New system aims to keep litter out of Lake Hiawatha

Sign along lake shore
A sign explains the new trash boom capture system at Lake Hiawatha.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

Updated: 4:24 p.m.

Clean water advocates celebrated the launch of a trash collection system at Lake Hiawatha Saturday, a win for community volunteers who say they've picked up more than 11,000 pounds of plastic trash in the last eight and a half years.

“When I first began cleaning, I was like, 'I'm gonna clean up this lake.' And I started picking up trash and I thought it would be a real simple thing of picking up trash. But no, it wasn't. So then it rained and then there's more trash. And so it's an ongoing problem,” said Sean Connaughty, chair of Friends of Lake Hiawatha.

Freshwater Society partnered with the Friends of Lake Hiawatha and the City of Minneapolis to install a floating barrier and underwater nets at the lake to capture trash from storm sewers, the source of much of the waste that ends up in the lake. The partnership got a boost from the Osprey Initiative, based in Alabama, and a grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation.

“Unfortunately, everything that lands on the city street and then the gutter, whether that's grass clippings, it's leaves, it's oil, it's trash, it ends up in our storm sewer system into the grates and into the pipes,” said Liz Stout, water resources manager for Minneapolis Public Works. “And that goes right into our lakes, creeks and the Mississippi River.”

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Stout said the debris will be categorized so the city can better understand where pollution is coming from and how to stop it.

“What we've found, we've done some litter mapping, like hotspot mapping, it comes from a lot of our transit corridors, bus stops, unfortunately, as well as commercial businesses,” Stout said. “So gas stations and you know, businesses that have takeout cups, really the trash kind of congregates in those type of areas.”

Man in straw hat stands by lake
Sean Connaughty, chair of Friends of Lake Hiawatha, stands on the lake shore. His group has collected thousands of pounds of trash from the lake.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

Connaughty said there's still a lot to do to clear chemical pollutants out of lakes, since the new boom only handles trash. He, along with Nicky Buck from Prairie Island Indian Community, led his art and ecology students at the University of Minnesota in a project to install native plantings at the site to help absorb some of the nutrients.

“I personally love this lake. I'm also a neighbor. So I'm invested in that way. But I care about this lake because it's our most biodiverse lake. I feel a close connection to this natural space and the wildlife that live here and I want to do what I can to protect it … and to address the problems that it's facing,” he said.