Perspective on the health of Minnesota lakes

Richard Hecock
Richard Hecock says lake residents in Becker County began worrying about water quality in the 1940s.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

There's a bite to the breeze as Richard Hecock maneuvers his pontoon into the choppy waves of Big Detroit Lake.

"Probably the lakes are a little clearer, yes. Are they healthier? I'm not sure."

"On a warm day there could be a hundred boats parked along this sandbar," says Hecock.

Today there are only a couple of boats heading for favorite fishing spots. The Detroit Lakes beach is quiet.

It's been a cooler than normal summer and when the water is cooler, it's also clearer. The sandy bottom is visible in six feet of water, something Hecock says it unusual.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Richard Hecock has spent every summer on this lake since 1939. He's lived on the lake since 1993, and spent seven years as administrator of the Pelican River Watershed District.

His career was as a professor in water resource planning at Oklahoma State University.

Big Detroit Lake has been popular with summer visitors since the early 1900s when passenger trains brought vacationers to the shore.

Invasive species
Invasive species are increasing in many Minnesota lakes. Residents of Big Detroit Lake fight flowering rush every summer, cutting the plants and using pesticide applications.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Hecock says in some ways the water quality has improved. When he was a kid it was much more common to see the lake covered with a thick layer of algae that made swimming unpleasant.

"The number of algae blooms has certainly declined," says Hecock. "The number of days with a pea green layer on the surface, that's gone. That doesn't happen ever. We used to call them dog days."

Those algae blooms were the result of pollution. Hecock says a milk processing plant dumped it's waste directly into the lake and most cabin owners just dug a hole along the lake shore for an outhouse.

The effect on the lake was so noticeable, area residents started a lake association in 1947 to address water quality.


"By the 1940s there was definite concern because of the poor quality of water," says Hecock. "I can remember vividly my relative selling their property on Lake Sallie and moving to another lake, so we know something was going on. But we only have good comparable data going back into the 70s."

Because there are only about 30 years of good water quality data, it's not easy to compare the health of Minnesota lakes over time.

Hecock says water quality on this lake hit bottom in the 1970s. It's improved or stabilized since then.

"Probably the lakes are a little clearer, yes. Are they healthier? I'm not sure," muses Hecock as he steers his pontoon toward shore.

To make his point, Hecock slows the boat near a thick stand of flowering rush. On the sandy bottom below are silver dollar sized snails. These invasive species are not native to Minnesota.

In the past 20 or 30 years, shoreline like this has changed to include larger homes, more boats, and manicured lawns.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Invasive species are just one growing threat to Minnesota lakes.

Lake homes are getting bigger and most of the dwellings on this lake are year-round homes with manicured lawns right down to the water.

Hecock points out another area of concern as he cruises along the heavily developed shoreline.

"I did a survey of this beach not too long ago and there are 49 properties and 62 boats," recalls Hecock.

The concern is that the engines on those boats keep getting bigger and faster. Hecock says they can cause serious damage to plant life on the lake bottom.

But he says, he learned in his years as a watershed administrator, that most people are only concerned about what they can see. Algae blooms that close a beach or weeds that clog shorelines bring calls for action.

"The notion that somehow a motor like this could have adverse impacts ten feet below the surface completely escapes the general public, and for that matter the decision makers," Hecock says.

He predicts that residents concerned about the water quality of our lakes will have to keep up the pressure controlling shoreland development. And, come to grips with the impact of large boats.

Richard Hecock wonders if rules will change the behavior of lake shore residents if they don't understand how their actions affect lakes.

As he brings his pontoon back to the dock, he points out the tall grass and native flowers on his beach. It's a buffer designed to keep runoff from his lawn out of the lake.

However, Hecock's lakefront footage is the only property with this kind of a natural buffer and it's surrounded by manicured lawns that stretch to the water's edge.