Watershed districts, phosphorus key players in lake quality battle

Organizations work to undo harm humans have caused


Lake Association volunteers run a mechanical weed harvester on Forest Lake. The machine is used to supplement herbicide in the treatment of curly-leaf pondweed, an invasive species. (File photo)
Lake Association volunteers run a mechanical weed harvester on Forest Lake. The machine is used to supplement herbicide in the treatment of curly-leaf pondweed, an invasive species. (File photo)

Clint Riese
News Editor

The rise of urban civilization has been tough on many aspects of the environment, including lakes. Humans have knowingly polluted aquatic bodies with discharge from factories and sewer systems. They have formed ditches and developed communities with manicured lawns, in the process sending nutrient-bearing water rushing into lakes rather than filtering through the ground.

The damage can be tracked and proven scientifically, but sometimes it does not take studying sediment cores to see. A lake once clear for years is all too often now choked green with phosphorus-spurred algae, making it unfit for fish habitation or human recreation.

Today humans are learning. New commercial projects must meet land-use and environmental standards, and assistance is available even to residential property owners seeking to do their part.

Yet millions of dollars are being spent in an attempt to reverse the damage done over the last century or so. In Minnesota, the work of planning those improvements and protecting our lakes and rivers from further harm falls largely to watershed districts.

Authorized by the Legislature in 1955, watershed districts are governmental units that are funded by ad valorem levies. The state’s 46 districts each follow the boundaries of one of Minnesota’s 81 major watersheds, and consist of land in which all water flows to one outlet.

Watershed districts are governed by a board of managers. These appointees, along with staff and volunteers, work to monitor the level, quality and drainage of lakes and streams, establish and record hydrological data, and improve water quality.

Poor water quality can lead to increased algae, odor problems, fish kills and shifts in fish populations toward less desirable species.

OurLakesforWebHumans impair water quality primarily by adding nutrients – phosphorus in particular. This influx comes through urban stormwater, agricultural runoff or lakeshore erosion.

“It’s a matter of trying to think of the system in terms of what was it like before we altered it,” said Mike Kinney, administrator of the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District. “How do we put things in place and mimic the controls that were there naturally by the environment? How do we arrive at a sustainable rate of impact on the lake?”

Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District

The boundaries and lakes of the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District.
The boundaries and lakes of the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District.

Kinney’s district is one of three governing locally. Its territory is 49 square miles in Washington and Chisago counties, including at least 24 named lakes. Other than to land-locked lakes, water flows into Comfort Lake, then to the Sunrise River, which eventually feeds the St. Croix River. The watershed district formed in 1999 and replaced the Forest Lake Watershed Management Organization. Its 2013 budget was $1.2 million.

The district classifies six lakes as active for recreation: Bone, Comfort, Little Comfort, Forest, Shields and Sylvan. These larger, deeper bodies are consistently used for recreation and are categorized for similar degrees of management.

A main factor in lake management decisions is a lake’s impairment status as deemed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency through repeat testing.

Forest, Bone and Comfort are impaired for aquatic consumption due to mercury in fish tissue, polychlorinated biphenyls in fish tissue, or both.

As a result of excess phosphorus, Bone, Comfort and Shields lakes are also deemed impaired for aquatic recreation, along with Moody and School lakes. Bone’s quality has been improving. Moody and Shields rate the lowest. Comfort has good water quality save for the algal blooms in the summer.

The recreation-impaired lakes, along with Little Comfort Lake, were part of a 2010 study that calculated Total Maximum Daily Loads, or the acceptable amount of incoming phosphorus a lake can take without its concentration meeting the criteria to be deemed impaired.

The TMDL study also included implementation strategies ranging from rain gardens to regional stormwater management facilities. Many of the potential solutions are planned as capital improvement projects. Some are already underway, while others have financing secured.

A five-year project to restore water quality in Bone and Moody lakes began with carp removal in 2010. The fish stir up sediment on lake bottoms, releasing phosphorus. Carp barriers were installed in 2012.

