Why does our watershed drain the way it does?

Wetlands in VLAWMO were formed 9,000-12,000 years ago by glacial activity. As the glaciers receded, depressions and sediment were left on the land. Many of the carved depressions were filled with water where the land relatively flat, or if the land surface was close to the water table. These areas are what give us our current wetlands.

A wetland is an area where water either covers the soil or is present near the surface of the soil. A wetland can hold water constantly or even just part of the year to influence area plants, soil, and hydrology. 

While wetlands have been avoided and looked down upon for many years, they're also a part of the Vadnais Lake area history. In early settlement years, wetlands provided resources that supported survival. Tamarack trees for example, grew along wetlands and were what the Vadnais and Garceau families used build their homes. Wetlands were the original flood control infrastructure, the natural purifier for drinking water, and provided spaces for hunting and for fish to spawn. 


VLAWMO Original Plats

1940's-era Ramsey County Drainage Map

Shallow Groundwater

More than 50% of Minnesota contains shallow groundwater, a condition where a high groundwater table (saturated soil) is near the land’s surface, often indicated by a wetland. Unlike deep ground water, shallow groundwater moves according to gravity along the earth’s surface. Soil exposed to shallow groundwater becomes anaerobic, or what’s called hydric. While the state of the water table changes year to year depending on rainfall and surface runoff, hydric soils remain for many years after shallow groundwater has shifted (part B in diagram below). This is why may properties in VLAWMO experience difficulties with soggy yards and flooding. During a wet year with high rainfall, hydric soils quickly function as they once did – as a wetland. The challenge however, is that wetlands and groundwater are closely connected. To protect the future of groundwater resources, wetlands are key.

Diagram courtesy of USGS

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But don’t fret! It’s possible to be at peace with our groundwater, enjoy your yard, and still be of help to our shared water resources. With some planning, patience, and flexibility, VLAWMO is here to help create solutions.

  • Fill: While filling in soggy areas may be a solution, it is best done cautiously, as in many cases this has shown to be ineffective because of hydric soils below new fill. Additionally, the State's Wetland Conservation Act may prohibit filling wet areas. Before filling, a wetland delineation should occur to determine where fill can and can’t be placed. Where allowed, filling may provide solutions in certain areas of the watershed.
  • Native plantings: Because hydric soils retain their ‘memory’ of being saturated, they will stubbornly become saturated again when conditions are favorable, with or without extra fill. Why not bend in the wind instead of break in the storm? Native plants are great options to beautify your yard and create pollinator habitat. They help hold water in difficult areas, and allow space for the soil to adjust with a dynamic water table. In addition, deep roots of native plants provide structure and filtering that are helpful for our water. See our wetlands page or the buffers info sheet to learn more about these benefits.

Either of these solutions, or a combination of the two, may be what works best for you. We understand that yards are special places for relaxation and play. Working with your topography, drainage, and personal preferences, VLAWMO can provide technical advice and cost-share funding to help along the way. 

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History of Drainage Policy: 

The issues we face today are a reflection of our history with water. Understanding where we’ve been helps us face today’s challenges. See the BWSR history and DNR history web pages for more on this topic. 

  • 1883: Drainage ditches were used in the Vadnais Lake area as a means to keep agricultural lands reliant and productive. In the late 1800’s, “public water” consisted only of waters that contained uses such as fishing, boating, or drinking water. Other waters such as shallow lakes and wetlands were considered “private” and therefore were unprotected. 
  • 1920’s: Ramsey County takes responsibility of a key drainage ditch which would be called County Ditch 14, now referred to as Lambert Creek. Many small agricultural ditches remained, and were maintained privately.
  • 1937: All water in the state becomes public waters. In the wake of the great depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal included initiatives to include natural systems in our city planning and development. While the practice of ditching worked to limit the water in the soil, allowing it to be more readily planted, this practice also contributed to the conditions that created the dust bowl. While there was controversy during this shift, this policy recognized the importance of shallow lakes and wetlands for the longevity of society.
  • 1947: Limits were set onto the drainage of public waters. Drainage could only occur in “non-public” settings and only with permission.
  • 1955: Conservation and President Roosevelt's New Deal was brought into drainage policy. This protected water bodies such as Goose Lake, which is an example of a water body that was directly used as a waste water dump site. Unfortunately, this dumping was a common practice at the time.
  • 1982: Metro Area Surface Water Management Act. This act created the need for a mandatory governing body, a water management organization (WMO) to manage surface waters. A WMO is responsible for creating comprehensive water management plans that seek to protect and improve surface and groundwater quality, prevent erosion, correct water quality problems, and others. See the MPCA watershed plan website for more information.
  • 1986: Ramsey County transfers authority of Ditch 13 and 14 (Lambert Creek) onto VLAWMO. Today VLAWMO partners with its municipalities to conduct improvement projects and maintain the ditches.
  • 1991: Wetland Conservation Act. A “no net-loss” is instated for MN wetlands to protect our abundant and clean water resources. Wetlands, deemed so by specific guiding principles, must be replaced either locally or elsewhere in the state through the purchase of banking credits.
  • 2015: MN Buffer law. Requirements were set for permanent vegetative buffers on public waters and public ditches. These buffers serve to reduce erosion, excess nutrients, and pollution going into our waters. 
  • 2016: Governor Dayton issues the “year of water” decree.