Early conflict led to collaborative, science-based watershed management today
It all began with a big box store. The year was 1994, and business in Forest Lake was booming. When construction began on a Walmart store near I35 and Broadway Ave., however, residents six miles north on Comfort Lake noticed a dramatic change. At the time, Comfort was known as the clearest lake in Chisago County. Within a few months, however, nutrient-rich sediment began pouring in from the Sunrise River, clouding the water and causing algae to spread across the lake. The store’s construction contractors had dumped peat from the building site alongside a ditch system, originally created to dry out land for farming, and the soil was quickly washing downstream into the river and Comfort Lake.
Over the next six months, a legal and regulatory battle ensued. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) issued an administrative order to correct the problem; the Comfort Lake Lake Association filed a lawsuit against Dresel Contracting, Inc. and Fain Companies (the builders) for violating the Federal Clean Water Act; and the soil piles continued to flow downstream into Comfort Lake. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed and the MPCA ordered the companies to pay $12,000 in civil penalties, including $6,000 to the City of Forest Lake to conduct a diagnostic study of water quality and pollution in Comfort Lake. The incident also set the stage for a special-purpose local unit of government known as the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District to become established.
“Even though a conflict was a catalyst, over the course of time, people began working together,” says Jackie Anderson, a long-time board member who is currently serving as the watershed district’s vice chair. “What happened here in Forest Lake isn’t unique. It happens all around the state and it’s one of the reasons watershed districts have come into existence.”
After the Walmart construction was complete, local government partners spent the next five years working to develop a collaborative solution to restore Comfort Lake and protect against future water pollution. Along the way, they navigated challenges in Minnesota ditch law and working across county lines inside and outside the metro area. Eventually, 74 area residents, as well as the City of Forest Lake, Wyoming Township, Chisago County and Washington County, filed a petition to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to create a watershed district. The Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District (CLFLWD) was officially established on September 23, 1999. Eight years later, in 2007, the district’s designation was changed from a rural to an urban watershed district so that it could better address urban stormwater issues.
Over the past 20 years, CLFLWD has developed a watershed management approach that is both collaborative and science-based. “The watershed district takes a very calculated approach to restoring degraded lakes,” says Anderson. Dividing the watershed’s 49 square miles into four lake management districts – Bone, Comfort, Forest and Little Comfort – has made it easier to focus on projects that really work. The total watershed includes 20 named lakes, 300 drainage ditches, 1000 wetlands, and headwaters to the Sunrise River. Lake and stream water monitoring helps to identify places where work is needed, and diagnostic studies pinpoint the largest sources of phosphorus so that CLFLWD can implement water quality improvement projects that are effective and cost-efficient. “Just one pound of phosphorus can create 500 pounds of algae in a lake,” says Anderson, “So it is really important to keep excess phosphorus out of our lakes and streams.” The watershed district also works with its communities to implement rules that protect lakes, streams and wetlands against erosion and runoff pollution during construction and development.
Today, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District has several success stories to share. One is a multi-year effort to restore Moody Lake in Chisago County through fish management, wetlands restoration, projects with nearby farmers, and a recent alum treatment. The result has been a 65% decrease in phosphorus flowing into the lake, an end to persistent algae blooms, and better water quality downstream. Nearby, Bone Lake in Scandia has enjoyed a similar transformation, improving from a water quality grade of “F” to a “B-” over the past ten years. Large projects have also been completed at Bixby Park, Forest Hills Golf Club, and other locations in Forest Lake.
This September, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a series of events, including a district tour, an open house, and an information booth outside their Lake Street office during the week of Sept. 23-27. “At its core, a spirit of cooperation has made everything easier,” Anderson explains. “We’re all concerned about protecting our water even though we all have different responsibilities. That spirit has never left the district.”
To learn more about the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District, visit www.clflwd.org. To join the district tour on Saturday, Sept. 21, 8am-noon, RSVP online or at 651-395-5858. Residents are also encouraged to attend the open house on Monday, Sept. 23, 2-7pm (come between 5-7pm to learn about alum treatments planned on Shields and Moody Lakes) or stop by during the week of Sept 23-27, 8am-5pm for freebies, treats, and lake information (44 Lake Street S. in Forest Lake).