WILLMAR - With plans in the works by the city of Willmar to invest nearly $900,000 to make Robbins Island Park a regional destination, officials say now is the time to focus on what makes it so special.

Keep the momentum going to continue to improve water quality in Foot, Willmar Swan and Skataas lakes, as these shallow lakes and the recreational opportunities they provide are so important.

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That's the heart of a message heard by over 50 people who gathered April 18 at the Willmar Community Center to hear about plans for Robbins Island Park and the Willmar chain of lakes.

"A 55-acre park sitting where it sits surrounded by water is just not an amenity you see in every community,'' said Steve Brisendine, Willmar Community Education and Recreation director.

He called Robbins Island the "crown jewel" of Willmar's 37 parks, and noted that water quality has always been a big issue for it.

Forrest Peterson, information officer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's office in Willmar, is encouraging the local lakes associations, city and agencies to take on projects that will benefit water quality.

The shallow lakes were long abused, Foot Lake especially. "We didn't treat our lakes very well,'' said Peterson at the meeting's onset.

Years ago, chemicals washed into it from the railroad yard and others leached into it from a city dump ground located at what is now Rau Park. In the town's early days, manure and other wastes were deliberately placed on the lake's ice in winter.

The "legacy" phosphorus from years of runoff into the waters continues to pose a challenge for cleanup efforts.

And today, storm sewers still pour urban runoff with nutrients and wastes into the lakes.

But the city, Kandiyohi County and citizens have done much to reduce the pollution load as well. The dredging of Foot Lake in the 1980s removed sediment and helped improve water quality.

Extensive testing conducted by the Hawk Creek Watershed Project in 2008-09 found that Foot Lake is meeting many of the standards for a shallow lake, according to Heidi Rauenhorst, director of the project. Yet overall, the levels of phosphorus, sediment, nitrogen and bacteria found in the four lakes are higher than desired.

The city of Willmar regularly tests the quality of water at the Robbins Island Beach, Brisendine said The city is planning to staff lifeguards at the beach Thursdays through Sundays this summer.

The city is hopeful the Legislature will approve an appropriation of $606,000 in Legacy Amendment sales tax funds for Robbins Island, according to Brisendine. If awarded, the city will match it with $250,000. Plans call for building a boathouse in the park where kayaks, canoes and paddle boards would be available for use in the summer, and snowshoes and cross-country skis in the winter.

The funds will also be used to develop an interpretive walkway, taking advantage of the walking path and boardwalk on the east side of the island. The city also wants to build a year-round shelter where groups can gather for events in the park.

And, of course, this May will see the construction of the 19,000-square-foot Willmar Destination Playground, a private-public partnership. Willmar City Council members Julie Asmus and Kathy Schwantes described amenities they believe will make the playground an attraction for people from the entire region.

And without a doubt, the waters of Foot Lake are already attracting people from a wide area. The shoreline and ice fishing opportunities bring many to its waters, Brisendine said.

The challenge now is to continue the progress toward improving the quality of the water. Peterson said non-point sources are the primary issue, and that means it will take efforts by everyone to reduce them.