Ground-breaking study tracks water quality

Sampling water
Bemidji State University senior Amy Beam gathers Beauty Lake water samples to study microscopic aquatic animals called zooplankton. It's part of a long term study to determine the effects of human development on Minnesota lakes.
MPR PhotoTom Robertson

Beauty Lake is located not far from Itasca State Park. The 54-acre body of water is appropriately named. The water is crystal clear and the steep slopes of the shoreline are heavily wooded. In 1999, the virgin shoreline became 30 residential lots. Now, those lots are being developed.

On a boat near the lakeshore, Bemidji State University students dip a container into the cool water. They're collecting samples of microscopic aquatic animals called zooplankton. BSU junior Kelly Condiff says the study will establish a baseline of biological data. It will also include water quality and shoreline characteristics. The plan is to track those qualities over many years to see how the lake changes.

"Any time you get a chance to look at a lake that for all practical purposes hasn't had any development at all, it's new," said Condiff. "You're breaking ground, I guess."

Charlie Parson
Charlie Parson is professor emeritus of geography at Bemidji State University. Parson's sediment study projects that if Beauty Lake residents aren't careful, runoff erosion could destroy the lake.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The Beauty Lake study is the first of its kind in the state. It was initiated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The goal is to take detailed snapshots over time as the lake goes from completely untouched to fully developed.

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Development is underway on about half of the 30 lots on the lake. When they purchased the lots, property owners signed covenants agreeing to follow strict guidelines that go beyond state and county shoreland rules.

Charlie Parson, professor emeritus of geography at BSU says most property owners are doing a good job. But on a few lots, trees and underbrush have been stripped away, making the steep slopes of Beauty Lake vulnerable to erosion. Parson says removing even small amounts of vegetation can double or triple the amount of sediment that flows into the lake.

"If we took the absolute worse case scenario, which I'm sure won't happen, but we could clear all these lots, create the golf course look, manicured lawns going down to the lake," said Parson. "Then you could produce a sediment yield that would have this lake filled in in about a century."

Parson says it's more likely that instead of Beauty Lake being around for tens of thousands of years, human impact could vastly accelerate the lake's natural cycle. It would eventually fill up and turn into a marsh or wetland.

Beauty Lake house
Houses like this one are just beginning to pop up on the shores of Beauty Lake. The lake was undeveloped until a few years ago, when the shoreline was split into 30 lots.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

BSU researchers hope the Beauty Lake study will demonstrate the need to protect all lake resources. Pat Welle, professor of economics and environmental studies at BSU says population growth in lake country will keep shoreland prices high. Welle says what little undeveloped lakeshore is left in Minnesota will eventually be snatched up by developers.

"When I look at it I see this economic juggernaut coming at us to where if we don't have everything in place, what we have in our Minnesota lakes might be of a lot lower quality 50 years from now," Welle said.

Environmentalists say to avoid that scenario, the state needs to strengthen laws protecting lakes. Counties need to do a better job of enforcing shoreland ordinances.

Tim James, surface water specialist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency agrees there's lots of room for improvement. But he says he's encouraged by the growth in the number of lake associations and other groups banding together to protect lakes and raise water quality awareness. James says more people are starting to pay attention.

Canoeing Beauty Lake
Bemidji State University Professor Pat Welle uses a canoe to tour the 54-acre Beauty Lake. Welle says the plan is to track development on the lake over many years.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"The governors race has all three candidates talking about lakes and so I think that's a success," said James. "It's reaching a broader audience now. The phrase was used a few years ago that Minnesotans were, 'Loving their lakes to death.' That was a pretty good description because up until recently, people developed these lakes without really knowing the consequences of that development."

BSU researchers will complete the first phase of their Beauty Lake study by the end of the year. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials expect monitoring will continue every five years or so over the next few decades.