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Randy's Ramblings: The St. Croix deserved the governors' attention

The attention that Governors Jim Doyle and Tim Pawlenty focused on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway during their visit to Hudson a couple of weeks ago was encouraging.

On the Fourth of July, I came away from the Booster Days water ski show on the St. Croix unsettled by the mat of Eurasian milfoil I saw covering a large portion of the bay south of the Union Pacific railroad dike.

I've heard that it was there last year, too. But it wasn't big enough then for me to notice it while riding bicycle along the river on the city pathway that runs from Lakefront Park and St. Croix Street.

There's no missing this year's crop.

Two summers ago, residents along the St. Croix's Long Pond just south of the I-94 bridge were bothered by an invasion of the aquatic weed there.

The neighbors pitched in to pay for herbicide treatments of the milfoil, and that, along with the city's re-digging of a drainage pond on the bluff above the river, possibly, has knocked back the weed.

The news from Willow River State Park is worse.

The park's 172-acre Little Falls Lake - a wide spot in the Willow River created by a dam - is thick with milfoil from shore to shore. The park rents canoes and kayaks. I can see canoeists and kayakers getting their paddles tangled in the submerged thicket.

It's a shame. The lake is a gem otherwise, surrounded by the unspoiled beauty of the park and a 400-foot beach and picnic area on its southeast side.

Some 15 years ago, when I was still a country bumpkin living north of Hwy. 8 (and a single dad in need of an inexpensive vacation), I camped at Willow River with my two then school-age daughters for the better part of a week.

The eldest spent most of the vacation in a hammock tied to two trees, reading books and complaining about the mosquitoes and lack of television. The youngster was more of a trooper. She and I would walk the tree-canopied pathway from the campground to the beach for a daily - if not twice-daily - swim.

The lake was little weedy then, too, but nothing like today.

A lot of water has flowed down the Willow River and into the St. Croix since then. And a lot of phosphorous and nitrogen from lawns and agricultural fields have run into the Willow and St. Croix, fertilizing the explosion of algae and milfoil.

That's why a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group named the Lower St. Croix one of the nation's 10 most threatened rivers earlier this year.

The Star-Observer questioned the designation in an editorial, but I have a dissenting opinion.

The American Rivers organization wasn't saying the St. Croix is one of the nation's most polluted rivers. To the contrary, it's one of the cleanest, but threatened, in part, precisely for that reason.

The Lower St. Croix's designation as a National Scenic Riverway in 1972 brought regulations that helped preserve its natural beauty. And people are drawn to beautiful places.

Some want to build houses right next to them, and cut down trees so they can have a better view of them. The result is degradation of what attracted them to the river in the first place.

If you want to look at the river (and who doesn't?), I suggest a walk along its banks or sitting in a lawn chair under a white pine. It's a better experience than looking through a window with the TV cackling in the background. You'll breathe the moist river air, feel the wind on your face and hear the cries of gulls in search of a meal.

Then there's the effect of rapid population growth in St. Croix County and much of the 8,000-square-mile St. Croix River Basin. It equates to countless more square miles of impervious surfaces - roofs, driveways, streets and parking lots - that increase the runoff to the river. The runoff carries with it lawn fertilizer, organic material, cigarette butts, oil, pesticides and other pollutants that speed the growth of algae and exotic weeds or foul the river water.

My peeve is with homeowners and lawn care workers who spread fertilizer on driveways and sidewalks. I don't get the lawn worship (up North, we mowed whatever God put in our yards and it looked all right), but if you've just got to have a perfect lawn, at least fertilize the grass and not the river. That's where a good share of the fertilizer spread on the sidewalks and driveways ends up.

The lawn and sidewalk blowers are annoying, too. Besides disturbing the peace, they raise dust that ends up on the neighbors' windows and too often are used to blow dirt and leaves into street gutters, which contributes to the nutrient-loading of the river.

A rake works fine for gathering leaves. A broom cleans sidewalks well. You get exercise using them, too.

It was heartening to hear the Wisconsin and Minnesota governors talk about the importance of the St. Croix River.

Gov. Doyle announced that he was allocating $65,000 in federal stimulus funds for improving the St. Croix's water quality. The money will support existing collaborative efforts with Minnesota to reduce runoff of nutrients to the river, the governor said.

The state is getting a total of $1 million in stimulus funds to use on environmental projects.

Gov. Doyle was right when he said: "Our waters define who we are. They drive our economy. They drive our recreation. They drive our way of life."

Downtown Hudson has been hopping with commerce and recreation this summer. The river, the city's gorgeous Lakefront Park and the quality of our businesses are the reasons for the boom in an otherwise slow economy.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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