WILLMAR - Residents on Foot and Willmar lakes are joining to improve water quality in the Willmar chain of lakes.

Approximately three dozen residents gathered Tuesday evening to begin the process of reviving the Willmar/Foot Lakes Association with water quality as the goal. They met also with representatives from the city of Willmar, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Hawk Creek Watershed Project to identify the issues they want to address.

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They have an eager partner in it all: "The city of Willmar is really at the table and wants to be a part of the solution, and not part of the problem,'' Mayor Marv Calvin said.

Calvin said many in the community for too long have had the attitude: "Don't go to Robbins Island because it's dirty water.''

Attitudes are changing, Calvin said. People are realizing what gems the Willmar chain of lakes - Foot, Willmar, Swan and Skataas lakes - actually represent for the community, and see their recreational potential. Recent developments making Robbins Island a regional park and recreation destination only further the momentum to improve water quality, he said.

Craig Holmgren, one of the organizers for the lake association, said there is definite interest by residents in moving things forward. He said the group will hold an election July 10 to choose a board of directors.

There are certainly water quality issues in the lakes, but some of them can be overplayed in the public's mind. The city of Willmar is among only a few communities that regularly monitors its lakes for fecal content as a means of assuring safe swimming at the Robbins Island beach, said Sara Jacobson, wastewater plant director for the city. When fecal matter from the geese that congregate at the beach rises, the city closes the beach to swimming as a precaution. The mayor said the city is looking at reducing the size of the beach to keep geese from the area.

But the bigger water quality issues facing the lakes are much more complicated. "This is a complex system, lots of moving parts and lots of pieces,'' said Ethan Jenzen, area hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer.

He said there are between 11 and 12 miles of shoreline along Foot Lake and the two bays of Willmar Lake in the city. That compares to 12 miles of shoreline along Green Lake. The two shallow lakes have the equivalent amount of shoreline to that of a large lake, and a good portion of the shoreline is developed, he said.

Jenzen and Heidi Rauenhorst, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, outlined a number of the issues facing the lakes. Phosphorus and nitrogen that wash into Skataas and Swan lakes from activities in the 11,000 acres of upstream area in the watershed flow also into Willmar and Foot lakes.

The two city lakes also receive pulses of nutrients and chemicals injected directly into them by Willmar's stormwater system during rain events and snow melts.

There are 27 storm sewer outlets in Foot Lake and at least 30 in Willmar Lake, according to Darrell Hoekstra, engineering technician with the city. He said the city is looking at opportunities to capture more sediment and encourage practices to reduce the load of fertilizer and wastes washing into the stormwater system.

He also noted that the Grass Lake restoration project - designed for flood mitigation and improved water quality - is already showing benefits by holding water that once was flushed rapidly into local waters. The Grass Lake basin, which lies southeast of Willmar along the Highway 71/23 bypass, was drained more than a century ago for agricultural purposes.

The proliferation of curly-leaf pondweed is the source of ire for many lake users, who would like to see it eradicated. Jenzen said the experience on nearby Nest Lake and lakes across the state show that it is impossible to eradicate the invasive plant.

He said it's not known at this time how much of Foot Lake is actually infested by the plant. He recommended quantifying its abundance in the lake as the first step toward developing a plan to manage it. He also suggested that a program to target nuisance populations of the plant in the lake may be the most effective strategy.

In a similar vein, many recognize carp as a problem in the lakes and would like to see their populations controlled. Carp degrade water quality by uprooting aquatic vegetation and keeping bottom sediment in suspension.

Jenzen said the carp in Willmar Lake may not be as big a problem as many believe, however. He said a 2014 survey of the lake found that it has a fairly good game fish population including walleye, northern pike, black crappies and perch. Carp did not represent as large a portion of the fishery biomass as some had expected.

Forrest Peterson, with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, helped organize the recent effort to address the water quality issues. He said water quality monitoring now taking place in the lakes can help the lakeshore residents and the Willmar community develop goals for improving the lakes.

Along with the city, representatives of the Kandiyohi County SWCD, DNR and Hawk Creek Watershed Project said they stand ready to assist with grant funding and other programs that can help improve water quality.