Transcript: Our Waters video lesson
(Video on YouTube; opens in a new window)
Hi, my name is Kate and I work for Friends of the Mississippi River.
FMR is an environmental nonprofit based in downtown St. Paul. We protect the health and vitality of our great Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metro area.
This portion of the river is particularly important as it is also a national park. Our national park is the river as it flows from Dayton, Minnesota in the northwest to Hastings in the southeast.
FMR has four programs to help protect the river. We are at the capitol promoting laws and rules that will protect our Minnesota waters.
We work with local communities organizing around local development and river-related issues.
We work with landowners to help restore their property to native habitat.
And we organize volunteer and educational events for all ages.
In this presentation, we're talking about watersheds: what they are and how do humans impact both the land and our water’s health.
The first thing I want to do is make sure that we're all on the same page with the terms you will hear in this presentation.
“Permeable” is something like a sponge that can absorb water. It could also be like soil in a garden.
“Impermeable” is not able to absorb water. So think about our roofs, driveways, sidewalks, roads and parking lots. None of those surfaces let water soak in.
“Infiltration” is the process of water soaking in. This is a photo of a rain garden where the water can pool and slowly soak into the ground.
On the other hand “runoff” happens on surfaces where the water cannot soak in and has to move across, or run off, those surfaces.
And the main word for the day: “watersheds.”
What is a watershed? If you are someone who likes definitions, then a watershed is an area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place.
I can’t really picture what that means, so I like to think of a watershed as a bathtub. If we turn the shower on, then all the water that lands in the bathtub, goes to one place: down the drain.
In the Twin Cities the place where all the water goes is the Mississippi River. We can pretend that inside the bathtub there are towns, farms, forests, cities and fields, and the sides of the bathtub represent the border of our watershed. In the real world those borders are designated by hills and mountains in the landscape. They are not drawn by humans like the borders of states.
Watersheds can be very large or small. The Mississippi River watershed drains about 50% of the continental United States and stretches from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east.
Minnesota is what we call at the top of the watershed, because if you've ever been to Lake Itasca, then you know the Mississippi River is shallow there and you can walk across it. There is not a lot of water that has collected in the river yet.
By the time it's made its way down to Louisiana, the river is massive, as water has drained into the Mississippi River from across the central portion of our country, including many rivers such as the Minnesota, Ohio and Missouri.
To explore this idea a bit more, we're going to draw our own made-up watershed. In order to do this, you are going to need a piece of paper and something to write with.
It doesn’t matter which way your paper is oriented. It can be the long way, or it can be the wide way.
But the first thing you are going to want to do is draw that main river in your watershed. As I mentioned, in the Twin Cities, this is the Mississippi River, but you can name yours whatever you would like.
Then we're going to draw some tributaries, or the smaller rivers and creeks that join your main river. In Minnesota these are big rivers like the Minnesota River or the St. Croix, but can also be small streams or creeks such as Minnehaha Creek or Battle Creek. You choose what you would like your streams and rivers to look like.
Next we're going to draw the place where our main river goes. For the Mississippi River that's the Gulf of Mexico, but for your river it could be an ocean, a gulf or a bay.
At the other end of the watershed, we're going to have to draw the start to our rivers. Some rivers start in lakes, so you can draw some lakes. Some rivers start from smaller streams or creeks, so you could draw those as well. You get to choose.
Then I want you to put a dot on either side of your main river where it joins your ocean or bay, as well in the center of all the lakes at the top of your watershed and at the ends of your small creeks and streams.
Then we're just going to play connect the dots.
The outline you've made is the border of your watershed. Go ahead and name your watershed, your rivers, your creeks. I was thinking about warm weather when I drew mine, so I went with a spring theme. You can name yours after your favorite dessert or sport — whatever you would like.
Go ahead and draw some cities, people, animals or farms in your watershed, but remember the borders of a watershed are dictated by where the hills are, so make sure you draw the high points of hills or mountains along your border.
