What can you do to help Sleepy Eye Lake? Science students have an idea

Deb Moldaschel
The Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch

Earlier this fall, Minnesota State University Mankato professor Dr. Bryce Hoppie, who is overseeing the sediment study of Sleepy Eye Lake, spoke to the St. Mary's High School Environmental Science students and showed them the monitoring sites. The students were inspired to ask what they could do to help Sleepy Eye Lake.

The Environmental Science class at St. Mary's is planning an "Adopt a Storm Drain" project for Sleepy Eye. Members of the class are, from left: Katelyn Fromm, Elle Kyllonen, Liz Schwint, Joey Herzog, Logan Mickelson, Hannah Pelzel, and Maya Nelson.

Teacher Mary Beth Botz said the Environmental Science class studies topics the students come up with. "They ask how they can do something or learn about something," she said, "then we take off from there. Each student is responsible for part of whatever topic or project we decide to learn about and work on."

When they asked Dr. Hoppie what they could do to help the lake he told them about the way storm water drains in the streets bring unwanted nutrients to the lake.

"Storm drains bring leaves, sticks, and grass clippings to the lake or slough north of school," said student Logan Mickelson. "They add nitrates to the water, which helps algae and weeds grow. Later, when the weeds and algae die, that uses oxygen in the water."

So, how could the students help? By keeping those things from washing down the storm drains when it rains.

Their teacher, Mary Beth Botz, was aware of an Adopt-A-Drain project through Hamline University, so that is a program the students looked at for more information. The idea is that people "adopt" a storm drain near their home and keep it clear of yard and tree debris when it rains. 

"We didn't sign up to do the same program, but Hamline gave us permission to use their plan as we designed our plan," said student Liz Schwint.

One of the first things the students did was walk around in the neighborhood close to the school to choose storm drains to adopt. With a map of the city that showed the location of all the drains, they chose 50, said student Katelyn Fromm, and marked them on the map. She said, "The drains on the north end of town drain right into the lake or into the slough behind the school - which then drains into the lake."

[Editor's note: Storm drains on the south side of Sleepy Eye drain into the ditch that drains into the Cottonwood River—another body of water that needs looking out for.]

Mickelson said the drains they chose were the closest to school and also located on streets with bigger trees, which they figured would lead to more tree debris on the streets.

Student Maya Nelson was in charge of communication with the City of Sleepy Eye. "I contacted Bob Elston about it and he came to speak to our class," she said. Elston visited the students on the day of the October City Council meeting and was pleased to tell the council about it that night

Part of the project is the placement of small signs on the curb near storm drains reminding people that "only rain down the drain" is the way to go. Elston told the students the city would purchase those signs. Student Hannah Pelzel researched sign ideas and designed a few options. Nelson and Elston communicated back and forth on the designs and he shared one he found—the one they finally settled on.

The students think another way to promote the project is through lawn signs—like the ones that have sprung up around town celebrating graduates or sports teams. Student Elle Kyllonen came up with a design, which the students decided to use during the newspaper interview. The message is: I (heart) Sleepy Eye Lake, Adopt A Storm Drain. "We thought about making them so kids could write their names on them," said Kyllonen, "but aren't sure if that could be seen or if it would just wash off." Elston was seeking a sponsor for the cost of these signs also.

This is the tentative design for yard signs that will be distributed to people who adopt a storm drain.

Student Joey Herzog described an experiment the class did to learn if compost from grass clippings and tree debris, introduced to water where duckweed grows, really would cause the duckweed to grow and how that would affect water quality. "The weeds grew and used all the nitrates," he said, "and if the duckweed decomposed, it would use up dissolved oxygen." [Duckweed is a tiny, free-floating bright green aquatic plant often seen on the surface of wetlands waters.]

What happens next? The students plan to teach younger students about where rain ends up and recruit students and families to "adopt" a drain.

Student Liz Schwint is creating a lesson plan for the 1st, 4th and 5th grades—classes that study water quality issues in their science curriculum. "We'll show them a video that shows where rain goes and also take them outside to look at the storm drains," said Schwint. "We think the 1st graders can adopt the two drains here by the school as a class project."

Education of the younger students will take place this fall and winter, likely reinforced by several lessons, with a goal to have storm drains adopted by spring. In addition to the outreach the student conduct, the Herald-Dispatch will keep the public informed on how they can be involved.