STILLWATER, Minn. — Ivy Kemnetz and Connor Geary may be the best friends that Brown’s Creek ever had.

Every week, they carry instruments to the creek in Stillwater. Every week, they measure water clarity and flow. Every week, they take its temperature, like parents doting over a sick child.

They are part of a battalion of about 1,500 volunteers — and dozens of robots — fanning out across the state to check water quality this spring. Together, they are like Mother Nature’s eyes and ears, watching for signs of trouble.

“It’s so cool that Minnesota engages its citizens this way,” said Kemnetz, as she poured creek water into a testing tube. “This is a community that cares about the environment.”

Monitoring lakes and streams

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The state’s water-watching volunteers are organized by nonprofit groups like Minnesota Trout Unlimited, and several government programs.

They are the only way that officials can monitor the state’s 14,000 lakes and 69,000 miles of streams.

“Our staff can only do so much,” said Mary Ann Connor, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The PCA runs the 1,000-volunteer Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, and the 400-volunteer Citizen Stream Monitoring Program.

The 2,000 lakes that the PCA and its volunteers monitor show improvements in water quality. In 2017, 38% of the lakes were improved, and 19% declined. The quality of streams, however, is holding steady. Of the 700 streams monitored, 32% showed improvement and 34% showed degradation.

The PCA recently extended its reach into the most remote lakes in the state — in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Connor said the agency has started giving kits to canoeists entering the BWCA at Ely to take water samples.

The Metropolitan Council’s program in the metro area is the Citizen-Assisted Monitoring Program.

Brian Johnson, environmental specialist for the Met Council, said the program’s 115 volunteers now monitor 180 lakes.

Another water-watching effort is managed by the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. The program, supported by 24 units of government, has about 10 volunteers who monitor 135 lakes and streams.

Robots helping out, too

Program director Angie Hong also deploys 44 robots.

The machines squat in the water, three-foot-tall cylinders that jump to life when the water levels rise by one inch.

That is a signal that a weather event has occurred, like a rainfall or sudden snowmelt, washing pollution and erosion into the water. The robots then take samples at intervals between 30 seconds and 10 minutes, depending on their settings.

The robots are one reason why Brown’s Creek is getting cleaner. The other reason is the community-wide embrace of the cleanup effort.

“We are blessed with the passionate commitment of residents,” said Karen Kill, administrator of the Brown’s Creek Watershed District.

Kill listed recent projects to control runoff into the creek, including:

  • A new buffer zone along 500 feet of river bank at the Oak Glen Golf Course in Stillwater.
  • In Grant, the purchase of 1,300 feet of creek-front property.
  • Rain garden installations at the Stillwater Country Club.
  • A runoff-diversion project at Countryside Auto Repair in Stillwater.
  • A project channeling the runoff from 25 acres of roadway into three underground chambers, allowing the sediment to settle out.

‘All the way to the bottom’

Also helping are two plucky nature-lovers.

On April 25, Geary and Kemnetz hiked from her parents’ house down to the creek, lugging instruments.

She poured the creek water into a four-foot tube. He then lowered a disc into the tube, to see how far down it would go before he couldn’t see it.

Today’s water clarity? Excellent.

“I can see all the way to the bottom,” said Geary. They noted the flow of the stream, the depth and the temperature.

What they could not measure was the community’s love for the creek. Because pollution can wash from any adjoining property, landowners along the length of the creek must embrace the goal of keeping the creek clean.

That makes the creek itself a barometer of community support.

The cooperation is increasing, the water is getting cleaner and sensitive species including trout are slowly proliferating.

“Being a trout stream is very rare, and the great news is that we are seeing more natural reproduction of trout,” said the watershed district’s Kill.

“For Brown’s Creek, it is collaboration that is getting things done.”

How to help

Minnesota’s water-monitoring programs need volunteers: