By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer
Twenty years ago, Minnesota Lake, namesake of the community of Minnesota Lake nestled against its southeast shoreline, was in tough shape.
An infestation of rough fish that roamed the lake roiled the water so thoroughly that aquatic plants were unable to grow.
Increased drainage from tile lines in the lake’s watershed along with an inadequate water control structure created chronic high water levels.
With no aquatic vegetation to moderate wave action on the wind-swept lake, shoreline erosion and water turbidity was compounded.
In a land of sky-blue waters, Minnesota Lake’s were chocolate brown.
As a result, much of the luster of the 1,800-acre body, which during the early part of the 20th century had supported a diverse and abundant wildlife community and outdoor recreation heritage, had faded by the 1950s.
Recognizing that the lake had fallen on hard times, area conservation groups and community residents approached the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, requesting that Minnesota Lake be designated as a Wildlife Lake.
Such a designation, says Stein Innvaer, an assistant wildlife manager in the DNR’s wildlife office in Nicollet, allows for the manipulation of water levels to optimize the lake for wildlife food and habitat.
Typically, that means periodic draw-downs where water levels are lowered to promote the die-off of undesirable fish populations, consolidation of lake sediments and germination of dormant aquatic vegetation to improve water quality.
In 1992, after public hearings and with the support of the Minnesota Lake City Council, the lake received that designation.
In 1997, a new, larger water control structure was completed to better allow for management of water levels. Other measures including raising a roadway to permit the installation of more effective barriers to prevent rough fish from migrating from the nearby Maple River into the lake during high water periods.
Since then, according to Innvaer, the lake has undergone several partial draw-downs with mixed results.
“Due to a combination of weather factors, it seemed like when other lakes were freezing out and filled with dead fish, fish in Minnesota Lake somehow would manage to survive,” he said.
But not this year.
“The lake is completely dry right now,” he said.
A draw-down started last year combined with drought conditions over the last several months have left the basin bone-dry.
Purged of rough fish and after a season of having the lake bed exposed, he expects the lake to blossom with aquatic vegetation and its accompanying benefits for water quality and wildlife when refilled by next summer.
But now, with the lake poised for a rebirth and two decades after first lending their support to the DNR’s management of the lake, some Minnesota Lake residents now are taking a different view of the wildlife designation.
“People saw no water this summer and got alarmed,” said city council member Richard Staloch. “They came to the council to ask what’s going on.”
But the real issue doesn’t seem to be the lack of water.
Residents were aware of the draw-down and that the lake once again will hold water.
Rather, critics of the DNR’s management plan would prefer that cattails and other aquatic vegetation that impede their view of the lake be removed.
The vegetation also hampers activities like swimming and boating, which have occurred at various times in the past, they claim.
The predominant emergent vegetation on Minnesota Lake is eight-foot-tall cattails that ring its shoreline, including that section abutting the community.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on our city park and we’d like to have a better view of the lake,” Staloch said.
What’s more, he said, things have changed over the last 20 years. “There’s been a block-and-a-half of new houses built along the lake — very nice houses — and those people would like a better view of the lake.”
But Stein says vegetation is a key component to the existing management plan. Further, the state Aquatic Plant Management Plan has no provision for wholesale plant removal just for aesthetic reasons.
And while he concedes that fishing and boating, even water skiing, may have occurred on the lake that has a mean depth less than four feet, it likely was when the lake was chronically higher than it should have been.
The official lake level was set at 1,035.01 feet above sea level in 1948 and hasn’t changed, he said. What has changed is the construction of the new dam, built twice as wide as the previous one to better drain water from the lake more efficiently.
Innvaer said that because of the community’s proximity to the lake, the management plan drawn up in1992 included an unusual provision that allows the city to apply for a permit to clear a small area — about 4 acres — of vegetation as well as spreading a sand blanket to create a wading/swimming area in the park.
And in accordance with existing rules applying to lakeshore owners anywhere in Minnesota, private citizens on the lake also can apply for a permit to clear aquatic vegetation.
However, they are limited to clearing a 15-foot-wide channel far enough to reach open water, not the wholesale removal of vegetation for aesthetic reasons.
Staloch said he understands the community is asking for something from the DNR that the agency doesn’t normally do.
“But times change, people change, nothing stays the same,” he said.
The DNR’s position, however, is that the lake’s health and value to wildlife is rooted in the shoreline vegetation.
“Where the city is located, it is right in the teeth of a northwest wind,” Innvaer said, adding that the cattails along the southeast edge of the lake provide protection from shoreline erosion.
“Secchi disk readings out in the basin of the lake have averaged six inches or so,” Stein said. “But if you get into the cattails, the water is so clear you can see right to the bottom.”
Innvaer said the DNR recognizes the unique situation of Minnesota Lake and is willing to work within the scope of the management plan and existing plant management rules to come up with alternative solutions.
But ultimately, Minnesota Lake doesn’t just belong to a few homeowners and city officials.
“The lake belongs to everyone,” Innvaer said.
As the old saying goes: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
While a few homeowners find a view of cattails unappealing, it’s a pretty good bet that there are others who see it as a sign of a healthy lake.
And a thing of real beauty.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by email at email@example.com.