Project funding comes through the district’s levy ($755,000 in 2013) and various grants. The biggest catch for watershed districts is money from the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Voters approved the three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax in 2008, and its proceeds are administered as grants by the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

BWSR in January announced a Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District grant was among 40 successful applications in a field of 244. The grant will provide $360,750 on a local match of $120,250 for a project that will increase water treatment and storage capacity in existing wetlands in the area of Forest Lake’s Bixby Park. The addition of an iron-enhanced sand filter will remove phosphorus in the portion of the Sunrise River that flows from Forest Lake to Comfort Lake.

The regional project will also restore a pond near Comfort Lake, improve floodplain interaction within the wetlands in Wyoming, and retrofit the stormwater system in industrial areas of Forest Lake and Wyoming. The work in Bixby Park may also kick-start the city’s significant plans to transform the park into a regional destination.

Of course, the Forest Lake chain is another point of emphasis for the district. As the largest lake fully enclosed in Washington County, its drainage area encompasses 26 percent of the watershed district. Forest Lake has a healthy fish community and the third-highest water quality of monitored lakes in the district, but is teetering on the edge of impairment for aquatic recreation due to summer phosphorus levels. Given its size and usage, the district is working hard to clear up the situation.

“Once it’s into impaired status and you get these large algae blooms, then it’s a challenge to get it back,” Kinney said. “It can be done, but the ‘ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure’ totally applies to water management.”

Local residents had similar thoughts and re-formed the Forest Lake Lake Association in 2007. It has grown from seven to 330 members.

“The reason we formed again is that the lake is pretty close to being impaired,” said Steve Schmaltz, a board member of the lake association and watershed district. “We’re concerned, and I think the community should be concerned, that the lake doesn’t slip into an impairment state. We have a wonderful asset here, but we still have a job to maintain it, and that’s everyone’s job.”

Lake association members are among the citizen volunteers who measure concentrations of phosphorus and chlorophyll and test water clarity by lowering a 6-inch metal plate into the water.

Schmaltz said that while Forest Lake’s overall test results have been similar for about a decade, phosphorus concentrations move well into the impairment range during the peak of summer.

“When you really want to use the lake, sometimes it’s so bad you don’t want to swim in it,” he said. “Even though the annual numbers look like we’re just pushing up against (impairment status), for a lot of the summer, it’s worse.”

But help is on the way. The watershed district is implementing stormwater runoff retrofit projects at largely developed areas and expects the results of a diagnostic study to be implemented late this decade.

Also, the city in 2009 implemented a stormwater fee. The utility fee was adopted as a way to cover the city’s costs in complying with MPCA permit requirements, but extra proceeds fund projects around the lake. Last year’s main effort involved a filter at North Shore Trail and Hayward Avenue.

The city’s engineering technician, Mark Peterson, works with the Public Works Department and outside groups like the watershed districts on stormwater-related efforts, from ditch cleaning to the installation of plants on dead-end roads leading to the lake. He also coordinates a public adopt-a-stormwater-pond program.

Invasive species are another threat to lake quality. Forest Lake has large batches of curly-leaf pondweed, a quick-spreading plant that grows in shallow water at the first sign of spring light. The submersed plant grows runners that mat near the surface, then the plant dies mid-summer, piles on the shoreline and releases phosphorus.

In recent years, the lake association and city of Forest Lake have used chemical treatment to limit pondweed growth. Previously they used a mechanical weed harvester to remove the invasive species after it grew. The harvester is still used to remove vegetation of all types in channels and bays as a means to ease boat use.

The watershed district last year contracted with Steve McComas, a scientist known on the radio as the Lake Detective, to measure curly-leaf pondweed’s presence in Forest Lake. He found that the chemical treatment applied in late May prevented heavy growth at most application points.

Forest Lake is also home to flowering rush, an invasive species newer to the area. The plant is slow-growing, but can block out native plants.

Groups are working to prevent other invasive species from infesting Forest Lake. Schmaltz said a recent survey showed Forest Lake’s sandy bottom would help fight the spread of Eurasian watermilfoil. However, conditions are ripe for zebra mussels, an invader that latches onto boat surfaces when alive and leaves sharp shells on the lake bottom after dying.

