Field monitoring lends perspective

by Forrest Peterson

If you really want to understand an environmental or water quality issue, it’s no secret that you have to get out from behind the computer screen once in a while and into the field. After years of editing technical reports, and writing factsheets and news releases for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, I decided to follow that advice.

In 2016 I approached the Hawk Creek Watershed Project (HCWP) to see if they were interested in having someone do some monitoring in the Hawk Creek channels between three headwater lakes in Willmar. They welcomed the offer, and I signed up through the MPCA’s citizen water monitoring program.

I have really enjoyed getting out to six sites with a little bucket and one meter plastic tube to measure transparency. Now, back at the computer screen showing MPCA water quality data, it’s gratifying to see that which I collected playing a role in efforts to address water quality.

I live several miles north of Willmar just inside the Hawk Creek watershed. My childhood home sits in the middle of the city’s north side, which is bounded on three sides by Willmar and Foot lakes. For the neighborhood kids they were our natural playground, skating, canoeing, sailing, some fishing. Relating this to a group of Board of Water and Soil Resources officials visiting Willmar in 2018, I noted one exception to the list of water activities: Swimming, or lack of it.

From dumping to bullheads

For more than a century, Willmar and Foot lakes served as watery dumps for the growing city, receiving raw sewage, horse manure, garbage and stormwater runoff. Modern sewage treatment and water quality regulations ended those gross abuses, but the damage had already been done. And stormwater runoff continues to be the major water quality issue.

In the 1950s and 1960s our fishing produced mostly bullheads. We avoided swimming in the soupy, green water, instead hitchhiking 11 miles north to sparkling Green Lake in Spicer. In the 1970s a dredging project removed tons of silt from the lower bay of Willmar Lake. The greater volume improved overall water quality somewhat. Fishing improved. Swimming not so much.

Effects of stormwater runoff

With a good portion of the city in a low-lying area, when local officials address stormwater, they address street flooding—not the impact of stormwater runoff to the lakes. However, it’s the latter that has captured the attention of residents living around the lakes.

Several years ago I became involved in efforts to revive the Willmar Lakes Association. Along with the HCWP and Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District, I helped provide information and presentations to the group about tools and resources for addressing water quality issues.

Water quality data that we collected showed numbers behind the sight of murky water, and sources of pollutants from the city landscape via scores of storm sewer outlets into the lakes. While the residents are eager to find short-term fixes, they are learning to appreciate the need for a long-term strategy.

More work ahead

With the city wrapping up a multi-million dollar project to improve roads and facilities in Robbins Island Regional Park amid the lakes, we will be continuing to work toward more resources for improving and protecting water quality in the lakes.

We gained some leverage when the main bay of Willmar Lake was added to the state’s list of impaired waters under Section 303d of the federal Clean Water Act. Following more monitoring by the HWCP, this may lead to a Total Maximum Daily Load study for the lake. TMDLs for the lake and also neighboring Swan Lake may require the city to increase efforts to address water quality. With our continued monitoring, we will be watching, promoting and looking for progress.