Chisago City residents sweep the streets for cleaner water

This past week I joined seven residents of the Ecumen Point Pleasant Heights senior living community in Chisago City for one of their morning walks. The morning air was brisk, but the sun poked through clouds frequently to shine down through what remained of the colorful fall leaves on the trees.

Hats and gloves were definitely needed because of the chilly weather, but this group also has a few more surprising accessories in hand: brooms, rakes, a leaf blower, and garbage bags.

Meet the self-proclaimed “Walky-Talkys,” who aside from meeting six days a week to walk and chat with their neighbors, have also adopted 17 storm drains through the statewide Adopt-a-Drain program. They pass the drains on their walks and take a few minutes to clear leaves, dirt, and litter from the grates – preventing the debris from entering nearby Little Green Lake.

Members of the Walky-Talky drain clean team (from left): Rose Wisdorf, June Conlon, Nancy Askay, Bonnie Houger, Marlene Tangen, Mike Tangen, Marian Anderson

“It’s really nice being able to regularly connect with neighbors and get some exercise, and when I learned about the Adopt-a-Drain program coming to Chisago County this summer, it seemed like a great opportunity to also help our environment and protect the lakes,” says Bonnie Houger, one of the core members of the group.

While it seems intuitive to keep trash or other hazardous materials out of storm drains, natural materials such as leaves, dirt, and grass are also considered pollutants when they reach waterways. One bag of leaves can contribute enough phosphorus, a powerful fertilizer, to drive growth of 100 pounds of algae in lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Algae has been shown to degrade water quality and can turn water a pea-green color. 

In the Adopt-a-Drain program, people can adopt a nearby storm drain and check it on a monthly basis to clear it of debris. They then report the type and amount of debris they collect online. In the seven years since the program started at Hamline University, over 17,500 drains have been adopted by almost 10,000 Minnesotans, with over 500,000 pounds of debris collected to date.

Bonnie Houger and Mike Tangen tackle a drain.

There are several stands of mature trees in the Point Pleasant Heights community, and with the massive leaf fall occurring right now, the Walky-Talky group recognizes that even with daily walks, they can’t collect all the leaves at every drain.

“Right now, we’re just focused on making sure we keep the drains as clear as we can,” says Marlene Tangen, as her husband Mike blows leaves away from one of their adopted drains with a leaf blower.

Marlene, Bonnie, and Marian bring their trusty brooms and rakes with them on their daily walks.

The group has adopted all the drains located around their community, as well as a couple ‘orphan drains’ located in nearby neighborhoods. It has helped inspire conversations both within their community and in the surrounding area.

“We’ve gotten a lot of questions from people – asking us why we’re carrying brooms and what we’re doing. When we tell them we don’t want this material reaching the lake and why, most of them are thankful that we’re doing what we’re doing. Some lakefront neighbors have even joined us in making sure they keep drains clear and keep their leaves up in their yards,” says Bonnie.

Since joining the Adopt-a-Drain program in May, 59 drains have been adopted across Chisago County. Drain adopters have already prevented over 175 pounds of leaves, dirt, and debris from entering their storm drains just over the summer. With the Walky-Talky group adopting 17 of those 59, Chisago City thus far is running away with the count across Chisago county communities.

Marin Anderson, one of the founders of the Walky-Talky group, mentioned that she’s happy to spread the word about the program.

“My doctor was thrilled that we had started a walking group and said she would share the idea with others. But I made sure to tell her – don’t forget the part about adopting the drains!”

If you live in an area with a storm drain, you can adopt it at