WILLMAR — It’s hard to overstate the value of Foot and Willmar Lakes, but recent investments by the community in Robbins Island Regional Park for everything from a Destination Playground to a new shelter building make it clear just how much these water bodies are appreciated.

“The city put millions of dollars into this,” said Mike O’Brien, a member of the Willmar City Council and the board of directors for the Willmar Area Lakes Association.

“That water is the key,” said O’Brien during discussions at the annual meeting of the lakes association on Tuesday.

Working to improve water quality in the Willmar chain of lakes — Skataas, Swan, Willmar and Foot — remains the focus for this organization. Since its revival a couple of years ago, the association has undertaken a variety of projects to improve water quality. The efforts include enlisting a commercial fishing crew to remove tons of carp. More recently, the association installed a barrier to block the carp's access.

The lakes face a number of challenges, and addressing them will require what O’Brien and lakes association President Craig Holmgren described as a “piece by piece” approach.

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The overall challenge is to reduce the nutrients pouring directly into the waters from city stormwater sewers, as well as the runoff from streets, lawns and agricultural lands. There are 27 inlets carrying nutrients into Foot Lake, and 15 into Willmar Lake, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

O’Brien said one of the pieces to improving water quality is to find ways to collect some of the stormwater flow into basins to allow nutrient-loaded sediments to settle before the waters reach the lake.

The City of Willmar is also working to keep nutrients from the stormwater system. Sara Sietsema, environmental specialist, City of Willmar, told association members how the city’s street sweeping program has focused on keeping leaf litter and other nutrient sources from reaching the water bodies. The city has also made strides in reducing road salt run-off by using brine in place of coarse salt. The change reduced the city-wide salt load from 600 tons to 300 tons while providing the same level of service, she pointed out.

Sietsema said the city has not allocated its Local Option Sales Tax revenues to stormwater projects at this point, but said the city is eying projects in the future. Stormwater improvements are now made in conjunction with road construction projects, she said.

One of the most vexing issues for lake association members is the proliferation of vegetation in the shallow water lakes. Curly-leaf pondweed is prevalent throughout Willmar Lake. The invasive plant now infests parts of Foot Lake as well, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by Eric Katzenmeyer, an aquatic invasive species specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Hutchinson.

It’s the proliferation of native vegetation that remains the main concern in Foot Lake. The heavy mat of vegetation makes boating impossible in the southwest portion of the lake.

The association intends to apply for grant funds to make possible the purchase of an aquatic mower. It could be used to trim the native vegetation to allow more recreational opportunities, according to O’Brien.

He noted that a mower would be expensive. One that would meet Foot Lake’s needs is available for roughly $78,000. He pointed out that the Nest Lake Association has successfully improved the recreational value of the water body by its ongoing program to harvest curly-leaf pondweed with a mower.

Association members believe a mower is the only option available for controlling native vegetation. Katzenmeyer told the local association members that the DNR would almost certainly not approve the use of herbicides on native vegetation.

Some of the participants at the meeting expressed interest in seeing the lake dredged once again. Sietsema cautioned that it is not a viable option. Due to the environmental disruption caused by dredging, permits for it are rarely approved, she explained.

In response to concerns, she also told association members that some preliminary plans are in the works to address erosion into the lake from the Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds. The run-off during rain events is a concern, association members told her.

Another concern is the possible arrival of zebra mussels in the lakes. A swimmer found one of the invasive mussels in Willmar Lake on June 15. Katzenmeyer said he was not able to find any others while doing a shoreline survey following that report. He is urging property owners to check their docks when they are removed this fall to help the DNR determine if the invasive mussels have reached the lakes. They are present upstream in Eagle Lake.

The Hawk Creek Watershed Project continues to monitor water quality in the lakes. Previous monitoring showed that Willmar Lake did not meet water quality standards for total phosphorus, chlorophyll and turbidity. Swan Lake did not meet standards for phosphorus. It was added to the state’s list of impaired waters in 2014. The main bay of Willmar Lake was added in 2018.