Now, a lot of our water, particularly in the metro area, falls on those impervious surfaces and runs off into the local waterway.
Unfortunately, as it moves across those impervious surfaces, it picks up a lot of pollution. Runoff can contain all sorts of different pollutants, but some of the main ones are...
Trash: When trash gets into waters, our small mammals, birds and fish can’t tell the difference between trash and food, so they eat both, resulting in many of them starving to death with a stomach full of trash because they can’t digest it.
Leaves and grass clippings are natural, so a lot of people don’t think they are a big deal getting into our water. But once they start to decompose, they are food for the water plants.
If you've ever been to your favorite swimming place and found it covered with green slime and algae, this could be because there are too many leaves and too much grass clippings getting into the water.
Dirt: another one that most people don’t think of as a problem, but dirt getting into our water from our yards or construction sites doesn't just fall to the bottom of the river. Remember, the river is flowing and keeps all of that dirt in the water. The dirt makes the color of the water darker, which absorbs more heat from the sun, which warms up the water. We didn’t know this for a really long time, but the more dirt we have in the water, the warmer the water is, and our plants and our fish like cold water.
Cigarette butts: Thousands of cigarette butts come out of a metro area every day. Think of all the times you have seen one thrown out of a car or dropped on the sidewalk. Those get into the river. The paper does disintegrate, but then there's all of that stuff that's in a cigarette that's in the water now. Not only that, but the filter is what lasts the longest. There is a lot of research out there, but we don’t really know if the filter lasts 3, 5 years, 20 years or just breaks into small pieces but never really goes away. Our Minnesota wildlife eat these just like the trash.
Oil and gas leaking from our cars is another problem. If you've ever seen a rainbow on the street, it's actually oil that has leaked out of a car. Oil doesn’t mix with water, so it forms a layer on the top which fish have to go through if they want to catch a bug, or birds go through to catch a fish. Being covered with oil is dangerous for our wildlife.
Road salt: Road salt is tied with cigarette butts as the worst pollutant from a metro area. We use road salt to keep our roads safe in the winter. I am all for safe roads. The problem is that we use too much road salt to do the job that a small amount would do. Once salt is in our waters, we can’t get it back out. We are far from the ocean in Minnesota, so all of our water should be fresh water, which is what our plants and animals like. Salty water also means that we need to replace our bridges more often, as it shortens the lifespan of concrete, and this can be very expensive.
And pet waste: Think of all the people in the Twin Cities who have dogs. If some of them don’t pick up after their pets and it rains, then that washes into our waters. Both dogs and geese carry bacteria in their digestive tracts that can make humans very sick. If you have seen beaches closed due to high bacteria counts, then it is likely people haven’t been picking up after their pets or there are a lot of geese around.
I keep saying that pollutants get into our water in runoff, but how does that runoff get into our lakes, rivers and streams? After the water has moved across those impervious surfaces collecting pollution, it usually runs down a storm drain. These drains are at the corner of our intersections and the sides of our parking lots. Anything that goes down a drain is carried by the water into bigger and bigger pipes under the streets, until…
…they dump into the Mississippi River. There is no way to clean the water once it goes down the drain and before it gets into the river.
There are a few places where they had to dig up the road — such as along University Avenue, where the green line went in — where the storm drains were changed, and actually they now water the trees along the side of the street. So we can change it, but it takes a big construction project and is very expensive.
Another way is for everyone to keep our water clean before it goes down the storm drain. Please check out our FMR Facebook page or www.fmr.org to find ways you can help, as we need everyone to pitch in to keep our waters clean.
Now, I do have a challenge question for you.
People have noticed that the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul has flooded more and more often. Here is a picture of Harriet Island in 2019 with the water all the way into the park.
What reasons can you think of that we might be getting more floods? Think about what we've talked about in this presentation and what you know about the changes in our weather. Please let us know your ideas on our FMR Facebook page or send us an email using the contact information on our website.
Thank you and have a good day!