Water quality matters in White Bear Lake

Shoreline restoration
The restored shoreline at Lion's Park is designed to protect White Bear Lake's water quality. A similar project planned for Veteran's Park may have to be postponed, if the DNR has to cut back its matching program.
Photo courtesy of the city of White Bear Lake

White Bear Lake is unusually clean as lakes in the metro area go. It sits atop a small watershed, so there aren't a lot of streams bringing in pollution.

The city of White Bear Lake, like many cities around the state, has a problem with stormwater run off. When summer rain sheets off parking lots and streets, it carries a lot of grit, a certain amount of plain old trash, and pollution from cars like oil and brake linings.

Red twig dogwoods glow against the snow. The native shrubs are part of a new planting that will help clean storm water running off a nearby shopping center parking lot.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

White Bear Lake City Engineer Mark Burch supervised a project last year aimed at cleaning up some of that runoff before it reaches the lake.

In his office, he has pictures of one project, tucked in between the parking lot of the White Bear Shopping Center and Lake Ave.

It's a shallow depression, called a swale. The swale is filled with soil, and planted with native plants like red twig dogwood. It captures the runoff from the street and the asphalt parking lot.

"This was basically flat going across here. So water historically ran across this parking lot, off these streets," Burch said. "There's a boat launch right here, [and the water] shoots down the boat launch right into lake. This is the first phase of a larger project. The shopping center will have to work in the future on other types of improvements."

Right now the swale is filled with snow, but you can see the dogwood shrubs glowing bright red against the white snow.

Red twig dogwood and other native plants line a swale, designed to capture polluted runoff from streets and parking lots.
Photo courtesy of the city of White Bear Lake

Burch is also proud of a shoreline restoration project at Lion's Park, a popular spot for shore anglers. Crews installed a buffer strip of native plants between the water and the grass.

"Having a good established vegetative edge here on the shoreline keeps erosion down, and provides habitat for all the types of wildlife in there," said Burch.

It's labor-intensive work, preparing the ground and planting the plants. And it's not cheap.

Both of those projects were built largely with state money. And both were built with a second stage on the drawing board. With the current state budget crisis, Burch doesn't know whether he'll be able to get the state money he was counting on for the second stage.

"It'll probably be status quo -- the conditions out there in field will stay like they are today," said Burch. "We had hoped to do some more, but if it has to wait a couple of years, it'll have to wait for a couple of years. If the funds are not there, they're not there."

Stormwater spillway
A spillway of rocks directs water from paved streets and parking lots to a rain garden.
Photo courtesy of the city of White Bear Lake

The DNR normally invests about $300,000 a year in shoreline restoration projects. Three dozen of these projects are underway -- from Northfield to Bemidji. They're usually small demonstration projects, that often spur private landowners and local governments to naturalize more land along sensitive waterways with native plantings.

Like White Bear's, many of these projects are only in the first stage, and cuts to the DNR budget could postpone the followup work.

White Bear Lake may have more than its share of citizen activists, pressing the city to do more to protect the environment. Many people live here because they love the lake. Helen Duritsa is one of them.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, with the temperature around 15, she walks briskly on the walking and biking path that hugs the lakeshore.

Helen Duritsa
White Bear Lake resident and environmental activist Helen Duritsa says the porous pavement parking lot at Lion's Park is an effective way to protect the lake's water quality, and the city should do more such projects.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"There's always activity on the walking-biking path on White Bear Lake. Year 'round, any season, any type of weather, they're outdoors," said Duritsa. "It's great to watch. It's great to do it."

The shoreline restoration accomplished last fall is just a drop in the bucket compared to what could be done, Duritsa says.

"I think that this ought to be expanded in more public spaces on White Bear Lake, and promoted more among lakeshore homeowners as well," said Duritsa. "This is how we can keep the lake healthy, and keep untreated stormwater out of the lake."

White Bear Lake is such a popular lake among anglers, the DNR stocks twice as many walleyes and muskies as it does in most other lakes. But that stocking is facing challenges.

The DNR's East Metro Fisheries Area has already had to lay off one of six stocking technicians. The layoff came not because of state budget cuts, but because of higher costs for fuel and other expenses.

The DNR won't say where it might make cuts. So far the budget is a draft, with many moving parts, according to spokeswoman Colleen Coyne.

The Fisheries Division gets most of its money from fishing licenses. As long as people pony up for a license, that money should be safe.

But the agency also gets more than $1 million a year from the general fund. Gov. Pawlenty and legislators will be trolling that fund for savings as they deal with a nearly $5 billion shortfall.