Kenny residents band together to protect Grass Lake

Group interested in improving lake’s water quality

KENNY – A set of mucky stroller tracks trace Sam and Maggie VanNorman’s path on an early evening stroll.

If they’d crane their necks up and to the left, they’d see rush-hour traffic zipping past on Highway 62.

At their level and to the right, though, is a portrait of calm, only interrupted by birdcalls and the splash and flutter of mallard ducks.

“We just love it. We’re out here whenever the weather is nice,” says Sam VanNorman, who moved to Kenny with his wife Maggie and their son Miles a few months ago.

Grass Lake is prided as a hidden jewel by those who live nearby this spot, tucked in a residential area just west of Lyndale Avenue and north of the Crosstown Commons.

About 20 of those neighbors got together earlier this month to talk about forming a lake association, which would work with the local watershed group on improving the lake.

It’s small and shallow enough to be classified by some as a wetland, not a lake. But it’s a big amenity for Kenny, bringing serenity and wildlife to this Southwest neighborhood.

“It’s hard to find the wildlife, but it’s here, everything from chipmunks to deer,” says Tim Martin, who hosted the lake meeting in his living room.

The list of species neighbors say they’ve spotted at Grass Lake goes on and on: ducks, geese, hawks, eagles, loons, muskrats, foxes and deer.

“A turtle,” adds Julie Envall, as her dog Louie rolls in a pile of melting snow above the lake. “That was a pretty exciting day for Louie.”

Envall, a forensic scientist who lives in the neighborhood, said every time they walk past the place where they found the turtle, her dog still has to investigate the scene.

But it’s really known for birds more than reptiles.

“What a magnet this lake is for birding,” Martin says.

Countless bird species stop at the lake en route to other destinations, and Martin is one of several people who hang bird feeders in their yards hoping to get a closer view.

As much as people take pride in Grass Lake, some also have concerns about its health and maintenance. Martin says a lake association could be a good vehicle to work on those issues.

Grass Lake is in Michael Fox’s backyard. He couldn’t attend the organizing meeting but said he has concerns about the lake’s health.

“It’s a very important natural habitat that everybody around here appreciates but doesn’t adequately protect,” Fox says.

He’s irked as the sight of lawn treatment signs and says he wishes people in the neighborhood were more informed about the hazards of lawn and garden chemicals.

“They don’t understand living close to a lake is a responsibility,” he says.

He was also bothered when a neighbor went onto city property next to the lake and cut down several small trees that were obstructing the view of the lake.

“No point in living on a lake if you can’t see it,” says Art Helde, an 86-year-old man who’s smoking a cigar on his driveway across the street from the flattened area.

Helde’s house was built in 1958, and he claims to have lived next to the lake longer than anyone.

“Every so often, I have to go chop down what grows up so I have a view of the lake,” Helde says.

The Kenny Neighborhood Association has a four-member committee that works on Grass Lake issues. In recent years, it’s paid for buckthorn removal and planting of native species around the lake.

The neighborhood hopes to take the lake committee to a new level by working with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and a group called Minnesota Waters. It’s part of a new citizen-empowerment strategy by the watershed.

“When you get a group of citizens who care about a resource, they can do a lot of nice things,” says Eric Evenson, administrator for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

At the March 13 meeting, Minnesota Waters organizer Leah Peterson explained how the committee could organize a lake association to set priorities, assist with managing the lake, and serve as a unified voice for Grass Lake.

“I think the energy and excitement is already there for this lake,” Peterson says.

Much of the conversation at the meeting centered around questions about water quality and how to improve it.

The lake was added to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s sampling program in 2002. The existing water quality data is too incomplete to be conclusive, says Sara Aplikowski, water resources coordinator for the Park Board. No testing was done at the lake in 2005. It typically takes at least five years’ worth of data to begin discerning flukes from trends, she says.

However, the most recent measurements would suggest the lake’s health is “pretty good,” especially for a small, urban waterbody, Aplikowski says. The board tests monthly samples for phosphorus and chlorophyll, the former a contributor to and the latter an indicator of algae growth.

Neither was found at alarming levels in 2004 or 2006, she says, and both were detected at much lower levels compared to 2002 or 2003. It’s possible the lake’s health is improving, or it could have been weather conditions on sampling days that skewed the numbers.

“With wetlands, there’s a lot more scatter,” Aplikowski says. “There are years you get really high phosphorus levels and you don’t really know why.”

A volunteer citizen sampling program run by Hennepin County Environmental Services gave Grass Lake a “moderate” score for diversity of invertebrates and vegetation in 2003 and 2004.

Shallower, smaller waterbodies are usually more at risk for algae problems than larger lakes, in which nutrients like phosphorus can settle on the bottom instead of mixing throughout the lake or pool, Aplikowski says.

In addition to water quality issues, the lake group might be able to address improvements adjacent to the lake, Martin says. He thinks there’s could be room for a picnic area and other family recreation amenities along the lake shore.

For information about getting involved with the Grass Lake committee, contact the Kenny Neighborhood Association through its website, www.kennyneighborhood.org.

Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or dhaugen@mnpubs.com.