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Lake groups find common ground over water quality

With so many of this area's recreational and tourism opportunities centered on its lakes and rivers, it's no secret that water quality is a priority issue in west central Minnesota.

At no time in state history has its surface waters been at greater risk than they are today - with intense development pressure, the spread of invasive species and untreated wastewater being the most pressing areas of concern.

Recently, eight lake associations in Becker, Otter Tail and Douglas counties took the "initiative" in tackling these concerns by joining forces with West Central Initiative, the McKnight Foundation, the Initiative Foundation and Minnesota Waters in the Healthy Lakes and Rivers Partnership (HLRP).

Created in 1999, the HLRP has worked with more than 240 lake and river groups in central and northwest Minnesota to develop strategic management plans, restore shorelines, upgrade septic systems, enhance habitat and help local officials make informed choices with regard to lake management.

"There are lots of state agencies and technical experts that manage our surface waters in Minnesota, but if they could do it themselves, the job would already be done," said Don Hickman, senior program manager for planning and preservation with the Initiative Foundation in central Minnesota.

"Even lakes that are in good shape aren't necessarily protected permanently, without continued vigilance," he added.

Hickman was one of the driving forces behind development of the HLRP.

Good wastewater treatment is "a favorite project of mine," Hickman continued. "It's not just 'lake hugging'... at the end of the day, it's a public health issue.

"No one should have to drink pee or swim in sewage," he added bluntly.

Invasive lake species such as Eurasian milfoil, zebra mussels and curly leaf pondweed are also a growing issue.

For some, such as zebra mussels, there is no known cure once the infestation has occurred. "The primary thing is prevention," Hickman said.

Meanwhile, for plant species such as pondweed and milfoil, treatment is expensive, and can often have unintended consequences such as damaging nearby fisheries, he added.

"It [invasive species treatment] requires a lot of thought, and you also need to have your eyes open about the cost," he said.

The HLRP can help connect member lake associations with technical experts, "who can then help them to weigh their options and make the most practical and long lasting choices for their community," Hickman said.

The eight area lake associations who have joined the HLRP - including Big Cormorant Lake and Big Toad Lake in Becker County; Lake Irene, Lake Mary and Lake Miltona in Douglas County; and Lake Seven (Scalp Lake), East Battle Lake and West Battle Lake in Otter Tail County - were given planning grants of $5,000 each for the development of strategic lake management plans, courtesy of West Central Initiative.

The McKnight Foundation also provided a grant to fund Hickman's work with West Central Initiative on giving the necessary training to the lake associations.

"I'm really excited to be working with West Central Initiative to bring the program over into your region this year," Hickman said.

The training sessions involve a group of five or six people who form the steering committee for each lake association in the HLRP. The steering committee members undergo training sessions with Hickman and representatives from Minnesota Waters, a nonprofit state organization "dedicated to protecting and improving the health of our state's lakes and rivers."

"These groups from the different associations come together for the training," said Wendy Merrick of West Central Initiative. "Each group gets to hear and learn from the other lake associations, which is the networking piece ... it's an extremely important piece [of the planning process]."

Another important part of the process, Merrick added, is that the trainers can help make each core group aware of all the resources and technical expertise available to them in maintaining sustainability into the future.

"We do want these plans to be citizen driven," added Marian Bender, executive director of Minnesota Waters. "So after they [steering committees] complete the training and get the template [for the strategic management plan] with the technical details about their lake, they hold a community visioning session."

The community visioning session, Bender continued, is one in which all the residents of the lake and surrounding community are invited to participate in a "brainstorming session" that "gets everybody engaged in what they want to do for their lake - what they're concerned about, what they like, what could be better."

Bender, Hickman and others who have been involved in the HLRP planning process have been speaking at these "visioning sessions" in recent weeks: Bender was the guest speaker at the Lake Seven Association session on June 18.

"Nothing pleases me more than when people move across the aisle and figure out how to work with other interests. That's when you get really dramatic change," Hickman added.

"It's going to take citizen action to save the waters of this state," Bender added.