WILLMAR -- Not since Willmar Mayor Ole Reynolds and Kandiyohi County board chair Virgil Olson stood before the cameras and supposedly sipped water from a dipper pulled from Foot Lake in 1983 has water quality in the lake gotten this kind of attention.
Roughly every two weeks during May through September, Cory Netland and his staff with the Hawk Creek Watershed Project launch a flat-bottomed boat on the lake and submerge probes to collect samples of the water at various depths. They use another device to collect lake sediment, too. The samples are cooled and shipped immediately to a laboratory in Duluth. Technicians analyze the water samples for the nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorophyll A, suspended solids and (gulp), the fecal coliform they may hold.
Netland, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, probably wouldn't recommend following the lead of the late mayor and county board chairman. They were trying to attract swimmers back to the Robbin's Island beach after its closure for an outbreak of Norwalk virus in the water.
But Netland said he is encouraged by what nearly two seasons of testing have shown: While phosphorus levels in the lake are higher than desired, overall the quality of the water is near many of the target measures for a shallow water lake in the state's north central hardwoods eco-region.
He will know much more about Foot Lake and other Willmar-area lakes when water quality assessments are completed this year.
The watershed project is overseeing separate, two-year studies to analyze the water quality in a string of Willmar area lakes. One study focuses on Long Lake and Ringo Lake, and the other on the headwater lakes of the Hawk Creek basin: Eagle, Skataas, Swan, Willmar and Foot.
These may not be the sexiest lakes in Kandiyohi County, but like the more popular Green and Games Lakes, these lakes see a lot of recreational activity. Foot, Willmar, Ringo, Eagle and Long are often the destinations for many local anglers, not to mention boaters and swimmers.
The testing will help determine what by the way of pollutants might be making its way to these lakes, and what that means to water quality. Netland said the testing has already identified some problems. Phosphorus levels in Willmar, Ringo and Long Lakes appear to be higher than the standards for them.
If that proves true after all of the data is collected at this season's end, some of these lakes may be listed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and federal Environmental Protection Agency as impaired. That in turn starts a process where the public and watershed project will look at how to limit the targeted pollutants.
It's generally recognized that some of these lakes hold excess nutrients, which trigger algae blooms and other problems. Netland hopes to make it equally well known that there are solutions.
He pointed to Long Lake as an example of where progress has been made. Long-standing issues with excess nutrients from feedlots have been resolved, and the water quality testing confirms the improvements.
There is still a ways to go, however. Some residents along Long Lake blame the lake's protected, island rookery and the colonies of cormorants and egrets it attracts for excess nutrients in the water. Water testing shows otherwise. Netland said the testing has not shown any jump in nitrogen that could be attributed to bird guano.
Long Lake has a relatively small watershed area, and a sizeable portion of that land base includes conservation lands. He said the testing seems to indicate that excess nutrients flowing from Ringo Lake are more to blame for its problems. Consequently, he said targeting efforts to improve the Ringo Lake watershed may produce the best results for both lakes.
Other lakes bring different challenges. The shallow waters (three feet maximum) of Swan Lake were as turbid as a Norwegian bachelor farmer's coffee and constantly stirred by large schools of carp when testing began in 2008. This summer, Netland said the waters have proven to be surprisingly clear, the carp appear to have disappeared and the rooted vegetation they revile has re-established itself.
Water quality analysis shows the difference. Tests for pollutants that went off the chart last year are now in acceptable ranges. He suspects that a winter kill-off of carp brought about the improvement. Keeping the lake clean may require a management strategy aimed at encouraging similar, winter kill-offs for carp.
Netland said solutions for the excess nutrients found in the joined waters of Foot and Willmar Lakes will likely be more complicated, but not impossible.
But before those kinds of decisions are made, Netland and staff will launch their boat and collect more samples from the waters. The testing will continue until late September. He hopes to have the results ready in time for the watershed project's annual meeting next March.