By Jim Almendinger, Director, St. Croix Watershed Research Station

Clean water. Everything depends on it — our health, the environment’s health, and not least of all, our opportunities for recreational boating. Nobody wants to spend a day afloat on pea-green water that
smells of dead fish. What causes these problems, and how do we fix them? Who figures this stuff out?

We do. The St. Croix Watershed Research Station is a small team of scientists dedicated to making our rivers and lakes cleaner through critical science and common-sense solutions. We’re part of the Science Division at the well-loved, private non-profit Science Museum of Minnesota, which has inspired visitors with life-long learning opportunities for over a century. But only a select few (now including you!) realize that the Museum also undertakes research to inform policy and improve lives. For 30 years, our behind-the-scenes science has helped guide sound management of our land and water resources.

The SCWRS crew hard at work in their jon boat, lowering the sediment sampler.

We’ve worked around the world, from Alaska to Mongolia, but mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and especially in our home, the St. Croix Basin.

We’re time-travelers who venture into the distant past to see how clean our rivers and lakes were before we changed forests and prairies into cities and fields. In other words, we study mud. Well, we study all aspects of land-water interactions, but one of our specialties is taking sediment cores from lakes.

If you know what to look for, the annual layers of mud can tell the history of the lake and its surroundings. The trick is to link what we find in the core with what has happened to our land, air, and water. Eroded soil, pesticides, heavy metals, fertilizers — they all end up running into our waterways. Our lakes stand sentinel to the abuses they receive, and their sediments provide a history of pollution that would otherwise be unknown.

One of our pivotal works was the interpretation of sediment cores from Lake Pepin, which captures flow from the entire upper Mississippi River basin (about half of Minnesota). Turns out Lake Pepin is filling in 10-times faster than natural with eroded soil. We didn’t know what was natural for Lake Pepin until we looked far enough back in time (in the sediment cores). We did a similar project for Lake St. Croix. It’s filling in at only threetimes its natural rate — better but not great. Our research helped set in motion government actions to clean up these water bodies toward realistic goals, now that we know what “natural” means for these lakes. We had to borrow boats for these projects, because our little jon boat was just too small.

Many lakes in agricultural and urban settings are now brown with silt and green with algae – too much algae. And when the algae gets thick, the water becomes not only disgusting but potentially toxic. We’re monitoring an array of lakes across Minnesota to identify the physical and chemical triggers for such toxic blooms. Surprisingly, we’ve found noxious algal growth in some of our wilderness lakes up north, where the water ought to be cleaner. Blooms are common in Lake of the Woods, and have been increasingly reported in wilderness areas like Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters, and even pristine Isle Royale National Park. What’s going on?

We’re on track to figure this out. We’ve worked for a decade on Lake of the Woods but have been hindered by limited access to a proper boat. Our jon boat is too small for work on big water, and so it limits the science we can do. To expand our reach and tackle problems in larger lakes, we’re going to need a bigger boat. We’re looking for plenty of open workspace, able to carry 500+ lbs of sediment and water-sampling equipment and 3 or 4 crew. We’ve targeted a 20-24 ft boat with sea keeping capability suitable for handling inshore work on bodies as large as the Great Lakes, and a turn of speed enabling our team to hurry home if the weather threatens.

Example of hard-working vessel that would fill our needs.

Do you know of someone who might be interested in donating a boat to our cause? Can you help us find an affordable boat? Would you consider donating to our boat fund? Because we’re a 501(c)3 non-profit, all donations (cash or equipment) are fully tax deductible. If you can help out, even if it’s just advice, let us know – we’re all ears. For further information, contact Jim Almendinger, Director, St. Croix Watershed Research Station, at almendinger@smm.org or 651-433-5953 ext. 11. Check out the Research Station’s activities at www.smm.org/scwrs. We do many environmental analyses – mud is only the most glamorous of them. Please consider joining our Friends of the Research Station program.