Conservation Minnesota

Our Disappearing Lakes

I was recently able to attend the Board of Water and Soil Resources Conservation Tour which highlighted a slew of conservation and water projects throughout Goodhue and Rice Counties. We saw everything from streambank stabilization projects to retention ponds deep in the heart of farm country. The biggest shock to me was the sheer amount of projects that are happening throughout the countryside which help to better our water quality throughout the region. I was also very pleased to see a lot of collaboration on these projects between Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local governments, and landowners.

We could highlight every little nitty-gritty detail of our tour but that would take far too long and for the sake of your busy schedule I’m going to cover one issue that I’ve heard a lot about – the sedimentation of Lake Pepin and Lake Byllesby. These lakes are fed by the Cannon River (among others), which is posing a huge threat to their future. The lakes are filling in with sediment and they are filling in fast.

Where does this sediment come from and what can we do? First, lets get to know these lakes a little better.

Lake Pepin is the largest naturally occurring lake along the entire Mississippi River and is known as the birthplace of waterskiing (you read that correctly). On the stranger side of things, Lake Pepin is home to a mythical creature that the locals have dubbed “Pepie” in response to a host of sightings over the last 100 years. A local businessman in collaboration with the Lake City Tourism Bureau is offering up a $50,000 reward for irrefutable evidence of “Pepie”. So, if you’re feeling adventurous…

Lake Byllesby is a reservoir that was created in 1910 after the construction of a hydroelectric damn on the Cannon River. The dam resulted in a 1,432 acre lake known as Lake Byllesby. Designated as a recreation lake, Lake Byllesby is now a great place to fish, swim, and waterski. In 1988 during a drawdown of the lake to repair the dam, a local farmer found hundreds of ancient tools that had been buried for centuries. These tools were found to be the oldest in Minnesota and push human settlement of Minnesota to over 10,000 years ago.

As you can see, these lakes are abundant with history and legend. They are important for tourism, cities, homeowners, businesses, and our ecosystem. They are important for Minnesota. Current estimates have indicated that if nothing is done Lake Byllesby will be completely filled with sediment in 100 years and Lake Pepin will be filled with sediment in 320 years. That might seem like a long time but just think about the sheer volume of water in these lakes; that is a lot of sediment!

Lake Byllesby Improvement Association has been working towards a dredging project to help clear the tons of sediment that have settled on the west side of the lake and there are plans to dredge Lake Pepin very soon. However, there are a couple of problems with relying on dredging to fix the problem of sedimentation. One, this is a temporary fix and doesn’t address the cause of the sediment sources. Two, it’s very expensive and will need to be repeated in the future. Although, dredging will have to happen in order to restore the lakes to their pre-settlement conditions, we need to talk about what is causing this – stream bank erosion and agricultural runoff.

Instead of advocating for dredging, we could be advocating for strong buffer legislation that would not only help to stave the sedimentation of these lakes but of all of our waters here in Minnesota. A 50 foot buffer strip will eliminate 75% of sediment running off of farm fields, 50% of nitrates. and it would help to address issues with streambank erosion as well. Long-term watershed-wide solutions to our water issues would go a long way in improving the health and quality of our waters.

About Avery Hildebrand

Avery Hildebrand
Born in Minnesota, Hildebrand earned his degree in Environmental Science and Management from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. He has an extensive background in canvassing and organizing. An avid fisherman, who once worked as an aquatic invasive species watercraft inspector, his perfect day in Minnesota includes good friends and fishing, which pairs nicely with his favorite place in the state, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
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