach by addressing water concerns as they come in instead of waiting until later when they become problems.”

Sponsored by the conservation group Friends of the Mississippi River, the Blue Star Award goes to municipalities that protect Minnesota’s water resources and public health through excellent stormwater management. Cities are evaluated in several areas, including stormwater pollution prevention, stormwater standards and practices, and planning and preservation.


Changing population

Independence (population 3,700) is zoned about one-third rural residential and two-thirds agricultural. The storm sewer system contains only a few pipes and culverts but includes 34 stormwater ponds. The community is in a low floodplain and has numerous water resources to protect, including wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes.

Independence does not have its own water tower or wastewater treatment facility. Since 1986 it has had an agreement with nearby Medina to connect to that city’s sewer systems. About 200 households (and 60 recently approved new hookups) are served by Medina’s system, mostly in areas near the city’s two largest bodies of water, Lake Independence and Lake Sarah.

The remaining residents have onsite wastewater treatment systems. Before development ordinances were passed in 1977, many properties, especially summer cabins, used trenches or outhouses (locally called “biffies”).

Over the past few years, Independence has transformed from an area dominated by family farms and cabins to more year-round homes and horse boarding operations. The change has posed challenges for the water resources department in two major ways: upholding laws that protect water systems from new development, and educating long-time farm residents on how they can help protect waterways.


Relocation destination

Only 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, Independence has become a refuge for metro-area residents who want a quieter lifestyle. “Many people come from big cities where they had 50-foot lots or apartments and condos, and Independence can offer them larger properties where they feel like they are out in the country,” Hirsch says.

But for people who have never built a rural home before, the water and septic system requirements can be surprising. “People who have always lived with city sewers are often confused about why they need to have their own wells,” says Hirsch. “When they hear that Independence has no water tower, some have said, ‘You have no water out there?’ It’s a foreign concept that often requires us to provide some education initially.”

Independence uses the expertise of water resource consultants Hakanson Anderson Associates to identify protected wetlands before issuing grading permits for land development or making alterations such as digging retaining ponds. The city also works closely with the state Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Hennepin County Environmental Services to make sure all residents comply with state and local laws and ordinances related to stormwater management.


Manure management

Working with other cities that have property around Lake Independence, the city has been dedicated to reducing pollution. The lake’s phosphorus levels are among the highest in the state, and contributing factors include animal manure, failing septic systems, and chemical fertilizers applied to lawns.

Horse-related sports and hobbies are popular in the area. The Twin Cities Polo Club plays at the local Polo Grounds, and the Zuhrah Shrine Horse Patrol has its farm in the northwest section of the city. Some properties that were once family farms have been changing to rather large horse boarding operations tending more than 75 horses.

Those large operations, if left unsupervised, could lead to manure runoff into wetlands and lakes. However, the boarding operations in Independence require conditional-use permits that include manure management plans detailing where manure will be stockpiled and whether it will be managed on-site or off-site. Some boarding operations have agreements with farms to have the manure spread in fields. Some area companies haul the manure away and use it to make compost to sell in local stores.

For the family-run cattle farms that remain in the area, Independence takes a personal approach to education on manure management. “Many years ago, farmers let their cattle bathe in the lakes and let manure run off the land without any restrictions,” Hirsh says. “Today we know that is bad for the phosphorous level in our lakes and streams, and there are now regulations in place to prevent farmers from doing that.”

To help change that older mindset, the city has used grant money from Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy Act to fund manure management education programs. Independence partnered with Hennepin County Environmental Services to identify top farm contributors to phosphorous in the lakes. Water resources staff members then contacted each farm individually to explain the issues with manure runoff and ways to prevent it.


Working with lake associations

Hirsch has made it a goal to maintain open working relationships with the Lake Independence Citizens Association and Lake Sarah Citizens Association. “These lake association boards represent a large portion of our residents, so it is very valuable to partner with them,” Hirsch says. “By addressing lake issues together, we can get a lot more accomplished.

“For example, when lake levels are high, we need to institute no-wake zones to prevent erosion on shorelines. We work together to notify residents and area communities by publishing announcements on the Independence website and in local newspapers (the Delano Eagle and The Pioneer), and by posting bulletins near boat landings.”

To further control erosion around Lake Independence, the lake community has done shoreland restorations, installing rain gardens that filter out contaminants.


Monitoring and maintaining

On the sanitary wastewater side, the area’s rolling topography is challenging. Independence has 30 lift stations to help push waste along to the metropolitan line that takes all the sewage from the area and transports it to Shakopee, Minn., where it is treated and discharged to the Minnesota River. Independence staff monitors all lift stations weekly to make sure they are working properly.

Between scheduled maintenance visits, the city has a 24-hour phone line where residents can report seeing a red light on a lift station, indicating a malfunction. When a lift station is not operating, sewage can back up into homes.


Educating the public

One program that helped Independence win the Blue Star Award is public education. In September 2009, the city held a Clean Water Resource Fair to share water issues with area residents. It included educational booths and presentations by water resource staff, lake associations and area businesses dealing with issues such as water safety, water quality, boats and docks, and phosphorous-free fertilizers and boat-cleaning products.

A couple hundred residents attended and gave positive feedback on evaluation surveys. The city plans to hold the event every two or three years. Other education initiatives include a website, a resident newsletter, educational workshops, and cleanup activities.

While Independence is proud of its Blue Star status, maintaining clean waterways is an ongoing battle as farmland gives way to housing. Centuries of animals depositing manure and residents using phosphorous-based fertilizers have taken their toll on area lakes. Those surrounded by homes and cottages show the greatest effects of runoff from lawns and pavement.

“We need to be more vigilant in limiting the number and size of homes built around a lake,” Hirsch says. “The rules are set. As long as we keep up with legislative restrictions and keep good working relationships with lake associations, we have a good basis for the future — for the community and the water. Our problems didn’t happen overnight, and we can’t expect them to be cleared up overnight. It will take eight to 10 years before we start seeing a big difference.”


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