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Legislators, citizens meet to discuss water resource issues

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Legislators and citizen-led lake and stream organizations gathered in Walker Friday to discuss water resource protection issues, Paula West of the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation reminding the audience of Will Rogers' sagacious comment:

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"The trouble with land is they're not making it anymore."

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, moderated the second annual event, organized by lake and watershed volunteers and headed by the Pine River Watershed Alliance and Minnesota Waters, a statewide nonprofit.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who worked with tribal government for more than 30 years, endorsed long-term management for watershed, commending Minnesota tribes for developing plans.

"We have a legacy we need to ensure," he reminded the audience.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said in the past two years he's noticed more concern for the outdoors than at any time during his tenure in the House. "It seems government is not taking big enough steps."

The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment approved by voters last year was a "great victory," Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids said. The largest unpolluted aquifer in the United States is in northern Minnesota, he reminded the audience of the unique natural resource.

But he expressed concern for invasive species imperiling Minnesota's lakes and forests.

"Our lakes are the natural treasure for which our state is best known," Olson stated. But "the challenges seem different than in times past. Excessive weed growth, invasive species, natural fish reproduction, water clarity and other interrelated concerns require us to be proactive if we want our Minnesota waters to remain healthy and available for future generations."

From cabins to castles

West, who serves as executive director of the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation, pointed out the five-county region of Hubbard, Cass, Aiken, Clearwater and Itasca is Minnesota's "premier lake region." It's home to 21 percent of all lakes, 11.6 percent of river miles and 42 percent of the state's meandering Mississippi.

And this is not going unnoticed; the area is among the fastest growing in the state, she said. State demographics predict growth rates of 40 to 60 percent by 2030 in counties rich in water resources.

"Shorelands are changing," she said, "from cabins to castles." And marginal shoreland is now being developed. "As the region grows, we must develop a balance to protect natural resources.

"Lakes and rivers are part of the quality of life, the good life.

Studies, she pointed out, have validated the relationship of water clarity and property values.

But development creates sediment. And an estimated 28 percent of emergent and floating leaf vegetation has been lost, which is vital to fish spawning.

The "big invader" -aquatic invasive species - is a force to be reckoned with as access to lakes increases.

She advocated sustaining healthy waters through land conservation easements and acquisition.

By conserving land you reduce nutrients, keep habitat intact and ensure public enjoyment. She encouraged stewardship regarding development of sensitive shoreland.

"You will be leaving a legacy."

History in the making

"Development is inevitable, but good development isn't, especially with inadequate ordinances," said Philip Hunsicker, program director for 1,000 Friends of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization advocating sustainable development.

Shoreland management was initiated in 1970, many of the changes citizen-led, as growing development created pressure on public waters.

A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found a 90 percent increase in the number of houses on sizable lakes between 1954 and 1967.

"As lakes were developed Minnesotans recognized the quality of their experience and the lakes themselves were beginning to suffer," he said.

The Legislature enacted the Shoreland Management Act of 1969, the Department of Natural Resources directed to develop standards.

For many counties, the act marked entry into planning and zoning, he said.

The trend of increased permanent homes on lakes and larger lakeshore developments led to revisions in 1989.

And in 2005, concerned citizens from the north central region of the state, with direction from the DNR, crafted the Alterntive Shoreland Management Standards.

The original standards, he said, had become "woefully inadequate" because "development pressures far surpassed anything envisioned in 1989.

"Quaint cabins were being turned into 10,000-square-foot 'starter castles.' Resorts were changing from intimate, rustic cabins to dense, condo-like structures."

"But no local unit of government (LGU) adopted the entire document of science-based recommendations," he said. "There was no political will."

Then in 2007, buoyed by citizen outcry, the Legislature directed the DNR to update mandatory statewide minimum shoreland development standards.

"We thank you for doing that," he told the legislators attending. "For recognizing that changes were necessary.

The current draft isn't perfect," Hunsicker said. "In my mind there are too few requirements and too many recommendations. Too much is left up to the discretion of the LGUs and if the Alternative Shoreland Standards showed us anything, it is that there is a lack of political will among most LGUs to change on their own."

But he advocated adoption of the new rules "ASAP."

He suggested the Legislature provide financial support for the measure, possibly by changing the way mortgage and deed taxes are apportioned to counties.

And lawmakers must support adequate enforcement, he said. Incentives, such as rebates, could be implemented for properties sold with shoreline buffers, he suggested.

"You have a roomful of defenders here today," he told the legislators. And none of us are lukewarm about protecting our public waters."

Septic system inventory?

Brent Rud of Cass County Environmental Services suggested looking at managing septic systems as public infrastructure.

Subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) are here to stay, he reminded the audience.

The big problem is inventory, he admitted. "We don't know what we have."

A national estimate is 35 percent of SSTS are failing. Cass County found a significant percentage failing on lakeshore.

"Cass County's goal is upgrading all non-compliant systems and managing SSTS as infrastructure," Rud told the audience.

In 1991, Cass County pioneered inspection of septic systems during a transfer of property, he said. Now it's becoming relatively commonplace.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been charged with bringing a plan to the Legislature on inventorying all SSTS in Minnesota, he said, admitting it to be a formidable task.

He advocated the state develop an online database for county use.

"SSTS have been largely ignored," he said. But that may be coming to an end.

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