In 1994 the City of North St. Paul identified a potential wetland restoration project and nature center, the Urban Ecology Center. The project site was a 20-acre remnant of an old farm that had last been a sod farm in 1950. The area had once been part of a much larger area of seasonally wet wetland of approximately 150 acres.
The Ecology Center site was also identified as a good location to provide water quality improvement for the 420-acre watershed, which had been severely affected by storm water leaving the site. In addition, project managers planned to include the restoration of a diverse wetland and upland plant and animal community that could be studied by students from the four area schools.
The project involved a unique partnership of local, regional, and state government that provided funding and technical assistance. The total cost of the 5-year project was about $397,000. The project was funded in part by $210,000 in grants from four different agencies. The remainder of the project funding was supplied by the City of North St. Paul and the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency 319 Program provided a $40,400 grant in 1997.
Water quality improvement and environmental education
The restoration plan included modification to the existing wetland to construct a multicell wetland treatment system. The overall objective was not only to improve the quality of storm water leaving the site but also to design and develop the site as a wetland environmental learning center. Environmental changes would be monitored and information used to make future improvements on this site, as well as on other wetlands in the watershed. The project would serve as a model for other metro area communities and school districts.
Before the restoration effort, the site was a sod farm located on an area that had once been a seasonal wetland.
Using city and District funds, two additional parcels of private land were acquired as essential environmental education and water quality elements of the project. A trailhead parking lot was constructed on one site, providing convenient access to the Urban Ecology Center for schoolchildren and other visitors. A wetland boardwalk, trails, and an educational display were constructed, providing information on the history of the site, water quality improvement, and habitat management. A section of the display was set aside for school classes to present their environmental monitoring and research results to the community.
District staff, school classes, and sentenced-to-serve crews completed restoration of all disturbed areas with native vegetation. Some schools helped by growing some of the native grasses and wildflowers from seed in their classrooms.
Water quality improvements
Project leaders report a number of improvements as a result of the project. The first basin is collecting significant sedimentation, and the material is removed every 2 years. Site observations have documented a dramatic increase in use of the site by wildlife. Plant diversity also has increased, reflecting a good water quality condition.
Both plants and wildlife continue to thrive at the site, reflecting good water conditions.
Although completed in 1999, the project continues to involve several local governments and state agencies in management, monitoring, and research. The site is now being used for a research project on control methods for reed canary grass funded by the District, the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and the University of Minnesota. Reed canary grass is an invasive plant that spreads very quickly in seasonally wet areas and crowds out most desirable plants. Reed canary grass is the dominant plant in the Urban Ecology Center. The primary challenge to increasing vegetative and wildlife diversity will be controlling the reed canary grass and successfully reestablishing a native habitat. This project will continue for several years.