RSDP Happenings - Focus: Big Trout Lake
By Elizabeth Braatz
Big Trout Lake is a beautiful place. Part of the Whitefish Chain of Lakes in northern Minnesota’s Crow Wing county, the lake is home to thriving populations of cisco, tullibee, and the rare lake trout while contributing to local tourism and high shoreline property values. It’s also one of the 176 deep, cold-water refuge lakes prioritized for protection by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) because its deep, clean, cold water provides a refuge for cold water fish that is resilient to climate change.
The MN DNR and volunteer water quality monitors found a need to reduce runoff in many lakes, especially runoff from County Highway 66 into Big Trout Lake, and concerned citizens brought this problem to the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District’s (SWCD) attention. Thanks to prompt action by the University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (CRSDP), the Crow Wing SWCD, and a coalition of stakeholders, plans are in place to build a filtration system that will protect Big Trout Lake while potentially paving the way for future water projects.
“[A] big part of the success of this project was all the collaboration,” said CRSDP Executive Director Molly Zins.
Each group brought unique strengths to the coalition to bring together plans for the broader picture. Partners ranged from local groups such as the Crow Wing SWCD, the Pine River Watershed Alliance, the City of Manhattan Beach, the Crow Wing County Highway Department, and the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association (WAPOA) to state and regional groups such as the MN DNR and the CRSDP. “We are pieces of the puzzle,” Zins said.
A vital piece of that puzzle was the CRSDP’s seed money for research. In the words of Ron Meyer, CRSDP Board Vice Chair, Chairman of the Pine River Watershed Alliance, and active member of many local groups, “This is a perfect example of how the Regional Partnership was able to [provide] seed money … that will eventually lead to a final project.”
After the CRSDP provided the seed money, local organizations were able to learn enough about the problem to search for specific solutions. This search led the coalition to connect with a team of students at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
Professor Joe Magner, who teaches bioproducts and biosystems engineering in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), is constantly on the lookout for ways to provide opportunities for his students for experiential learning. Zins helped connect Magner and a team of dedicated undergraduates and graduates to the Big Trout Lake coalition. Eventually, the students proposed that the coalition create a network of pipes to increase infiltration. These pipes will send water to the Downstream Defender® baffle system, an automated filtration system. Altogether, this system will filter an astounding 40 pounds of phosphorus (which translates to 20,000 pounds of algae) and three dump trucks of sediment (or 40 tons). This translates to an 80 percent reduction of runoff from Highway 66.
“This was a great opportunity to create real-world experience for our students,” Magner said.
The Crow Wing SWCD used the students’ proposal, MN DNR research, and local water quality monitoring data to apply for the Clean Water Fund Legacy Grant. The grant was awarded for $310,000, and soon the harmful runoff from Highway 66 to Big Trout Lake will be drastically reduced. Yet the good news doesn’t end there. Directly because of her work on the project, undergraduate Hannah Rollins was offered a job before she finished school.
“It’s just a win-win-win,” Zins said of the partnership between regional groups such as CRSDP, local organizations, and research at the University.
RSDP’s regional goals include strengthening the region’s long-term social, economic, and environmental health; building effective relations between the University and broader community; and advancing understanding of regional sustainability. Big Trout Lake is a perfect example of all three.
The filtration system will protect far more than lake trout. As Zins explained, “[S]ustaining clean lakes will have immeasurable benefits for the local communities and economies over time.”
Furthermore, the project has brought together an extensive network of stakeholders. After such a successful project, further collaboration among the stakeholders may well happen in the future.
Finally, the project highlighted the need for preventive action and created a precedent for future proposals. Preventing pollution in clean lakes is far easier than cleaning up a polluted one. “I hope that it continues to call attention to the importance of protecting our healthiest, most climate-change-resilient lakes,” Zins said.
So far, it seems to have called plenty of attention. Although nothing is set in stone yet, Meyer explained that the SWCD would like to conduct future inventories on stormwater, and future plans by the Pine River Watershed Alliance and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) will build off of the work at Big Trout Lake. Ultimately, Big Trout Lake’s project, especially the monitoring strategies, can be replicated. “[The strategies] are already being replicated with citizen volunteers, [and] we hope that this replication can continue,” Zins said.
Big Trout Lake is a beautiful place. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the regional and local organizations, it will provide a habitat for lake trout, a haven for families living near it, a getaway for tourists, and, if we are fortunate, a precedent for future clean water action.
Elizabeth Braatz is a student in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) majoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management. She is currently working with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant.
RSDP connects communities with the resources of the University of Minnesota to drive sustainability in Greater Minnesota, and is part of University of Minnesota Extension.