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A Minneapolis lake's story, told through its trash

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Sean Connaughty looks at teething toys from the lake.
Sean Connaughty looks at teething toys he pulled from Lake Hiawatha in Minneapolis.
Nikki Tundel for MPR News

This story is by Annie Baxter of The Water Main and freelancer Nikki Tundel.

Sean Connaughty goes back to Lake Hiawatha almost daily.

The lake is near his home, and he loves how it offers him the chance to find quiet, peaceful spots in the middle of a city. And he likes to see wildlife like eagles and otters.

But the thing that really keeps him returning lately is the trash.

"Over time, I began to notice mass quantities of trash accumulating on the shore," he said. "So I started picking up trash." 

He'd spend hours collecting things like straws, cigarillo tips, Styrofoam containers. Diapers, plastic water bottles, syringes.

But he noticed that his efforts weren't making much of a difference. 

After any rainfall, trash would cover the shore yet again.

He began to wonder about the garbage's source, and decided to try an experiment. He took a ball he had found in the lake, wrote his address on it, and dropped it into the storm sewer gutter in front of his home.

Foam toe separators, typically used during manicures and pedicures.
Foam toe separators, typically used during manicures and pedicures, pulled from the lake.
Nikki Tundel for MPR News

After the next rainfall, he found the ball in the lake next to a storm sewer outfall, from which the trash that washes from urban streets into gutters makes it into the lake.

"Turns out that the area of drainage that empties into Lake Hiawatha is a huge area of urban streets that empties right into the lake without any mitigation whatsoever," he said. 

Collecting the trash has become Connaughty's preoccupation. Since 2015, he and more than 60 volunteers have removed 4,500 pounds of trash from the lake. 

And the trash has also made its way into Connaughty's art. A few years ago, he did an art exhibition of some of the objects he had found — about 10 percent of the 70 bags of trash he had collected at that point. 

In the style of an archaeologist, Connaughty wrote a report inventorying the objects and discussing their use as though they were from a bygone culture. 

The report is filled with musings on the purpose of some of the items collected, such as plastic toy soldiers and tanks: "There is evidence of conflict in numerous military representations. Armed with weaponry, miniaturized reproductions of the species engaged in armed conflict, with multiple representations of weapons and armored vehicles for military use."

Connaughty continues to organize clean-up efforts around the lake and hopes to change the way people think about water and our connection to it.

"It's easy to become misanthropic when you're picking up trash," he said. "But the one thing that's kept me going is that I'm confident we're going to come together as a community and resolve the problem."

This story is part of The Water Main from MPR News, helping Minnesotans understand the value of water in our lives. Check out @thewatermain on Twitter.