There’s no quick-fix solution for Albert Lea Lake

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 29, 2004

By Dick Herfindahl, Outdoor writer

A freeze-out the magnitude of which we experienced in Albert Lea Lake was quite an eye opener for a lot of us in the community.

I think we sometimes take for granted the resources we have and, any time you take something for granted, you leave yourself open for the unexpected. According to DNR Conservation Officer Brian Kuphal, the aeration system alone was not enough to keep the oxygen levels where they needed to be to avoid a kill.

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The lake west of I-35 was the part most affected by the lower oxygen levels and the other side is being monitored but the oxygen level east of I-35 has stayed at an acceptable level and no major kill is anticipated at this time.

Kuphal said many things contributed to the kill, including little or no vegetation, which in itself provides life-giving oxygen, and also the lower-than-normal water level. In most years there is a water flow over the dam most all year but, with the water levels so low, it was almost non-existent and with no moving water there is less oxygen.

These are some of the things that will need to be addressed by the lake committees, along with the state DNR. There are already quite a few good ideas being brought up by concerned citizens

Carp barriers are being sought as ways to wean the lake of the rough fish and make it more acceptable to game fish. There are some plans that make good sense and I hope they can make it past the study stage.

It seems like we have done an awful lot of studies on Albert Lea Lake but not much gets accomplished beyond that. The Lake Clean-up Committee does its part every year to police the shoreline and remove the garbage from the previous year. With the kill this year more people are aware that there needs to be something done and it will take a community effort to pursue a solution to cleaning up this lake.

Looking back on past winter kills which occurred on Fountain Lake I can remember having a certain empty feeling when seeing all the large northern and bass lying along the shore along with a large number of carp and bullheads. I think I always felt like I had missed out on something after seeing those fish and knowing that I didn’t even realize there were that many good game fish in Fountain Lake. This was well before the aeration of the lake and stocking so these fish were plentiful in the lakes for years and not that many people knew of their existence unless they spent a lot of time fishing the lake. I always knew there were northern and bass because from time to time I would manage to catch one but never seriously set out to fish them. I felt they were there but not in any large numbers.

Our lakes have always been a good source of recreation for all outdoors enthusiasts. Fishing has been the main focus of my outdoors recreation for about as many years as I can remember, and I surely want it to continue for the grandchildren too.

I have said many times we are lucky to have these resources available to us right here and not only for fishing, hunting and boating but for what the lakes add to the beauty of our city.

Lake Elysian is another example of a shallow lake with an aeration system that has experienced winter kill. According to Huon Newburg, Department of Natural Resources South Region Supervisor Lake Elysian has suffered winter kill on a semi-regular basis over the years. Newburg calls these lakes boom or bust lakes because they can produce fish for a few years and then freeze out.

“If you go back and look at historical winter weather conditions, this winter is pretty typical in terms of snow and temperatures,” Newburg noted. “What might be different, however, is that our shallow lakes are not as healthy as they once were and thus not able to withstand even normal winters as well as they once could.”

Consequently, “busts” occur more frequently today than they used to, at least on those lakes without aeration systems. And even aeration systems don’t always prevent “busts,” especially during severe winters.

As development and crop production continues unabated around southern Minnesota lakes, run-off into those basins continues to increase and impair water quality. Additionally, many people still equate aquatic vegetation with “weeds” and attempt to remove it whenever possible, Newburg stated.

“Lakes have to have that aquatic vegetation if there is to be any hope for them to be healthy waters,” Newburg noted. “Removing those plants, both emergent and submergent, is nothing but bad news for fish, wildlife and water quality.”

With the advent of aeration systems some thirty years ago, the odds that a southern Minnesota lake could survive a typical winter without a winter kill improved considerably. That has since been tempered somewhat by the degradation of many shallow lakes, Newburg stated.

According to Newburg, it’s simple to identify the problems facing Minnesota’s shallow lakes. Conversely, it’s “tough as heck to implement solutions to the problems. There are just so many competing interests and wants out there.”

In Newburg’s vision of a perfect world for Minnesota’s shallow lakes, the following would occur:

€ Buffer strips would be in place along all tributaries in a lake’s watershed;

€ Lakeshore owners would plant vegetation along their shoreline (not remove it), and refrain from fertilizing their lawns;

€ Faulty septic systems would be repaired or replaced;

€ Local zoning ordinances would take a more proactive approach to protecting shorelands from over-development;

€ Citizens would embrace the fact that local decision making is the key to making long-term lake improvements;

“We have a lot of lakes here in southern Minnesota that could truly become trophy fishing lakes, ” Newburg stated. “But not until we start treating them a whole lot better than we have been. Winter around here is what it is. Winter isn’t the problem. People are.”

I guess the real story is that we have been our own worst enemy, and if we are looking for a “quick fix” it’s not going to happen. Making Albert Lea Lake a healthy body of water for fish and wildlife will require a long-term commitment from all of us.

Until next time, keep warm, play safe and enjoy the outdoors.

Don’t forget our troops and keep them in your thoughts and prayers.