Urban design trends protect water quality

Jay Michels says that when he drives through a city, he always ponders, "Why did it start here?" The foundation of a city often revolves around its area's natural resources - lakes, forests and wildlife. Factors like increasing population and urb...

Jay Michels says that when he drives through a city, he always ponders, "Why did it start here?"

The foundation of a city often revolves around its area's natural resources - lakes, forests and wildlife.

Factors like increasing population and urban development may unintentionally harm those resources. That's why Michels is one of many here to help.

Michels is a coordinator for Northland NEMO (Nonpoint source pollution Education for Municipal Officials) and gave a presentation to the Menahga City Council and public Tuesday night.

Project NEMO is a 26-state nationally recognized educational program addressing the relationship between land use and natural resource protection. The initiative is based on three tiers: planning, zoning and enforcement; site design and low-impact development; and best management practices and restoration.


Northland NEMO is a collaboration of organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"Our goal as a program is to get you as decision-makers to make the right decisions," Michels said. "We want officials to make decisions based on facts, not emotions."

Michels' presentation, "Linking Land Use to Water Quality," combines statistics, success stories and pollution solutions into a persuasive and though-provoking package about water quality and the impact humans have on it.

People are flocking to the north woods, Michels said, and plans need to be in place for preservation of water quality and reversing damage already done.

"We are talking huge growth - this is lake country," said Michels. "How do we do this and protect the good life in Minnesota? A lot of times, we aren't prepared for this."

"What you hear may scare you because you've never heard it before, "he said at the beginning of his presentation, "but I'm going to show you what you can do."

The pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act, established in the 1970s, set regulations for point source pollution (power and sewage plants, dumping of contaminants directly into water, contaminant spills, etc.) and recognized the need to address nonpoint source pollution.


Nonpoint pollution is the No. 1 water quality problem in the United States, said Michels. It is caused by debris, thermal stress, pathogens (disease-causing bacteria caused by fecal matter), nutrients such as phosphorus, toxic contaminants and sediment runoff.

Sources of nonpoint pollution are numerous, including fertilizers, agricultural fields, sediment runoff, cars, illegal dumping and street litter.

"We are losing wetlands so fast it's almost unbelievable," Michels said.

Runoff is one reason phosphorus fertilizers are banned in Minnesota - the nutrient-rich water travels down the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast, causing what is called a hypoxic zone along Texas and Lousiana. The water has hypoxia - low oxygen. Aquatic life cannot be found there.

"Nothing lives because of what I do in my backyard," he said.

"Runoff is a quantity issue," explained Michels, "causing flooding, erosion and habitat loss."

Sediment - eroded soil or sand that suffocates aquatic life - is a major issue in Minnesota, where the soil is sandy, said Michels.

"I was up in Hubbard County and almost fell over when they didn't have a plan for grading roads. That's like driving to Florida without a map," he said.


Clean Water Act regulations have produced a study of Minnesota's lakes; 10 percent have been surveyed so far. Forty percent have failed to meet water quality standards. Fifty percent of septic systems are not in compliance with regulations.

Michels also discussed impervious surfaces - cement, asphalt, compacted soil and anything that does not allow water to percolate into the soil.

In natural areas, 10 percent of water becomes runoff; 50 percent seeps into the ground, compared to urban development areas, where 50 percent of water becomes runoff and 20 percent percolates.

This difference in the water cycle can be attributed to intensive land uses.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently supporting in the alternative shoreland management rules a reduction in allowable maximum impervious surface coverage from 25 percent to 15 percent in most areas.

It is inevitable humans will inadvertently impinge on water quality. Michels claims this is entirely preventable.

The solution

Alternatives to traditional stormwater methods are easier than imagined and within reach, said Michels.


"Why do we need to do it?" Michels asked the audience. "We've got tools we have never dreamed of. We've got lots of room for improvement."

"Ask the right questions," he advised. "Where is your stormwater going to go?"

To date, 214 Minnesota cities are currently putting together a stormwater management plan. Menahga will eventually have to as well, said Michels.

Convential stormwater solutions, like ponding, were established as a result of the National Urban Runoff Program of the 1980s.

"Ponding is still a tool, but not our only tool," Michels said.

Buzz words like conservation design, rain garden and porous asphalt may soon be making their way into cities' vocabularies.

Alternatives like rain gardens "might be the ticket" for places like Highway 87 by Menahga, said Michels.

Rain gardens are bioretention cells - essentially normal-looking gardens located in ditches, yards and parking lots to trap runoff.


Michels sited several communities' achievements with alternative stormwater management.

"Little Falls is really one of your success stories," he said.

The plans for an industrial park near Highways 371 and 10 called for traditional curb, gutter, pipes and ponds. The engineer estimated the project at $350,000.

Plan B: rain gardens, infiltration pond, bioretention swale, no curb and gutter, minimize pavement width - at $200,000 less than the engineer's estimate.

"It can dramatically reduce the cost of a project because it's very labor intensive," Michels explained. Community members can "own" the project by volunteering labor.

An innovative project in Hartford, CT, produced a popular amenity to a parking lot.

"Zoning often requires almost twice as many stalls actually used in peak numbers," said Michels. "We build them for the day after Thanksgiving."

One lot consisted of cellular confinement underneath a grass blanket for outdoor events and overflow parking. Upkeep is not a problem in winter, and some customers actually prefer parking on the grass, said Michels.


Another novel approach to paving parking lots is with a porous asphalt, which sucks in water instead of producing runoff.

"It looks like a Rice Krispies bar," said Michels. The asphalt can also be used for driveways and sidewalks.

Ironically, Michels worked for 14 years in the asphalt business.

"Now I'm talking about impervious surface," he laughed.

Michels referenced several other projects he has worked on in the state, and methods such as buffer zones, which use native, deep-rooted plants to soak up runoff and prevent erosion.

Another concept causing excitement lately is conservation design in development, he said.

"Rather than go at it with the cookie cutter approach, we look at the natural resources. This is 180 degrees from the way we usually do it."

The idea, which the DNR whole-heartedly supports, is "a big deal right now," said Michels.

Residential housing is "clustered," using a common open space. Natural resources are identified first and then worked around. Michels said Stillwater was the first city is the state to use a common septic system.

Michels said Menahga has also taken the proper steps to ensure Spirit Lake's water quality if maintained.

The lake is one of few large lakes in the area not on the Impaired Waters List.

"It's a whole lot easier to keep that clean. That's a gem you've got down there," Michels said.

A sand filtration system has reduced sediment runoff into the lake.

Menahga City Council member Kim Rasmussen asked how funding could be obtained to begin projects like these.

"It takes a sales job," Michels said matter-of-factly. "It takes an enthusiasm within the town. You really need an advocate."

Kari Tomperi of the Wadena County Soil and Water Conservation District, who brought in Michels to make a presentation, said the Spirit Lake Association may be eligible for a $5,000 grant.

"There's a lot of opportunities," she encouraged.

"People need to visually see something and know it works," Rasmussen said.

"Road trip!" joked Tomperi.

Tomperi said a DNR grant could also be available if several lakeshore owners go together on a "package deal."

Michels said he would "put in a good word" for Menahga with the Board of Water and Soil Resources and other places.

"We really need a benchmark up here," he said.

For more information about Northland NEMO, visit or call Julie Westerlund at Northland NEMO's Minnehaha Creek Watershed District at 952-471-0590, Ext. 209.

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