At the tail end of a meeting about pollution in lakes Winona, Agnes and Henry, long-time fisheries operator Jim Bosek spoke up.
"I believe I could make all three of those lakes crystal clear," said Bosek, who runs Bosek Fisheries, which supplies walleye fingerlings to the DNR.
His secret? Barley seed, said the Garfield man. His pronouncement caused a stir among those attending a meeting led by the Alexandria Lakes Area Sanitary District, whose consultant, Joe Bischoff, had recommended cleaning Lake Agnes with treatments of aluminum sulfate.
Barley seed can turn a pond or lake from "pea soup to crystal clear in two months," Bosek said.
"One treatment and you can see the grains of sand 20 feet down."
He said he has cleared up water bodies up to a couple hundred acres in size. Lake Agnes is 137.46 acres, Lake Henry is 152.12 acres, and Lake Winona is 213.31 acres, and each are failing to meet state water quality standards.
Barley is a natural product and costs far less than chemical treatments, Bosek said.
After the meeting, Bosek spoke to the Echo Press about his strategy, which he said he stumbled across 35 years ago while looking for food to trap suckers. He'd purchased barley from a local elevator and discovered a side benefit: The water where he used it appeared to clear up.
He was cagey about the precise details of his method, but said it involved spreading barley seed near the shoreline. The barley ferments, changes the acidity just enough to kill algae, allowing sunlight to penetrate the water and foster the growth of aquatic plants, which suck up the pollutants phosphorus and nitrogen, he said.
As it turns out, not everyone at the meeting was unfamiliar with using barley to clean water, although most said they had heard about barley straw, not barley seed.
Barley does work in some cases, Bischoff said, mostly on small ponds. Its success rate has been mixed and when it works, nobody knows why, he said. The strategy has been attempted in the Twin Cities in the past, but lake experts there have been moving away from it, he said. Barley might prove more effective in ponds than in lakes, which flow differently, he added.
Bischoff said a robust body of scientifically-based literature exists for using alum treatments to clear phosphorus from water.
"The literature is not there for barley straw," he said.
In the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation District has used barley treatment annually since about 2005 on Powderhorn Lake, an 11-acre lake with high phosphorus levels, said water resources supervisor Rachael Crabb.
She said they use barley straw, not seed, and that it seemed to clear the water for several years, but recently it has failed to prevent blue-green algae blooms. They're not sure why that is, but said it could be that high water levels of recent years overwhelmed the ability of the barley to reduce phosphorus.
The board has increased the amount of barley straw, she said, but added that its effectiveness is "still to be determined."