As More Discover What Willmar Chain Of Lakes Offer, Momentum Grows To Address Water Quality Issues

Ron Revier is among the volunteers who have been monitoring water quality on the Willmar chain of lakes.

WILLMAR – No doubt, the Governor’s Fishing Opener meant the end of one of the region’s best-kept secrets.

Some of the anglers here for the Governor’s Fishing Opener were sure to discover that once lowly Willmar Lake offers up some of the area’s best opportunities to land lunker walleyes, along with slab crappies and plump sunfish.

There’s already no secret about the crappies and walleyes that can be caught on adjoining Foot Lake. The annual winter Crappie Village of ice houses on Foot gave it away long ago.

Unfortunately, there’s no secret about the water quality issues these lakes face, along with Swan and Skataas Lakes, all part of the Willmar Chain of Lakes. Willmar Lake was recently added to the state’s list of impaired waters. It, along with Foot, becomes choked in early summer by the growth of the curly-leaf pondweed, an invasive plant. Large schools of rough fish in all four of these lakes keep the waters stirred and turbid.

All of these are issues that can be addressed, but it will take lots of helping hands. “It’s a team approach,’’ said Mike O’Brien.

The retired conservation officer and Willmar Lake resident is among a number of people who are working to set the stage for action to improve the water quality in the chain of lakes, starting with Willmar Lake.

“That’s the key right now, to improve Willmar Lake,’’ said Forrest Peterson, an information officer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and one of the local proponents for improving the lakes.

Peterson is hoping to create public awareness and understanding of the issues the lakes face. The issues they face are due largely to non-point sources of pollution, and consequently it will take everyone doing their part to correct them, he explained.

He organized a public meeting one year ago to launch the cleanup effort, and is planning a follow-up meeting, possibly in June. A city task force working on the Robbins Island Park on Foot and Willmar Lakes has also brought together representatives of the city, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, other agencies and citizens to address the issues.

It’s going to take everyone doing a little bit of something to make it happen, according to Mayor Marv Calvin of Willmar. “Everyone throws in a nickel and pretty soon you have a dollar,’’ he said.

One of the critical issues facing the lakes is the fact that 45 storm sewer outlets discharge into Willmar and Foot Lakes. They carry nitrogen and sediment-bearing phosphorus, much of it washed from heavily fertilized lawns in town, directly to the lakes during rain events.

Calvin said the city is looking at ways to manage the stormwater system, including the possibility of diverting some of the flow to a wetland where sediment and the phosphorus it carries can settle.

Numerous storm drains carry sediment and nutrients into Willmar and Foot Lakes.

Septic systems in the upstream watershed around Swan and Skataas Lakes, and runoff from agricultural lands also deliver sediment and nutrients to the system.

The Hawk Creek Watershed Project conducted extensive water quality monitoring on the four lakes in 2008 and 2009. The monitoring found that Willmar Lake did not meet water quality standards for total phosphorus, chlorophyll and turbidity. Swan Lake did not meet standards for phosphorus – and was added to the state’s list of impaired waters in 2014. The main bay of Willmar Lake was added in 2018.

The inclusion on the list of impaired waters is important: It opens opportunities to obtain grant funding to assist with cleanup efforts. Heidi Rauenhorst, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, said the project, along with the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District, also offer assistance to landowners to implement best management practices as well as shoreline improvements that can reduce nonpoint sources of sediments and nutrients.

O’Brien and others are working to re-energize the Foot and Willmar Lakes Association to take on many of the challenges. One of the initial goals includes taking on curly-leaf pondweed. There’s discussion about identifying the locations where chemical control might be most effective, such as the small bay in Foot Lake near the radio station. There’s also interest in acquiring a mechanical harvester to remove the plant. This dual approach has helped improve Nest Lake, O’Brien said.

Much of this year’s work will focus on monitoring water quality in the lakes with the goal of identifying the areas contributing the larger amounts of sediment and nutrients. This year’s goal is to set the stage for action next year, O’Brien explained.

Mayor Calvin is among those who believe the timing is right for action. Thanks to the Destination Playground, and a $600,000 Legacy grant to improve Robbins Island, people are paying attention to the recreational assets the community enjoys. It’s hard to overstate the recreational value of having a 55-acre park surrounded by water and all within easy access, whether by foot, car or bicycle.  

Peterson also likes to point out that the community has risen to the occasion before to protect the waters of these lakes.

Decades ago, the waters of these lakes were contaminated by everything from raw sewage and diesel sludge to the periodic discharges from a slaughtering operation.  

These point sources have been ended. Foot Lake was dredged to remove its sediments in the 1980s. And more recently, the city invested $84 million in a new wastewater treatment plant. “The city stepped up big,’’ Peterson said.  

Submitted/ An aerial view of the Willmar chain of lakes, including from top to bottom: Foot, Willmar, Swan and Skataas.