How a City Rallied Together in the Name of Clean Water

With visible sediment plumes in their drinking water source, a riverfront city gets proactive about stormwater pollution. First, they’d need buy-in from the community.

Lake photo

‘We knew we had to take action’

The picturesque City of St. Cloud, Minnesota, (population 68,000) is situated along the banks of the Mississippi River. More than a beautiful body of water, the river is also the City’s sole drinking water source. So, when murky brown sediment plumes were spotted in the river after heavy rainfalls, the City took notice — and action.

“We knew we had to take action,” said Lisa Vollbrecht, assistant director of public utilities with the City of St. Cloud. “We needed to figure out the most environmentally responsible, and cost-conscious, way to address it.”

The source of the sediment was traced to a 367-acre sub-watershed in the northeastern part of the City. The area, which consists of highly impervious industrial land use, was developed before water quality treatment standards were commonplace. Though Vollbrecht and the rest of the City have been making water quality a priority over the past decade, they knew they had to go further in this area. 

Plumes of dark brown sediment, visible here along the shoreline, were the catalyst for a series of stormwater projects in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Developing a multifaceted approach

The first step? Conduct an assessment. Working closely with the City to determine the primary sources of pollution, SEH developed a thorough course of action to address stormwater management in the area and treat runoff before it entered the Mississippi River.

The multifaceted plan included in-the-ground stormwater treatment projects such as a regional treatment system, raingardens, a GIS-based street sweeping program, sump catch basins and more.

“The City did more than check a box for stormwater quality, the approach was comprehensive,” said April Ryan, PE, who served as the SEH project manager.

These projects treat over 21.6 million gallons of stormwater annually and prevent more than 24,400 pounds of sediment and 34.2 pounds of phosphorous from entering the Mississippi River annually.

Educating the community and leading by example

Anyone who’s worked on stormwater projects knows reducing pollutant loads takes more than the willpower of a municipality. It takes the support and cooperation of the community.

“Every water project is a community project,” said Vollbrecht. “Our success relied on changing the mindset of community and our partners — the business owners.”

Beyond in-the-ground projects, the comprehensive stormwater treatment plan included robust public education and ordinance enforcement strategies — bus tours, flyers and one-on-one meetings with large industrial properties.

While a big part of changing the mindset was through education and communication, the project team knew that leading by example, and implementing projects on City-owned properties first, could improve engagement from the community.

It worked.

This project is another example of the great accomplishments that can be made when agencies and people from the community work together. This project not only benefits St. Cloud-area water quality, but every community downstream.
Wade Bastion, Supervisor, Benton County Soil and Water Conservation District

Project Timeline

The first project phase, which began in 2012, was completed a mere year after getting funding from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, in partnership with Benton County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Asked about a highlight of the project, Vollbrecht points to the regional treatment system:

“The system exceeded everyone’s expectations. The design and implementation was extremely successful. The result of strong relationships among owner, design engineer and contractor. It was like you snapped your fingers and it was done.”

What’s next?

Construction of the first project phase was completed in October 2016. But the City doesn’t plan on pausing long to reflect on their success.

Said Vollbrecht, “We want to keep going. We’ve focused on treatment in industrial areas, but there’s plenty more we can do.”

The City has already started work on the next round of projects in the northeast sub-watershed, and are in the beginning stages of implementing the same approach in other areas of the city.

This project demonstrates the City of St. Cloud's commitment to protecting water quality and the Mississippi River. Projects like these are great examples of what was envisioned in Governor Dayton’s call for water action.
John Linc Stine, Commissioner, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

By committing to clean water, and getting cooperation from the community, the City of St. Cloud has developed a successful stormwater management approach. Their collaborative work serves as a model for other cities and counties across the country.

About the Expert

April Ryan

April Ryan, PE, is an SEH senior water resources engineer committed to clean water. Contact April

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