Artist turned activist Sean Connaughty says that littering is an equal opportunity problem that crosses all lines — ethnic, socio-economic, age, and gender — and profoundly affects urban lake water quality.

He should know. Since 2013, this art professor at the University of Minnesota has been collecting garbage from one of the Twin Cities’ most affected lakes: Lake Hiawatha in South Minneapolis. Now, more than 150 bags of garbage later, the piles of rubber duckies, pens, swimming goggles, aerosol cans, and other gunky ephemera are a testimony to human habits, carefully counted and categorized.

Connaughty sorts through a pile of trash collected from Lake Hiawatha, where he is striving to improve urban lake water quality.
Connaughty sorts through a pile of trash he collected from Lake Hiawatha.

Displayed as an art exhibit in 2015 at the Sandbox Gallery, the evidence of Connaughty’s diligence has caused him to consider himself an “archeologist from the future.”

He might not have earned that distinction if he hadn’t begun inspecting Lake Hiawatha more closely as the potential site for the launch of his “Ark of the Anthropecene” — a human scale floating biosphere he’d created to represent this geologic timeframe in which humans have had the most profound effect on the climate and environment.

Artist Becomes Urban Lake Water Quality Activist

But he grew increasingly concerned at the level of trash floating in his neighborhood lake, so addressed a ball he’d found and sent it down a gutter in front of his home. Two weeks later it surfaced in the lake, further confirmation that no mitigation system interrupts the flow of all street matter into the lake during a rain event.

Connaught holds small ball marked with his address, which traveled from this storm drain -- often the source of problems with urban lake water quality -- into the lake.
Connaughty holds ball marked with his address, which traveled from his storm drain — often the source of problems with urban lake water quality — into the lake.

Connaughty says that was all it took to “launch a world of learning.”

As Elizabeth Stout, Water Resources Regulatory Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis Public Works department explains, storm sewers are designed to get water off the street as quickly as possible. Rain carries everything that lands on the streets — trash, leaves, grass clippings, automotive fluids — directly into lakes and rivers.

So Connaughty has been organizing his neighbors to, among other practices, help mitigate these challenges by practicing these six actions.

As he says, he just loves the lake and wants to see it “protected and preserved.”

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