Mystery game invites kids to uncover real-life lake polluters

The game from the Washington Conservation District game raises awareness of everyday pollutants.
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Algae blooms in a Minnesota lake

Algae blooms in a Minnesota lake

When you think of water pollution in Washington County, you can't help but picture 3M, which was found to have polluted groundwater with PFCs in the southern part of the county.

But culprits of much of the lake pollution in Washington County, and everywhere, are everyday people, says Angie Hong, an education specialist with the Washington Conservation District.

This is the message she and her team spread on a regular basis: "The reality is that most of the water pollution we see county-wide is coming from runoff from streets and neighborhoods. With the exception of this groundwater contamination … there’s not usually a company you can blame,” she said.

When the pandemic disrupted the district’s programming, Hong started brainstorming ways to keep informing the public of the dangers of using too much phosphorus fertilizer or leaving dog poop unchecked. The result: the Water Pollution Mystery Game, a recurring outdoor event throughout the east metro county. Its next event is Friday in Oakdale at Tanners Lake Park.

“I think people are getting ‘Zoomed’ out and when the weather’s nice, there’s only so many webinars and stuff you can host when people would really rather be outside,” she said.

Socially distanced attendees can visit the lake between 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. to search for clues about the (theoretical) source of the lake’s pollution. Could it be Joe, who let paint slip into the storm drain? Was it Jannette, who raked her yard and tossed the leaves into a ravine (seriously, this is the No. 1 complaint Hong says she hears), where they decompose and send phosphorus into the water? Or maybe it was Veronica, who fed the geese — which is already discouraged for the animals’ health — causing them to congregate, leaving masses of phosphorus-rich poop near the water?

A family investigates pollution in Bayport

A family investigates pollution in Bayport

Plants need phosphorus, but when lakes or rivers absorb too much of it, it speeds up eutrophication — the process in which bodies of water receive nutrients and sediment, ultimately causing them to become more shallow.

The excess of nutrients prompts algae to grow, which can block sunlight from submerged plants. When the submerged plants and algae itself eventually die and decompose, they consume oxygen from the lake. Without enough dissolved oxygen, fish and other organisms will die.

Plus, algae tends to smell. An algae bloom, covering large amounts of surface, can make a lake unswimmable. In warmer conditions, a harmful blue-green algae can develop

“It’s intended to highlight everyday actions people can take,” Hong said. “Our storm drains collect from miles and miles around the lake, bringing all this stuff into the lake that wouldn’t have normally gotten there if we hadn’t had this altered landscape.”

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The game also promotes the Twin Cities metro-wide “Adopt A Drain” program, where people can sign up to regularly sweep leaves and other debris out of their neighborhood drains.

Because of the general state of the world, Hong said, the events aren’t being planned long-term in advance. Instead, those interested in attending can watch the Washington Conservation District social media pages for games in the near future. 

“I think it’s a fun way for kids to get outside — so many summer activities have been canceled,” she said.

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