A mysterious sludge ringing Miller Bay on Lake Osakis hasn't gone away, and neither have the questions.
Are the problems in Lake Osakis' Miller Bay a hundred years in the making? Or were they caused by recent dredging activity north of Miller Bay?
In either case, who will pay to clean it up, and can it be prevented from happening again?
On Friday afternoon, Oct. 29, a group of about 20 elected officials, state and federal agencies, and property owners gathered on Lake Osakis. They toured the dam, which some residents say should be restored in order to raise lake levels. They visited Janice Hauri's home on Miller Bay, where her once-sandy beach is buried beneath a foot or more of sludge that is now producing vegetation. They trudged along a grassy, muddy trail to view sediment ponds upstream of Miller Bay that were designed to keep pollution from entering the lake.
And they bickered about the sediment ponds and the 2019 dredging project to remove 1,700 dump truck loads of sediment from those ponds.
"It's not the source of the foot and a half of sediment they're talking about that's all over Miller Bay," said Jon Roeschlein, there on behalf of the Sauk River Watershed District, which has taken heavy fire from local residents for multiple reasons.
"How do you know that?" shot back Commissioner Randy Neumann, a member of the Todd County Commission, which appoints two of the nine watershed district board members. "Did you guys do any sampling?"
Roeschlein did not immediately answer that question. When Hauri asked why he didn't disclose the sludge on Miller Bay to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, even though she had complained to his agency about it and he was supposed to report citizen complaints, he said it was because he didn't believe the two were connected.
The watershed district's position is that the problems in Miller Bay do not stem from the sediment ponds, which they say actually help the lake by removing about a third of the sediment that would otherwise end up there. And in removing that sediment, the ponds are also preventing phosphorus from reaching the lake, which results in the growth of algae.
A probable culprit, they said Friday, is Judicial Ditch 2, otherwise known as JD2, built more than 100 years ago to drain land upstream to provide more farmland. The ditch drains 38,000 acres of farmland, including an unknown number of agricultural drain tiles. Instead of stormwater naturally filtering through wetlands, it has a straight shot to Lake Osakis, bringing not just water, but sediment and chemicals and other pollutants that float along.
Lake Osakis resident Dick Nelson said he remembers when the sediment ponds were built, and he thinks they benefit the lake.
“There was no known opposition at all that I’m familiar with,” he said. “That’s why it was built, there was definitely concern. Everyone knew there was too much phosphorus and too much sediment coming down the ditch, absolutely.”
He said the situation in Miller Bay would be even worse than it is now without the sediment ponds.
“Visualize 1,700 dump truck loads that would otherwise be in Miller Bay and it would be 10 times worse than it is now,” he said. “You’re hearing from half a dozen people that are irate. You are not hearing from the silent majority because they aren’t making as much noise because they totally support the sed(iment) pond.”
But Hauri and her new next-door neighbor, Melissa Dilley, who beat out about a half-dozen other buyers in March to acquire the property, say they don't trust the watershed district. They believe that the farm fields where the district dumped the 1,700 dump truck loads of sediment were too close to the lake, and that heavy rains washed it down to Miller Bay.
In Dilley, Hauri has found an ally.
"When we saw the amount of sediment that was taking over the bay, I said, 'Janice, let me help,'" Dilley said.
Among the agencies present at Friday's tour were the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Elected officials included Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Reps. Mary Franson and John Poston.
The presence of so many elected officials and public agencies at Friday's tour is an indication of the serious threats facing area lakes, which supply not just a significant amount of property tax revenue, but also significant tourism, recreational and commercial value. And Lake Osakis is not the only one facing major issues, Ingebrigtsen said. This summer, property owners along many lakes complained that thick weeds are preventing them from taking out their boats and even swimming.
"Mary and John and I have been to a lot of lakes and it's ugly," Ingebrigtsen said.
The lawmakers are also in a position to help, especially Ingebrigtsen, who holds powerful positions on two bodies that direct funding to chairman of water quality projects, including the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and the Environment and the Natural Resources Finance Committee in the Minnesota Senate.
Money is available to help Lake Osakis, he said. Now advocates for the lake need to come up with a plan.