A loon pair calls to each other.
A juvenile bald eagle tests its wings at the pinnacle of a white pine.
They are lovely to behold — and indicators of clear, clean water.
Sharon Natzel, president of Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA), and Al Kiecker, a retiree and avid angler, observe this and more as they cruise to the deepest part of Long Lake.
They are citizen volunteers in an ongoing lake-monitoring program.
The collection of simple water quality data is one way to quantify the physical, chemical and biological condition of lakes.
Through their efforts, citizen volunteers — whether lake property owners, lake users or lake association members — develop a knowledge base that can be used to protect and restore their lake.
COLA is celebrating 20 years of lake water-quality testing, a collaborative effort of the volunteers, the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes.
Hubbard County has approximately 728 lakes, almost 30 of which have lake associations. According to the SWCD, open water covers 7 percent of the county's surface area.
An hour on the lake
On the third Sunday or Monday of each month, citizen volunteers venture onto their lake for scientific, rather than recreational purposes.
Monitoring continues May through September.
The program involves collecting water samples that will be lab-tested for total phosphorus and chlorophyll-A.
Phosphorus is a nutrient for plants and can enter lakes through run-off from manure, fertilizer or seepage from septic systems.
Chlorophyll-A is the pigment that makes algae green. It is measured to determine algae concentration.
Other observations, such as erosion, Secchi disk readings, surface water and air temperatures, rainfall, wind speed and direction, wave height or the presence of algae, are recorded.
Natzel and Kiecker also gather a water sample to observe total suspended solids (TSS) and nitrates. TSS include clay, silt, sand, algae, decaying vegetation and pollen.
The entire process takes about an hour.
Ice-packed coolers filled with all collected water samples are then shuttled to RMB Labs for analysis. Results are posted on RMB's lake monitoring program website (www.rembel.info) within seven to 10 days. At the end of the monitoring season, results are sent to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's statewide database.
The Long Lake water quality monitoring volunteers also use the SWCD's Hydro Lab on a monthly basis to detect the dissolved oxygen (DO) and temperature of Long Lake in one location, called site 202, which is the deepest part of the lake at 137 feet.
They started DO measurements in May 2012. Cisco, also known as tullibee, are like the canary in the mine and are the preferred forage of walleye, explains Natzel. Cisco need highly oxygenated water to thrive.
Each month, Natzel teams up with Jamin Carlson, a SWCD water quality/resource specialist, to gather the data, meter by meter, using a sensitive probe. The information about the Cisco's habitable zone helps everyone understand better what all fish are experiencing in Long Lake and the cycles of the lake.
"As our climate changes over time, we'll have to do more to protect lakes from run-off and nutrient loads that affect algae growth," Carlson said.
The data is then provided to Park Rapids DNR Fisheries, which produces charts using DNR software.
Volunteers do not need to lake association members, notes Natzel, especially since not every lake has an association. The MPCA, for instance, provides free training and a Secchi disk.
Best water quality in the state, nation
Minnesota's lakes were created when glaciers receded from the area between two million and 10,000 years ago.
Each lake is different, Moriya Rufer emphasized, its nature influenced by its depth, geology, topography and human activity. An aquatic ecologist with RMB Labs, she presented a report about the state of Hubbard County lakes at a recent COLA meeting.
"Hubbard County, where it's situated geographically, you have a lot of advantages for having really good water quality. You're blessed with some of the best water quality in the whole state of Minnesota — and really the whole nation, too," she said. "You're at the headwaters of three major watersheds, and as you know, everything flows downstream."
Being at the top of three watersheds is a beneficial because there's less nutrients and sediments draining into the county's lakes, Rufer explained.
The county's sandy soils are naturally low in phosphorus compared to other parts of the state.
Hubbard County also possesses good forest cover, which inhibits erosion.
Most of the lakes fall into the "oligotrophic" and "mesotrophic" classifications, Rufer said.
"Oligotrophic are the really deep, clear lakes, like Big Sand, that have 20-foot clarity. They are usually really deep, cold water. Mesotrophic are the medium level lakes, the walleye lakes. Long Lake, Fish Hook, Potato are in that category," she continued. "Eutrophic lakes in this area are mostly shallow lakes because you don't really have much for what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency calls 'impaired waters,' which means it has too much phosphorus."
Portage is a healthy, shallow eutrophic lake, for example.
Water quality trends
The only way to understand the state of area lakes is through observation and trend analysis, Rufer told Hubbard County COLA members.
It's great to have volunteers monitor lake quality "because you have the knowledge base. You are on the lake every day and you're seeing the changes year to year," she said, adding that state and county governments, the MPCA and the DNR don't have adequate staff to survey all of these lakes.
"If you weren't monitoring these lakes, no one would be. You are collecting data that's really valuable."
Healthy lakes boost the local economy through tourism and lake property values.
Fortunately, there's really good news.
"Everyone's either improving or stable. Nothing was declining," Rufer said.
Reviewing data from the past 20 years (1997-2016), RMB Labs provided a statistical analysis for nine lakes. Big Sand, Gilmore, Long, Portage and Potato saw improving trends over time. Big Mantrap, Plantagenet, Lower Twin and Spider are all stable.
Based on data through 2011, Emma, Eagle, Hinds, Kabekona, Little Sand and Stocking saw improved Secchi depth trends.
"I really haven't seen any other county that has this many improving lakes," Rufer said. "A lot of times, improvement can be a natural thing or due to people doing good landshore practices. It's hard to know sometimes, but we're happy it is."
The following lakes indicate stable water quality: Bad Axe, Belle Taine, Blue, Boulder, Duck, Fish Hook, Peysenske, Portage, South Island, Stony, Upper Bottle and 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Crow Wing.
Three lakes — 9th Crow Wing, Lower Bottle and Palmer — have declining Secchi depth trends through 2011 data.
Metro lakes are suffering water quality, but northern Minnesota lakes fare much better.
"We call this protection country because it had such good water quality. We want to protect it and not let it slide down to where it is in southern Minnesota," Rufer said.