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Popular Kandiyohi County lakes near 'tipping points'

Gary Miller / Tribune file photo Officials are sounding the alarm about water quality in northwestern Kandiyohi County. The waters of Games Lake, shown here in an August 2013 file photo, still attract swimmers and anglers, but there is a danger that problems evident in West Norway Lake could move downstream into Norway, Games and Andrew.1 / 2
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Lake Andrew, shown Tuesday, is among the Kandiyohi County lakes in the Upper Shakopee Creek basin that water quality officials say are at a tipping point. Nutrient overload is on the verge of spilling over into Lake Andrew and Games Lake.2 / 2

SPICER — The waters of Games Lake and Lake Andrew are still clear enough for swimmers to see their toes when they wade into them, or for anglers to see the sparkle of their spinner baits as they retrieve them.

Those days might be coming to an end, water quality professionals say, unless action is taken soon. Water quality is at a "tipping point'' in the lakes of the Upper Shakopee Creek basin in the northwest corner of Kandiyohi County, according to Skip Wright, district manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Ecological and Water Resources office in Spicer.

Wright was among a number of people who sounded the alarm about water quality in the basin at a June 15 meeting with over 50 residents at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in rural Spicer.

The data collected during years of water quality monitoring has been analyzed in a new model developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wright said the model, known as the Gridded Surface-Subsurface-Hydrologic Analysis model, showed that there is a very real danger that the water quality problems already evident in West Norway Lake could move downstream into Norway, Games and Andrew.

West Norway Lake already serves in some respects to "treat'' the overload of nutrients coming from the landscape. The overload of nutrients has also adversely impacted the main body of Norway Lake, which is now listed by the state as an impaired water. The nutrient overload is on the verge of spilling over into Andrew and Games as well.

Ron Dilley, of Dilley's Resort on Norway Lake, has witnessed the trend for 50 years, ever since he was 12 years old and his father purchased the resort he now operates.

"You wouldn't believe what the water quality was then as compared to now,'' Dilley said.

The worrisome part, Wright said, is the turning point can happen faster than people would believe once levels of nutrients surpass the tipping point. At that point, algae blooms and turbid water conditions would also impact the fish populations in the lakes. The turbid, nutrient rich waters also become more vulnerable to invasive plants and organisms, Wright explained.

It will take a 50 percent reduction in the phosphorus load to West Norway Lake to turn things the right way, according to information presented by Scott MacLean, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Best management practices and the restoration of the Olson wetland in the Kandiyohi County Ditch 27 watershed flowing into the lake has helped reduce the nutrient load, according to Wright. And, years of work to provide wastewater treatment for the hundreds of residences on the chain of lakes has also greatly benefited water quality.

But work is needed to reduce the nutrient load delivered to the lakes from County Ditch 27 to achieve the results needed, Wright said. Along with encouraging more practices to reduce soil erosion, the Chippewa River Watershed Project is hoping to see wetland restoration undertaken in the basin.

It has been calculated that 1,500 acres' worth of lake surface were drained away by ditches in the subwatershed, including water bodies that were 10 and 12 feet deep. One of the goals is to see two of them — Sand and West Lakes in Arctander Township — restored to serve as natural filters for the downstream chain of lakes.

While water quality on Norway Lake isn't what it was 50 years ago, Dilley said efforts in more recent years have served to benefit the lake. He is encouraged too by what he sees around the lake. More of his lakeshore neighbors are taking steps to lessen their impact on the lake.

"I can tell people around the lake are more aware and concerned about it. (They're) trying to do more about it themselves,'' he said.

Dilley said he hopes to see more education and public awareness raised to support wetland restoration and the use of best management practices to do what's needed, while there is still time.

Once the tipping point is reached, Wright said the task of reclaiming water quality becomes much, much more difficult and expensive.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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