Surviving the drought

by Brad Harrington, Wright County Parks & Trails Manager and GMPT Board Member

DroughtHot and dry! That is the predominant answer when someone asks how the summer has been in Minnesota. With very little rain over the course of the summer, drought conditions have disrupted many aspects of parks and recreation operations, from the obvious to the more obscure.

Turf
The most obvious impact is turf. Whether it is native grasses in prairies or manicured campground lawns and high-use park areas, the lack of rain has impacted it. The natural tendency as a parks person is to get on a box about planting native prairie grasses and how they are more drought-resistant, but I will spare you as most of you are aware of it.

With the turf being as it is, most agencies can’t send mowing crews out all summer so the challenge comes in utilizing staff that would normally be running your mowers in an effective way in your department. In Wright County, we were able to utilize that staff in getting an up-to-date inventory and conditions assessment of picnic tables, fire rings, and park benches in our system. As small as that sounds, it is a huge task to complete and a major benefit to the department for planning purposes.

Another issue we faced regarding turf was when to open a new facility that was dormant seeded in fall. The campground at Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park was set to open this summer when the turf was ready. With a late dormant seeding in November, low snow totals, and then no rain, we were faced with a tough a decision. Do you open at full strength, leave it closed and push the opening to next season, or find a middle ground? At the end of the day, we decided to find a middle ground. We opened the campground almost a month later than expected. When it did open, the decision was made to open half the campground each week to allow for watering of the other half and alternate each week which half was open. So far this has gone well. Is the turf established? Not really, but it allowed us to get people into the facilities and still move in a positive direction for turf establishment.

Beaches & Boat Landings
Another challenge brought on by the drought is anything associated with our beaches and boat landings. Obviously, with the lack of rain the lakes are down. Some are at the lowest point they have ever been at. This presents a challenge on many levels. With boat landings, people tend to power load more when the water is down. At one of our more popular boat landings, this resulted in a 6-foot drop-off at the end of the boat access. And when people don’t check the access before using it, they end up backing their boat trailer off the access to try to float their boat off. When they try to come out, the trailer gets hung, and axles get damaged.

The key is educating users. I had an old professor who used to get on a soapbox about “spectator education” in sports. There is nothing worse than having someone yelling and making comments during a game who has no clue about what they are talking about. The challenge is teaching them so they understand the game, and everyone can enjoy what they are watching. The same premise applied to boat accesses this year. We changed some of our signage at the access with educational material on power loading, placed signs cautioning people about the end of the ramp, and when we had personal contact, we informed them of the issues. This seemed to help, but inevitably we still had some issues.

The other big challenge is water quality. In Wright County, we were fortunate to only close two beaches for one week due to high E-Coli levels. With less rainwater coming in, the lakes remain stagnant, and higher temperatures create good conditions for bacteria to grow. With reports making the news from across the state about bacteria issues at public beaches, we fielded a lot of calls about our beaches and swimming areas. The volume of those inquiries was up this year due to the conditions.

Staff Safety
Lastly, there is the challenge of keeping your staff safe. On top of the challenges of COVID protocols and fears, we all faced keeping our staff hydrated and healthy. It is easy to get carried away in hot conditions and not take proper breaks to cool off. The other challenge of that is staying productive as staff out in the elements as well. We all want to get our work done and done efficiently, but sometimes we must slow down to keep ourselves safe. We can’t get anything done if our staff end up in the hospital or at home due to dehydration or heat-related illness.

These are just some of the challenges that the drought brought us this year. Please share with us some of the challenges your parks and trails systems faced this summer by contacting us at greatermnparkstrails@gmail.com or on our Facebook page. We are a community, and that community gets stronger the more we share and connect.