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Rain garden in the works for Mill Pond

Last summer, Austin park-goers may have noticed a large amount of algae, murky water and sediment in the Mill Pond.

A big reason for the situation was — and still is — stormwater run-off that brings pollutants from city streets to the pond. However, a local group is undertaking a project that could lessen this problem and improve the Mill Pond area in general.

A coalition that includes the Izaak Walton League, Austin Public Schools and the Cedar River Watershed District is teaming up to plant a rain garden, which could be complete by Memorial Day weekend. In addition to the local support, the Minnesota Waters, Lakes and Streams Conservation Partnership is providing a $5,000 grant toward the roughly $17,000 project.

A rain garden is essentially a prairie area that contains a number of native plants and grasses. By design, a rain garden absorbs stormwater run-off, making it a natural buffer of sorts when along a body of water.

The proposed Mill Pond garden would be roughly one-and-a-half acres to the north and west of the pond, nestled between Fourth Street Northeast and Hormel Drive. Mark Owens, the local Izaak Walton League vice-president and the president of the Austin Coalition for Environmental Sustainability, said the area needs regular herbicide treatments first, a process which could take four to six weeks.

When that is done, Owens said he expects planting to take two or three days. A majority of the garden will start as grass seed, but a few areas will go in as baby planted plants. Owens said because much of the area will only be seed in the beginning, people won’t be struck by a beautiful new garden this year.

“It will take a couple of years to really show itself,” he said.

But when that day comes, Owens said he expects a very vibrant area that is both scenic and functional. And that functionality will extend beyond acting as a simple waterfront buffer — Owens said the garden will bring more flying insects, which will help support the Izaak Walton Purple Martin bird nesting program in the same area.

He also said Austin High School plans on using the garden as an “outdoor classroom” where science classes will be able to study different organisms and species up close. Owens added that the proximity to the school is another plus.

“It gives them a brand new opportunity without having to bus,” he said.

The idea could also take root, as it were, and lead to other similar gardens around the Mill Pond and elsewhere in Austin. In fact, the Cedar River Watershed District is actually mulling over a rain garden cost-share program that would provide an incentive to local property and business owners to build the gardens.

Justin Hanson, a resource specialist with the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the program could be a good way for the CRWD to focus on urban areas instead of rural areas, which is often the board’s target.

The program, which is set for a vote during the CRWD’s Wednesday night meeting, would match 50 percent of rain garden projects, up to a $2,000 tab. Hanson said about $5,000 would be set aside for the program this year, and he anticipates that about five projects could go forward as a result.

The city of Austin itself does not have a rain garden program as some other cities do — notable among this group is Maplewood, Minn., which boasts more than 450 private rain gardens and more than 30 city rain gardens.

However, that doesn’t mean Austin isn’t very interested in the gardens. In fact, city engineer Jon Erichson submitted a grant application to the Hormel Foundation for rain garden funding last year but was turned down. Now, with the CRWD program possibly becoming reality, Erichson said this could be how the city spurs rain garden creation.

The engineer said he would like to see rain gardens in Austin where appropriate, though he cautioned that they shouldn’t be used in lieu of gutters and can’t be expected to be significant flood buffers. What they can do, Erichson noted, is improve local water quality and overall aesthetics. And if the city ever did put forth its own rain garden program, the engineer said he’d likely be on board.

“I’d say yeah, we’re advocates for that,” Erichson said. “We’d like to see a greater awareness of rain gardens.”

Local groups partner to provide rain garden

The following organizations are providing either financial support or volunteer work for the roughly $17,000 project:

Izaak Walton League

Austin Public Schools

The Cedar River Watershed District

Spruce Up Austin

The Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District

The Austin Coalition for Environmental Sustainability