The lake association is concerned enough that it is considering raising $35,000 to set aside for a rapid response chemical program that could eradicate a zebra mussel outbreak if implemented quickly.

The lake association and watershed district have partnered in recent summers to pay for boat inspections at public ramps on Forest Lake.

Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District

The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District partnered with Washington Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help install grass waterways and a sediment basin on Scandia land that a gully was eroding. (CMSCWD photo)
The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District partnered with Washington Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help install grass waterways and a sediment basin on Scandia land that a gully was eroding. (CMSCWD photo)

The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District includes 81 square miles along 17 miles of the St. Croix River shoreline in Washington County. Its 31 lakes include Big Marine and several smaller ones in Scandia, such as Goose, German, Hay, Fish and Long.

Established in 1981 to address property damage being caused by fluctuating water levels on three lakes, the Carnelian-Marine Watershed District in 2007 merged with the Marine Water Management Organization.

Nearly one third of the district’s lakes were part of a 2012 study on the TMDL for lakes impaired due to phosphorus concentrations. Local lakes in the study include Goose, Hay, Long and Fish. Jellum’s Bay, which has a piped connection to Big Marine and is considered a bay of that lake, was also studied.

Goose Lake may be the most visible of these because it spans 75 acres, features a city-maintained public access on Oldfield Avenue and has a lake association. Also, the Department of Natural Resources has stocked it with fish, and Scandia runs an aerator to prevent winter overkill of fish. Curly-leaf pondweed is present, and the study identified Goose Lake as the top priority for phosphorus load reduction.

The watershed district found eroding ravines contributing to the problem. One has been stabilized and buffered, and more ravine work is likely on the way.

Improvement involving Hay Lake is also a priority this year. The very shallow, wetland-mimicking lake ranked third on the TMDL study implementation plan.

The quality of Jellum’s Bay is important due to its proximity to Big Marine Lake, though its phosphorus levels can be affected by water flowing in from Long Lake. Issues at Long and Fish lakes may not be addressed until next decade.

The impaired waters restoration is estimated to cost $1.13 million to implement, and $2.41 million overall, through 2030. The project is a collaborative effort between the watershed district, the Washington Conservation District and the MPCA.

The district is also putting resources toward Scandia’s Sand Lake in an effort to keep it from impairment status, said Watershed District Administrator Jim Shaver.

Big Marine Lake was not in the report, as it is not impaired for aquatic recreation. The 1,621-acre lake has good clarity. Median transparency level increased by 0.44 feet per decade from 1972-2010. However, testing last year showed Big Marine Lake is infested with curly-leaf pondweed, Eurasian water milfoil, narrow-leaf cattail and purple loosestrife.

A lake association on Big Marine formed in 2009 in response to the milfoil outbreak and is aggressively treating the water for both that plant and curly-leaf pondweed. The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District and the DNR have provided some funding assistance for that effort, and the watershed district also will start treating Big Marine for purple loosestrife this year.

Curly-leaf pondweed is also in Goose and German lakes, while reed canary grass is present in Fish, Hay and Long lakes and Jellum’s Bay.  Narrow-leaf cattail was also found in Jellum’s Bay and Long Lake.

The district’s 2013 testing for invasive species is part of a long-term strategy. The board next will prioritize existing invaders and those that remain threats at this point to formulate a comprehensive plan.

Rice Creek Watershed District

The boundaries of the Rice Creek Watershed District and its local lakes.
The boundaries of the Rice Creek Watershed District and its local lakes.

Clear Lake and Howard Lake are among the 55 managed by the Rice Creek Watershed District, which was established in 1972 and spans 186 square miles in parts of Anoka, Washington, Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

Though similar in size, covering more than 400 acres each, the two lakes feature stark contrasts. Clear Lake, located in Forest Lake, has a diverse fish population and is considered by the district a Tier 1 lake due to its recreational offerings. Howard Lake, a Tier 2 lake located in Columbus, is shallower and is used recreationally for hunting and kayaking.

