Minneapolis MuckStars keep tabs on wetlands

Volunteers monitor wetland health

LINDEN HILLS — On a steamy July afternoon, the clear waters of Lake Calhoun beckoned to an after-work crowd that by 6 p.m. filled its sandy beaches.

Within earshot of the bathers but across busy Lake Calhoun Parkway, a small group of volunteers waded into a murkier pool. It was familiar territory for the city’s Wetland Health Evaluation Program, or WHEP, team, proudly known as the MuckStars.

Their mission, to monitor the density and diversity of aquatic vegetation and invertebrates in Minneapolis wetlands, takes them to the swampy, marshy, out-the-way places most city dwellers rarely visit or even think of, but which are critical indicators of environmental health.

Team leader Ann Journey led her small group through tall grasses and into a manmade pond constructed a decade ago near the intersection of Zenith Avenue and West 38th Street to pre-filter storm water flowing into Lake Calhoun. They established a test plot with metal stakes and a tape measure, and as two volunteers waded into the shallow waters Journey issued a warning about leeches.

“We do have glossiphoniids in here” — she cautioned, using the freshwater suckers’ Latin name — “so, if they get on you, then just rub a little salt on them and they’ll pop right off.”

Braving bloodsuckers, bugs, pond muck, angry red-winged blackbirds and near-impenetrable clusters of cattails, the MuckStars glimpse the underbelly of the urban ecosystem.

As Journey put it: “We look at Minneapolis from the bottom up.”

They’re also a check on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s stewardship of the city’s natural resources, and a cheap one at that. Environmental Operations Manager Tim Brown said the city spends just over $4,000 a year on the Hennepin County program.

“It’s a bargain for the city, and the data is very usable,” Brown said.

Citizen science

The deal is a kind of two-for-one for Minneapolis, collecting valuable data cheaply while also teaching willing citizens about the importance of wetlands, Brown added.

Second-year MuckStar and Downtown resident Mark Riley said he signed up with WHEP “because I wanted to know: Why would we care about wetlands?”

Riley came to understand their roles as essential wildlife habitat and natural filters. They both absorb excess nutrients from storm water runoff and slow its flow into waterways, limiting flooding.

“We go by … wetlands all the time and we just look at them and say, ‘Yuck!’” he said. “We don’t realize what kind of role they play in the environment, how important they are.”

Catherine Grant of Lynnhurst joined the MuckStars this spring to keep up her certification as a Hennepin County master gardener. Grant said the wild wetland environment at first seemed “chaotic,” but she was learning to decode the busy biome.

“I’m also a garden designer, so I’m sort of a plant person, but [I work with] cultivated plants and these are wild plants, so it’s more fun,” she said. “It’s more of a challenge.”

Hennepin County has seven WHEP teams, each sponsored by local municipality, watershed commission or, in the case of Minneapolis, the Park Board. Last year, the combined contribution of the volunteers totaled more than 1,600 hours of fieldwork.

Journey said like the Christmas Bird Count, an annual census conducted by thousands volunteer birders in the U.S. and Canada, WHEP was an example of “citizen science.” She acknowledged “a certain amount of sneering” in the scientific community at data collected by non-professionals, but said the WHEP data stand up to scrutiny.

Hennepin County Environmentalist Mary Karius, the county WHEP coordinator, said each team double-checked another’s results at one site every year. Karius’ staff also randomly selects results from three of the seven teams to review annually, and finds they are “consistently reliable,” she said.

“The statistics are really good, the results are always well within the margin of error,” she said.

An environmental barometer

With solid data to rely on, local WHEP sponsors can use the monitored wetlands as a “barometer of environmental health” for entire watershed systems, Karius said.

“Streams are important, too, but wetlands are really delicate ecosystems and if we know the status of particular wetlands, we can infer what’s going on around them,” she explained. “And in urban areas, it’s development.”

Development is associated with the flow of excess nutrients, silt and pollutants into waterways, which contribute to a variety of problems, from rampant algae growth to habitat loss.

Brown said a wetland in Roberts Bird Sanctuary near Lake Harriet was a reference site for Minneapolis, a “high-quality wetland” to which all others in the city are compared. WHEP teams have checked the site every year since 2003.

Over the long run, the MuckStar citizen scientists will help Park Board staff determine whether their efforts to protect and improve the city’s wetlands and waterways are working or not.

Said Journey: “The wetlands tell us very fast how much stress they’re under.”

To register as a volunteer for the Hennepin County Wetland Health Evaluation Program go to mnwhep.org, or contact Mary Karius at 596-9129 or [email protected]