Our Rich History
The Sauk Chain is unique because it’s essentially a large reservoir, created in 1856 when a dam was built on the Sauk River near Cold Spring to power a mill.
About half of the lakes in the chain existed before the dam, but they weren’t as deep, said Jim Egan, a Horseshoe Lake resident and former president of the Sauk River Chain of Lakes Association.
After the dam was built, the river widened, connected existing lakes and created more, Egan said. Many were named for the farmers who owned the land around them: Schneider, Knaus, Krays, Bolfing.
Now the chain includes at least 10 lakes and as many as 17, depending on which ones are counted. The chain became a popular tourist destination, and resorts popped up along its shores. Anglers came for the panfish, walleye and northern pike. Boaters came for the open water and scenic views.
But although it became known as the Horseshoe Chain, the lakes could never shed their connection with the Sauk River, which flows through from the headwaters at Lake Osakis.
Some of the shallower ones, like East, Zumwalde and Great Northern, are considered “flowage” lakes heavily dependent on the river.
“Whatever comes down the river is going to end up in your backyard,” said John Rocky, president of the Sauk River Chain of Lakes Association.
Because of that, the MPCA is proposing to treat the Chain of Lakes differently than it would a typical lake.
“It isn’t really fair to try to hold it to the same standards as a different lake out in the countryside that’s all by itself and doesn’t have a big river running through it,” Van Eeckhout said. “The two aren’t really apples to apples.”
The agency proposed specific rules for the Sauk chain with different standards for the flowage and non-flowage lakes.
The standards are used to measure the amounts of phosphorus and chlorophyll, as well as clarity, measured by dropping a round instrument called a Secchi disk into the water and measuring how deep it can be seen. Phosphorus is a nutrient that stimulates algae growth; chlorophyll is the pigment that makes plants green and is an indicator of algae growth.
A deeper non-flowage lake such as Horseshoe or Bolfing would be required to reduce phosphorus levels to 55 micrograms per liter or less.
But for a shallower flowage lake like Koetter or Great Northern, the threshold would be 90 micrograms per liter.
The standards for chlorophyll also would be less strict than typical levels.
State and federal clean water laws allow for treating certain lakes and rivers differently that don’t nicely fit current standards, Van Eeckhout said.
“They’re just not all created equal,” he said.
However, one environmental group says the MPCA is short-changing the Sauk chain.
In its comments on the proposed standards, the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy notes that the Clean Water Act sets a goal for the protection of fish, wildlife and recreation.
“Our biggest concern is that the proposed levels would basically allow high concentrations of algae, which increase the likelihood of … blue-green algae,” said Michael Schmidt, water quality advocate with MCEA.
Schmidt noted that blue-green algae recently caused major problems with the city water supply in Toledo, Ohio.
High algae levels hinder recreation, one of the uses that’s supposed to be protected by clean water laws, Schmidt said.
“I don’t know why they think that their proposed end points are the best that they can do,” he said.
MCEA wants the state to stick to the existing rules of 60 micrograms per liter of phosphorus for flowage lakes and 40 micrograms per liter for non-flowage lakes.
The group argues that the state’s proposed standards aren’t based on sound science and won’t be sufficient to limit severe nuisance algae blooms.
“This approach goes beyond past adjustments to water quality standards and would allow higher concentrations of algae than in any other water body in the state,” MCEA states.
The MPCA’s Van Eeckhout said the proposed standards would still require a significant reduction of nutrient levels in the chain.
Much work lies ahead to reduce the levels of nutrients, particularly from agricultural sources, he said.
“It’s not by any means a slap on the wrist and letting these people off the hook,” Van Eeckhout said. “We still have a considerable challenge to get to the goal that we’re proposing.”
Taking on pollution
In recent decades, advocates for the Sauk chain have already tackled some of its biggest problems, so-called “point sources” that were major causes of pollutants entering the chain.
The biggest was Melrose’s wastewater treatment plant, which was discharging pollution. When that plant was improved in the early 1990s, it made a significant difference into the chain’s water quality, Egan said.
Over the last couple of decades, agencies like the Sauk River Watershed District, the Sauk River Chain of Lakes Association and the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District have worked to correct other pollution sources, such as livestock feedlots and septic systems.
About five years ago, the watershed district and Stearns County launched a controversial project to inspect and certify every septic system on the chain. Homeowners were offered low-interest loans to upgrade failing systems.
“We figured you kind of have to clean up your backyard before you look elsewhere,” Rocky said.
The efforts have paid off. Average phosphorus limits in the lakes once ranged from 350-400 micrograms per liter. Today, they are about half that, around 150-200 micrograms per liter, Van Eeckhout said.
“It’s made a huge difference,” he said.
Now that major problems have been addressed, the work ahead is daunting and much more complicated.
One of the big challenges is the huge amount of land — more than 1,000 square miles, much of it farmland — that drains into the river and eventually the lakes, said Scott Henderson, administrator of the Sauk River Watershed District.
“More farmers wanting to tile and get that water off of their land so that they can farm it effectively,” Henderson said. “But that’s just helping pour a lot more nutrients into the river system.”
More recently the watershed district has begun trying to tackle more problems high up in the watershed, near Lake Osakis.
“We really want to start with the headwaters and try to get the biggest reduction there, because water flows down,” Henderson said.
Egan said an important step is to create buffer strips along the streams that feed the Sauk River to help filter out the nutrients.
However, with today’s high land prices, farmers are reluctant to give up any land for production, so they need to be compensated, Egan said.
“It isn’t fair just to say ‘Don’t plant anymore,’ ” he said.
Cook believes that more public awareness and attention is needed to keep improving the chain.
“Basically now we’re really needing to focus on education and asking people around the lake to look for problems that we might be able to fix,” she said.
While many of the positive changes in the chain’s water quality happened relatively quickly, it will likely take longer to see continued progress.
“The ideal thing is we like to make slow and steady progress toward the goal,” Van Eeckhout said. “The lakes didn’t get this way overnight, and it would be silly to think we’d be able to return them to what they once were overnight.”
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