Clear Lake’s water quality gets a B grade from Metropolitan Council, and it is not listed as impaired for recreational use due to phosphorus levels. But it is close to the state standard and falls short of the goal the watershed district set for Tier 1 lakes. Further clouding the picture, much of Forest Lake’s commercial district drains to Clear Lake.

Fortunately, January’s round of Clean Water Fund grants from the Legacy Amendment included a Clear Lake project that BWSR scored seventh of 244 applications. The fully funded grant, being administered by the city of Forest Lake, will provide $382,000 for improvements to stormwater treatment along the Highway 61 commercial district. Four biofiltration basins and a sedimentation pond will be installed as part of the Forest Lake City Center project. These treatment devices will handle stormwater from a wide area.

The watershed district and city will evenly split the $95,500 local match expense.

The project is expected to prevent about 60 pounds of phosphorus from entering the lake each year. That amount is nearly half of the reduction a 2012 diagnostic study identified as needed to bring the lake’s phosphorus concentration down to the district’s goal for Tier 1 lakes.

The Rice Creek Watershed District in 2013 restored bends in Hardwood Creek and stabilized its banks. Besides reducing erosion and phosphorus levels, the work improved stream habitat and dissolved oxygen levels for aquatic life. (RCWD photo)
The Rice Creek Watershed District in 2013 restored bends in Hardwood Creek and stabilized its banks. Besides reducing erosion and phosphorus levels, the work improved stream habitat and dissolved oxygen levels for aquatic life. (RCWD photo)

The collaborative nature of the project and a high cost-to-benefit ratio likely helped the grant’s cause, said Matthew Kocian, a Rice Creek Watershed District lake and stream specialist.

“The water quality should definitely improve,” he said, noting the change will not occur overnight.

Kocian pointed to Howard Lake for an example of a quick-changing environment. The district used a chemical treatment to eradicate the rough fish population there in 2004. Without carp and bullhead stirring sediment and releasing phosphorus, native plant diversity and migratory waterfowl increased, and the lake returned to a clear-water state. It also earned its way off the MPCA impaired list.

“There was a remarkable turnaround after the carp management process,” Kocian said. “It went from a D lake to a B lake almost instantly.”

After a natural winter kill in 2011, dead carp were found upstream of fish barriers, indicating a likely return to Howard Lake. However, Kocian says any carp population has not reached a tipping point where it affects lake quality.

Other groups

Local lakes northwest of Forest Lake, such as Coon, Linwood and Martin, are managed by the Sunrise River Watershed Management Organization through a joint-powers agreement between the communities of Columbus, East Bethel, Ham Lake and Linwood.

Conservation districts in Anoka, Chisago and Washington counties are non-regulatory, county-level subdivisions of state government. They provide technical assistance and educational services to enhance, protect and preserve natural resources.

The East Metro Water Resource Education Program is a partnership formed in 2006 to serve 18 area units of government. It provides education about the impacts of non-point source pollution on local water resources and engages residents to engage in water-quality projects.


Recently, increasing public awareness of lake pollution and improved management methods have helped reverse the trend, or at least stem its tide.

Kinney points to the 2008 passage of the Legacy Amendment as proof of an informed citizenship.

“When the state did their statewide referendum on the tax, it was at a time, economically, that was not very good,” he said. “It looked very gloomy, but it was a very solid vote. People said ‘We value these resources, and we want this addressed.’ It’s pretty amazing, and I think it really speaks to the commitment on a statewide basis.”

Even on a much smaller scale, resources are available for residents to impact water quality locally. Each watershed has cost-share programs for projects like rain gardens or shoreline restorations.

Those who do not live on a lake should keep in mind that the fertilizer they put on their lawn drains into the stormwater system and ultimately into a lake or stream, Kinney said, and the same goes for grass clipping or leaf piles pushed into the street.

Those looking for more involvement should contact their local administrator. Besides boards of directors, watershed districts have citizen advisory committees, and water monitoring requires volunteers.

“‘Okay, I have a small city lot. What can I do?’” Kinney said he often hears. “Well, actually you can do quite a bit.”