Beneath the Surface: Many Hands = Clean Water

by Sage Passi

Photo Credit: Clean Water Minnesota

You have to admit, it was a hard winter. Not for the usual reasons. Not in these parts perhaps. The storms around us didn’t overwhelm us. The snow didn’t pile up interminably. In the midst of it there were some temptingly warm and sunny, April-esque days. Were these the antidote for our winter blues? There were days when we were sure spring had arrived for good. Then a cold snap would besiege us and it was back to hunkering down, turning on the space heater, pulling out books like Year Round Indoor Salad Gardening and burrowing under the covers.

As we inch our way into spring with its zigzags between cold and warm spells, the antidote for me has been thinking about the cool people who emerge and I get to know in the midst of my work. It’s like snorkeling and stirring up the layers of a lake and finding all these colorful stones and fish and a myriad of mysteries beneath the surface. They are so many individuals going about their missions, making change while many others are waiting to be discovered. Here are a few of their stories that rose to the top of the surface recently! 

A Gardener Extraordinaire

Photo Credit: Clean Water Minnesota

May Lee is a Ramsey County Master Gardener who calls me in the early part of each year. I know I will hear from her then, because she is very busy the rest of the year. Getting a call from her at 7:00 in the morning is not surprising. Her voice is familiar. We are both up early and she is anxious to sign up for seed planting and transplanting shifts at schools.

May signs up for practically every seed-planting and transplanting shift. It’s just what we need. Her approach with kids, like many Master Gardeners, is helpful, gentle and encouraging. 


May Lee helps Farnsworth third graders transplant seedlings in late March.

Photo Credit: Sage Passi

I met May Lee for the first time many years ago on a rain garden project in the Battle Creek neighborhood. When we planted seeds together in late February this year, we had some time to chat. She told me about the documentary that TPT (Twin Cities PBS) had just produced about her life.

Photo Credit: Clean Water Minnesota

May Lee, as a young woman, left Laos in the early 1980’s in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam. She told me she did not know how to read at the time she came to this country. Eventually she went to school. Now May Lee and her daughter, Mhonpaa run the first organically-certified Hmong garden near Stillwater. May Lee also mentors others who are interested in learning about organic approaches to farming. Here’s a video created by SPNN (St. Paul Neighborhood Network) with May Lee at the farm where she and her daughter raise organic vegetables for sale at farmer’s markets and for their own family’s use. 

I recently arranged an interview with May Lee with writer Maddy Wegner at one of our last planting sessions for the season at Farnsworth. This story is featured on the Clean Water Minnesota website created by Watershed Partners. You can read the story here.

Someday I’d like to go visit her farm and have May Lee mentor me! Thank you for volunteering with us each year, May Lee!

To read more about May’s life story and work as a mentor click here.


Helping Hands Assist with the Birth of Spring

A team of volunteers and students assemble at Menomini Park to study Battle Creek Lake’s water quality.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

On the cusp between February and March, I lose my voice. It’s my second cold within two months, but I have two back-to-back field days at two different lakes so there’s no hiding under the covers for me. The balmy weather of the last day of February has shifted and on March first I wake up to a crusty layer lingering on the ground from a surprise overnight snowfall. What a change from the day before when we were out on the dock at Beaver Lake with four classes in the balmy pre-spring air.

The purpose for this second trip is to help fourth grade students from another school, Woodbury Elementary, understand the relationship between their upcoming rain garden project on their schoolground and its positive impact downstream at Battle Creek Lake where the storm run-off from their school parking lot, road and rooftop drains. They alternate their time on the boardwalk at Menomini Park, a short distance from their school, by listening to Watershed staff Dave Vlasin and Eric Korte talk about their water quality monitoring equipment, then try their own hand testing the water back on shore with simpler measurement tools.

Woodbury students in Nicky Thompson’s fourth grade class on the boardwalk at Battle Creek Lake.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson
The storm has delayed the bus’s arrival, but after several cell phone calls from teachers, the first two classes arrive. I need to provide instructions, but for the whole morning I must resort to other people talking for me. I’m glad I’ve recruited a team of veteran ace leaders. There’s a lot of explaining to do! One of the new people who steps up to the plate is an energetic Washington County Master Gardener, named Bobbie Sweeney, who Master Water Steward and Master Gardener Anna Barker recruited to support our rain garden project. This is my first opportunity to see her in action.
Washington County Master Gardener Bobbie Sweeney
assists another school with winter seed sowing.
Photo Credit: Anna Barker


From the moment I meet Bobbie, I can tell she is going to be great! She jumps into the pool, so to speak, like she’s been swimming there for years. I appreciate her exuberance and positive energy on this brisk and challenging morning.

She, along with the rest of our hearty local team of water educators, Angie Hong, Jenn Radtke, Stephanie Wang, Tracy Leavenworth and Anna Barker, divide up the morning classes to help students perform the tests, as I point, nod and whisper instructions. I just know they will all be a godsend when we are planting our large-scale rain garden project in the fall!



Students perform a dissolved oxygen test.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

After scooping and hauling buckets of icy water from the lake, Bobbie gathers the five students on her team, and they plunge their pH/temperature meter into a bucket, record their results, then snap dissolved oxygen ampules to mingle lake water with the reagent, compare them with a color chart and record those readings as well. There’s a chilly crisp wind coming off the lake that wasn’t there yesterday at Beaver Lake when we did our water quality monitoring with fourth graders during those balmy, mischievous spring-like conditions. Nevertheless, the students are real troopers and conduct all the tests!

A team of Woodbury fourth graders collect data about Battle Creek Lake.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

The last test is the hardest. Several of our tubes on our new secchi tubes freeze where the water is supposed to be released and we can’t get a true reading. Nevertheless, the kids are empowered, having both braved the conditions and gathered revealing details about their neighborhood lake. 

When the buses leave, Stephanie Wang, one of our Master Water Stewards who is helping for the day, invites me to her house during the lunch break before the third class arrives at the lake. I gladly take her up on this offer. I definitely need to get inside somewhere and warm up!

I drive over to her house near Tamarack Nature Preserve, and the first thing I do after I remove a few layers of outerwear is ask her if I can lay out the contents of my wallet. When I was carrying water from the lake and setting the pail down, my wallet had slipped into the icy water. I retrieved it quickly and it didn’t seem too wet, but I was worried because my flash drives were inside it!

Stephanie does me one better and offers to spread the contents (not the credit cards or the flash drives!) on a baking pan and slides them into the oven. A short while later my dollar bills come out looking crisp and new. I can’t say the same for my Office Max receipt for clipboards for the trip, but at least I can still see the dollar amount and the date!

Stephanie proceeds to serve me tea and then makes me a hot bowl of oatmeal, which is just the ticket for a chilled lake monitor! We spend the next hour chatting about her ideas for engaging her neighborhood in protecting the Watershed District’s crown jewel wetland, Tamarack Swamp, that is located practically out her back door, and other ideas she has to help her community. Stephanie is a Master Water Steward who completed her capstone rain garden project this past summer with her partner, Anna Barker. They helped a homeowner, Mitzi Knutzen, build a rain garden above Battle Creek just up the street from Menomini Park in her back yard to help prevent erosion that otherwise could impact Battle Creek Lake downstream.

I feel nurtured, supported and rejuvenated with all of Stephanie’s hospitality and the help of our morning team.


Anna Barker explains the problem with salt in lakes.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

We return to the lake for round two. By afternoon most of the snow has melted and the sun is shining. Anna Barker primes the class about the impacts of chlorides on this water body. She explain that it just takes one teaspoon of salt to pollute five gallons of water.

Then we walk the students over to the channel that leaves the lake. This is the birthplace of Battle Creek. The students cross the road to see how it snakes through a valley and heads downstream.


Battle Creek leaves the lake, travels under a culvert and heads west toward the Mississippi River.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

In the afternoon our secchi tubes work and we are cheered and warmed up by the sun. We feel less rushed and are able to conduct all of our tests.

Anna Barker helps an afternoon team conduct their water quality tests.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson


With more time for our second round, we are able to do Part 2 of our watershed journey. After monitoring at the lake, the class follows the creek in their bus and travels to McKnight Basins to see how the creek enters Battle Creek Park. The excitement builds as we head on the path to watch the fast moving water hit the walls of the weirs as it slow down and gets directed into several stormwater basins to settle out its sediment and pollutant loads before heading downstream to the Mississippi River. 


Nicky Thompson’s class assembles to learn about the weir system in Battle Creek Park.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

One of the other champions of the day, Nicky Thompson, the fourth grade teacher whose class is on this round of our field trip, comes through with flying colors. Her enthusiasm is palatable and it spreads to her students. I met her this fall for the first time at the Children’s Water Festival at the State Fairgrounds. She’s been taking her classes there for five or six years. Each year I receive a packet full of thank you letters from her students thanking the Watershed for funding their buses.

The students are watching the water flow over the first weir in the system.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson

After seeing one of the weirs, Nicky sends the kids who are cold back to the bus to warm up and the rest of us run with enthusiasm to get a view of the turbulent water of the creek as it plummets into the second weir.

Thanks to Nicky, I received some great photos of this event from her a few days later.

Woodbury students marvel at the quantity of water moving through the second weir.

Photo credit: Nicky Thompson


As the day comes to an end, and the bus returns to school, I feel appreciative of everyone’s contributions. It definitely takes a village to understand and protect our water and to birth spring!