Science for the common good: successful partnerships with Watershed Districts in the Twin Cities Metro Area

Kevin Theissen
University of St. Thomas (MN)
Kevin Theissen, University of St. Thomas (MN)
Author Profile
published Nov 28, 2017 9:12am

Minnesota's Twin Cities Metro Area (TCMA) lakes and rivers have been degraded by human induced nutrient loading and excess road salt applied during the long winter months. These problems require the cooperation and collaboration of scientists, concerned residents, and decision-makers. Lake and watershed managers seek information about conditions prior to significant European settlement in the area to provide context. They also need help identifying and resolving a variety of environmental problems.

Over the past eight years, I have developed strong partnerships between the Geology and Environmental Science programs at the University of St. Thomas (UST), two Watershed Districts in the TCMA, and a local aquatic research center. In Minnesota, Watershed Districts are defined as special purpose units of government created to work on water resource problems at the watershed level. I first partnered with the Prior Lake-Spring Lake Watershed District between 2009-2013, and more recently (2014-present) with the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District (CLFLWD). In both cases we also partnered with scientists from the Science Museum of Minnesota's St. Croix Watershed Research Station (SCWRS). In one ongoing effort, we have collected and analyzed sediment cores from five lakes in the two watersheds. We applied sedimentary geochemistry and micropaleontology to reconstruct lake histories that span the last few centuries and include the period of intensive European settlement in the region (ca. 1860 – 1880) which resulted in significant land-use changes and had correspondingly large impacts on lakes that show up clearly in the cores.

During Spring 2017, we extended the partnership to a course-based research experience. Students enrolled in an environmental science capstone course at UST worked in teams on several projects of interest to the CLFLWD. We designed the course to provide students a realistic client/consultant experience, giving them critical professional and technical skills that will support their future career growth. Projects included a groundwater management plan in a restored wetland near an interstate highway, an investigation of the relationship between lake bed sediment composition of a lake impaired by invasive aquatic plants, and an investigation of the sources of phosphorus loading on a residential lake.

These partnerships have resulted in new information that is useful to local watershed managers in their decision-making process. They have also proven to have a number of additional benefits, including:

  1. They encourage collaboration between among academic, research, and governmental institutions in the TCMA;
  2. Our students learn and practice new technical skills and engage in realistic client/consultant experiences that are useful to their professional development and valued by potential graduate school advisors and employers, and
  3. The partnerships foster community engagement that is strongly aligned with our programs' and university's missions.

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