Local lakes at risk of too much love

A few years ago, my friend Tom and his husband Dean began a multi-year quest to find the perfect Wisconsin Supper Club. It must serve brandy old fashioneds, surf & turf, and pop-overs. Kitchy décor and taxidermy are a bonus. Live music and a lakeside location? Essential.

Inspired by Tom and Dean’s culinary adventures, my husband and I set out last Friday on a mini road-trip to Balsam Lake Lodge in Polk County, Wisconsin. Our son was away on vacation for the week, and finding ourselves surprisingly lonely and bored, we decided that the 55 minute trip from Stillwater to Balsam Lake was just short enough to be classified as “going for a drive.” 

Black-eyed susan in a prairie.

Nature was downright flamboyant that evening. On our drive through the rolling hills and countryside, we were treated to a sunset, rainbows streaming down from the clouds above, a mother doe with two spotted fawns, sand hill cranes, and a pair of white swans, gliding gracefully across a lily-covered pond.

Balsam Lake Lodge serves up northwoods Wisconsin with a capital W. We walked in the door to find live music, a bachelorette party dressed up as cowgirls, and waitresses serving shots of Paradise. We tripled down on the Wisconsin experience when we ordered Ellsworth cheese curds, Friday night fish fry, and New Glarus Spotted Cow.

The sun sets over Balsam Lake in western Wisconsin.

Our evening reminded me that Minnesota and Wisconsin’s love of lakes is about so much more than just fishing and boating. There is something magical about watching the sun set slowly over a glistening lake, bouncing shards of color off the rippling waves. Each lake nurtures its own little ecosystem – not just of fish, birds, and wildlife that live by the water, but also clusters of lakes homes and cabins, farms, and tiny towns.

Unfortunately, some lakes in our region are at danger of being “loved to death” due to shoreline development. For decades, Big Carnelian (May Twp.) and Big Marine (May Twp./Scandia) have been known as two of the cleanest, clearest lakes in the Twin Cities area. Over the past ten years, however, the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District has observed a gradual decline in water quality and ecological health. Recently, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) conducted a biotic assessment of both lakes and notified the watershed district that they are “nearly impaired” due to loss of shoreline habitat, which has led to fewer fish, insects and aquatic organisms.

In Washington County, Lake Jane and Bone Lake were added to the impaired waters list in 2022 due to loss of fish and macroinvertebrate diversity. Big Carnelian and Big Marine lakes are experiencing changes as well due to shoreline development.

Similar changes have been observed in other local lakes as well. In 2022, the MPCA added Lake Jane (Lake Elmo) and Bone Lake (Scandia) to Minnesota’s impaired waters list due to loss of fish and macroinvertebrate diversity. Shoreline development has been the primary challenge for both of those lakes as well.

From studying other lakes around the state, we know that small changes – removing trees, shrubs, and perennial plants; adding rock along the water’s edge (rip rap); or building homes and driveways – can add up to big ecological impacts over time. As shorelines become increasingly more developed, we start to see shoreline erosion, fewer fish and wildlife, more algae in the water, and diminished water clarity.

To protect local lakes from further shoreline degradation, watershed districts have established permit programs that establish rules for shoreline development. Lakeshore landowners should always check with their watershed district first before embarking on any projects such as home additions, clearing trees or shoreline vegetation, grading, or adding riprap. In addition, watershed districts also offer cost-share incentives to help shoreline owners transition turf and rock-wall shorelines back to a more naturalized landscape with deep-rooted native plants, shrubs and trees to guard against erosion and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

A naturalized shoreline in Chisago County attracts pollinators, in addition to providing habitat for turtles, frogs, fish and birds. (Photo by Barbara Heitkamp)

If you own lakeshore property anywhere in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources offers a Score your Shore tool that you can use to self-assess the habitat and health of your lakeshore: www.dnr.state.mn.us/scoreyourshore.

In Washington County, you can also sign up for a free site visit with the Washington Conservation District to learn about watershed district grants and get professional advice on your shoreline: www.mnwcd.org/site-visit-signup-form.