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Minnesota to keep eye on 24 lakes

Two dozen lakes across Minnesota will become the sentinels for scientists to study how the state's waterways are handling an onslaught of problems including global warming, lakeside development, exotic species and polluted runoff.

The sentinel lakes pilot project will begin in 2008 as a joint effort of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The lakes have been picked across four eco-regions in the state, from pristine border lakes to northern lakes and forests area, central hardwoods lakes and the "western corn belt prairie" lakes.

Few lakes in the project are among the state's largest or most famous. Instead, the 24 sentinels represent a cross-section of the state's 13,000 lakes.

"These are most representative of your average Minnesota lake in each region," said Ray Valley, project leader for the DNR.

During the four-year pilot project, scientists will look at water temperature, oxygen, phosphorus, zooplankton, invertebrates, fish growth and population rates and more indicators.

Steve Heiskary, a research scientist leading the PCA's part of the project, said tying combinations of issues together will be critical -- such as figuring out a way to measure how higher temperatures couple with increased phosphorus to cause algae blooms.

He said it will be hard to find common denominators from north to south across the state.

"Even within the regions, the makeup of the lakes changes a lot," Heiskary said.

The DNR is using information garnered in a huge, federally funded study by the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth that looked at similar indicator signs for emerging problems on the Great Lakes.

That Minnesota's lakes are being loved to death isn't news. For the past three decades, Minnesotans and visitors have been building more cabins, summer homes and retirement homes on more lakes.

Census data shows the state's most popular lake regions are the only rural areas of the state showing significant growth.

"The driving force behind the problems for our lakes is economic and population growth," Valley said. "We have more people with more money spurring more activity on our lakes."

"It's all hitting critical mass now with climate change. We don't have a choice. We have to pay attention now," Valley said.

"We need to see how the changing climate is affecting all the indicators and then determine how we can best adapt our management," Valley said. "We need to focus on the things we have some control over. We'll need to keep re-adapting to the change as it comes."

The lakes range from 81 acres (Carrie) to 4,669 acres (Ten Mile) and their deepest areas are as shallow as 10 feet (Shaokotan) and as deep as 208 feet (Ten Mile).

There's enough money in the DNR budget to start the program at ice-out in 2008. The DNR and MPCA hope to get money from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources for 2009-11.

The state hopes to partner with counties, townships, lake associations and other groups to monitor lakes and enact change that will protect them.

The plan is to keep studying the 24 sentinel lakes intensively into the distant future. But the lessons learned on how to study the impact of all the combining problems will be applied to all of the 13,000 lakes on a less frequent basis.

Eventually, being able to measure the impact and degree of change for specific lakes should help land and water managers figure out how to better protect the water.

"What's frustrating as a scientist is that oftentimes we get mired down in documenting the decline of something," Valley said. "We hope we're doing this in time to not just monitor the decline, but to come up with some management tools to help adapt and stop it, or at least slow it down."

n Border lakes area: Bearhead, White Iron, Elephant, Nett, Trout (near Grand Marais) and Northern Light

- Northern lakes and forests area: Hill, Elk Lake, Portage, Red Sand, South Twin and Ten Mile

- North-central hardwood forest area: Belle, Carlos, Cedar, Pearl, Peltier and South Center

- Western corn belt plains area: Artichoke, Carrie, Madison, St. Olaf, Shaokotan and St. James.