No one can deny the mystical bond that ties Minnesota’s people to its lakes. “Going to the lake” evokes sensations so vivid that they define who we are: the lapping of water, the wail of a loon, the tug of a walleye on the line, a breeze in your face, the sun on your shoulder. Memories pass from one generation to the next.
And yet, we Minnesotans are in deep denial about the critical condition of our lakes and the culpability we share. We are loving our lakes to death.
Agriculture has drained or poisoned the prairie lakes and potholes of southern and southwestern Minnesota. Forget about them; they’re gone.
A similar fate awaits the heart of lake country — the thousands of recreational lakes clustered around Brainerd, Detroit Lakes and Alexandria in central Minnesota. It’s not the crush of shoreline development by itself that’s killing them; it’s the reckless way in which development has been allowed to proceed.
Over the last half-century, quaint lakeside cabins have been transformed, by the thousands, into mega-homes with large fertilized lawns running to the water’s edge. Nearby towns have been converted to suburban-style strips with vast parking lots. Add in all the golf courses, faulty septic tanks and riprap barriers that replace natural shoreline vegetation, and you begin to realize how an exponential increase in unfiltered runoff has remade these lakes into a nutrient soup that’s quite literally suffocating fish and other native species within them.
This year’s early halt to walleye fishing on Mille Lacs, the state’s most popular fishing lake, is a particularly ominous example.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said Peter Sorensen, a fisheries expert at the University of Minnesota and one of a number of scientists who consider the damage irreversible, given the added realities of a warming climate and a stiff political resistance to land-use changes needed to restore central Minnesota’s lakes. Over the next few generations, those lakes will die, too.
The best we can hope for, then, is to preserve the still relatively pristine tier of forest-encircled northern lakes that stretches roughly from Bemidji and Park Rapids, through the Leech Lake region and into the Arrowhead. But saving those lakes will require two extraordinary acts of courage: first, an acknowledgment that the laissez-faire path we’ve followed for 50 years has failed, and, second, a new resolve to pass and enforce land-use regulations that diminish the impact of human settlement.
The aim shouldn’t be to inhibit future development but to change development’s character in ways that protect lakes and their surrounding watersheds.
Those are monumental tasks. Admitting we’ve been wrong is a hard thing. We are like fugitives with “stop me before I kill again” tattooed on our chests; we can’t seem to help ourselves. “Much of this has been unintentional and mostly inadvertent,” Sorensen said, and he’s right about that.