Channeling a life-long passion for water protection toward community change in Forest Lake

Curt Sparks began his career at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in 1972, the same year that congress established the Federal Clean Water Act. In the decades preceding, water pollution in the United States had become so problematic that urban rivers caught on fire and biologists were unable to find more than two living fish in the entire Mississippi River from Minneapolis to St. Paul. After joining the newly created MPCA, Sparks and his colleagues worked to regulate “point-source” discharges from factories and wastewater treatment plants to help clean up Minnesota’s lakes and rivers.

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burns in 1969 – image from Disasters like this highlighted the need for environmental regulations to protect water, land, and air.

At the time, Sparks and his wife were living in a mobile home park in Blaine and they yearned to have more space and better access to enjoy the outdoors. “We went up north every weekend, looking for lake property to buy,” he explains, “and after a while, we got pretty tired of driving.” When a piece of land became available on Keewahtin Lake in Forest Lake, they jumped at the opportunity to build a home there and enjoy lake life, closer to home. “Now we’ve been in the woods and on the lake for 45 years,” Sparks says.

Keewahtin Lake in Forest Lake – image from CLFLWD.

After moving to Forest Lake, Curt Sparks quickly got involved in the local community. The area was still part of Forest Lake Township at the time and he ended up serving three years on the township board.  He helped to create Lakes Area Recycling, the first full-service recycling program in the Twin Cities area, and recruited representatives from Forest Lake Township, City of Forest Lake and New Scandia Township to create the Forest Lake Watershed Management Organization (FLWMO) in 1983.

“I was still working at the MPCA,” he explains, “but by then we were working to develop a nonpoint source program.” Non-point source is a term used to describe distributed sources of water pollution, such as stormwater, that come from numerous places within a watershed, rather than a single factory or treatment plant. “We worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a federal nonpoint source program, modeled after Minnesota’s program, and began talking with the Minnesota Legislature about ways to support locally-led watershed management.”

By the 1990’s Curt Sparks and other staff at the MPCA were working to develop a nonpoint source water pollution program to address runoff pollution from urban and rural areas.

These efforts eventually led to the formation of lake associations around the state, as well as the creation of watershed management organizations in the Twin Cities area. Sparks helped to manage the FLWMO for 15 years and later served as district engineer for the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District, after it was formed to replace FLWMO in 1998.

Now, decades later, Sparks is retired but still passionate about protecting Minnesota’s water resources, especially in his local community. Currently, he serves on the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District’s citizen advisory committee.

The Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District has now been in operation for more than 20 years and works closely with community members to protect and improve local water.

“We are lucky to have a motivated group of people at the watershed district and a good manager who advocates for cost-effective watershed management,” he says proudly. “The success of our programs come down to the planning, water monitoring, and diagnostic studies that the watershed district conducted up front, as well as the community commitment. The district has been very successful in getting state grants because it has projects ready to implement.”

Sparks would love to see more people in the community get involved in lake and watershed stewardship, whether it is by joining the watershed district’s citizen advisory committee, participating in activities led by one of the local lakes associations, or merely adopting a storm drain in their neighborhood. “I would love to see a more robust environmental education program for students in the area, and more collaboration with organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary. There are many things the citizen advisory committee could take on if we had more people involved.”

Reflecting back on the many ways he has been involved in water protection over the years, Sparks says it comes down to one central question, “What do you really want in life? What is important to you?”

Curt Sparks talks about citizen water monitoring – photo from MPCA.

To learn and get involved in local watershed work: