Preventing muddy waters in Minnesota’s lakes

Conservation district takes aim at declining water quality, erosion, and algal blooms

Out for a ride on Pokegama Lake in north-central Minnesota, a group of boaters comes across a silvery tullibee, or northern cisco, dead in the water.

A few miles into their trip, they see another of the dead whitefish. And then another.

A fish die-off of this kind is consistent with a lake experiencing lower than normal oxygen levels, says Andy Arens, district manager and water plan coordinator of the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District (ISWCD).

“Excess phosphorous in the water can trigger algae blooms, and other plant growth that consumes oxygen,” he says.

Deer Lake, also in the Mississippi Headwaters Watershed near Grand Rapids, MN, also showed signs of degrading water quality in recent years. That’s when ISWCD joined forces with the Itasca Water Legacy Partnership—to determine the status of the lakes, identify the sources contributing to their decline, and recommend actions that would protect them from further damage.

After the study was completed in 2013, ISWCD wasn’t able to act on the study’s findings, due to lack of funding.

Three years later, though, with the help of a $64,235 Ecofootprint grant from Enbridge, the organization began moving forward on three of the study’s recommendations.

“Without the Ecofootprint grant, (this work) probably wouldn’t have happened yet,” Arens says. “These are top-tier lakes; they have aqua green/blue water. They are important fisheries and well known for recreation — jet skiing, water skiing, sail boats. We have the opportunity to protect them and keep them in good shape.”

To kick off this project, ISWCD will take water samples from both lakes over two summers to continue measuring and monitoring trends in the water quality and help determine next steps. The data will also strengthen a baseline for future assessments.

Next, they’ll analyze 16 feeder streams identified in the study as contributing elevated levels of phosphorus. They’ll determine which sources in these streams are contributing excess phosphorous, and decide how to minimize its output into the lakes.

Finally, where feasible, ISWCD will work with private landowners to reduce phosphorus inputs at identified sources.

Rich in natural nutrients, soil erosion is a major contributor of phosphorous, Arens says. As an example, this phase of the project, to be completed in the fall of 2017, could help landowners cover 50 percent of the cost to mitigate erosion from their land.

“The conservation district is being proactive in its approach,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s community investment advisor based in Duluth, MN. “We’re glad to be part of a project taking steps to clean up these lakes before the water quality declines further.”

Arens once again emphasizes how beautiful both lakes are, how they attract people from around the state and contribute to the quality of life in Grand Rapids.

“We’re trying to keep the lakes as they were pre-settlement,” he says. “We’re trying to prevent their degradation so people can continue to enjoy them.”