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Upcycling water bottles into floating islands

Written for Great River Greening e-news, March 2019, updtaed Septemebr 2019

Hallett’s Pond Natural Area is a treasured natural resource within St. Peter’s city limits. The 14-acre waterbody is used by the community for outdoor events and recreation, especially fishing. Neighborhood residents appreciate they can walk and bike to it.

But a high nutrient load of phosphorous and nitrogen from stormwater feeds summer algal blooms, limits the pond’s food sources for fish, and creates other serious water quality problems.

Great River Greening is supporting a city initiative to improve the pond’s water quality by utilizing a cutting edge technology that transforms plastic water bottles into floating islands. These structures mimic floating peat bogs—wetland habitat often found on Minnesota lakes that naturally filters phosphorous and nitrogen.

This spring, 50 Great River Greening volunteers will build three of these islands for the pond.

Susie Carlin, Watershed Coordinator for Great River Greening, said “the city was interested in this exciting new technology that mimics a natural process to improve water quality while also providing great aquatic habitat for fish. Great River Greening was able to provide the resources and expertise to make it happen.”

Carlin added, “we’re starting small, so the the improvement to water quality may be marginal, but they will add important wetland habitat right into the middle of the water column, where plants are usually not able to reach excess nutrients. We do anticipate a big impact on habitat; both terrestrial, on the islands for insects and birds, and aquatic, particularly fish.”

The islands are good example of upcycling, where waste material is transformed into more valuable, new material. A matrix of recycled, BPA-free plastic is injected with marine-grade foam for buoyancy. Native wetland vegetation will be planted in the structure, allowing the roots to filter the water and provide habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms.

An added benefit: Each 100 square feet of these man made islands keep 3,000 bottles out of landfills.

UPDATE: The Islands were launched in the spring of 2019, and they’re doing their job!

The maker of the structures, Bio Haven, says the “islands are constructed from a matrix of non-woven PET plastic fibers derived from BPA free recycled plastic drinking bottles, which is inert, won’t biologically degrade and will not leach, which is why it is widely preferred for packaging foods. PET is also inherently more UV resistant than other plastics, like polypropylene, because of its molecular structure.”

The volunteer event at Hallett’s Pond will take place May 18, 9:00 am – 1:00 pm. Volunteers will build the islands, and plant native grasses and shrubs on the shoreline of the pond.

Project partners and funders: FishAmerica Foundation, City of Saint Peter, CHS Foundation, Clif Bar Family Foundation, New Belgium Brewing, Rahr Corporation, and Fréy Salon.

Watershed partnership assisting tomorrow’s leaders

Written for Great River Greening e-news, 2016

Nicollet County’s Seven Mile Creek Park offers hiking, fishing, and picnicking. Seven Mile Creek, flowing through the park to the Minnesota River, is one of very few designated trout streams in south-central Minnesota.

The creek is also the main natural drainage system for 24,000 acres of some of the most fertile and productive agricultural land in the world. While it is often beautiful and clear, the water registers high levels of nitrate-nitrogen, phosphorus, and, during periods of intense rain and snowmelt, suspended sediment.

In recent years, members of The Seven Mile Creek Watershed Partnership have reached out to each of the 320 farmers and rural residents that own land in the watershed to join them in answering a central question:

What can we do together to sustain and advance the long-term economic and environmental health of this watershed?

The responses have been encouraging, said Seven Mile Creek Watershed Manager Susie Carlin. Landowners are coming forward to learn more and take real steps toward land management that has a positive impact on the environment.

“The lessons we learn in this watershed may help solve problems across the region.”
~Susie Carlin, Great River Greening Program Manager

Carlin is on staff with Great River Greening, which joined with Nicollet Soil and Water Conservation District in 2012 to recharge the partnership – a coalition of people aligned with agriculture, recreation, conservation, urban/rural communities, education, and government entities.

Carlin describes the group as unique, “Because the members are supportive of modern farming methods, a vibrant farm economy, and excellent water quality. Too often, agriculture and environmental quality are considered mutually exclusive.”

Examples of projects that landowners have done with the Partnership’s assistance include:

  • Two landowners installed underground bioreactors, which redirect tile water to an underground bed of wood chips where nitrate is removed naturally.
  • Eight landowners installed water control structures and planted hundreds of acres of cover crops that reduce runoff and build healthy soil.
  • Nineteen landowners reduced soil erosion by planting filter strips and using other techniques.
  • Landowners and community members have participated in the University of Minnesota’s GeoDesign workshops and were shown different ways to control erosion. They also discussed ways to maintain high economic profitability while improving environmental quality.

Underground water control structures, like bioreactors, saturated buffers, and drainage water management all result in less nitrogen flowing through drain tile. More years of data collection are needed to determine how these efforts will impact the water quality of the whole creek.

In collaboration with Great River Greening and the Nicollet SWCD, Gustavus Adolphus professor Laura Triplett has been awarded a grant through the MPCA to begin monitoring the effectiveness of these conservation efforts. Triplett is a member of the Seven Mile Creek Partnership. Carlin said they also are measuring the improvements from individual projects, and are hopeful that those will translate into watershed-scale success.

Last year, the partnership began implementing a 10-year strategic plan that was devised with input from 65 members of community. It includes:

  • Facilitating agricultural practices and other land management strategies that have a positive impact on the environment
  • Exploring new crops and markets that generate income and achieve conservation objectives
  • Supporting conservation-minded farmers by increasing their access to education, data, and communication tools

Carlin says what is exciting about this plan is that it takes everyone’s feedback in account. And, it positions visionary farmers to lead, as they gain experience and identify what works. “With their deep and natural ties to the landowners in the watershed, these people are making really good decisions about where we should invest our collective efforts.”


The Seven-Mile Creek Watershed Partnership program is part of Great River Greening’s larger Minnesota River program, a collaborative, solution-oriented approach to water quality. It is founded on a strategy where water resource concerns are addressed locally.