It takes a village: the journey of getting Martin Lake de-listed

“So wait, is Martin Lake going to be de-listed?”

The voice of the woman asking the question carried both hope and excitement. You could feel the expectant energy growing in the meeting room at the Forest Lake American Legion, where members of the Martin Lakers Association were conducting their spring 2022 membership meeting.

De-listed refers to the action of removing a water body from the state impaired waters list – it means water quality is meeting state standards and has improved for recreational uses like swimming, boating, and fishing.

“Not yet – we need to continue to show this trend of lower phosphorus levels for another year or two,” answered Jamie Schurbon, Watershed Projects Manager at the Anoka Conservation District. “The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency looks at the five-year average when considering de-listing lakes. Still, if we continue to see these lower concentrations, it’s very possible we see Martin Lake delisted in the near future.”

There were cheers, claps, and an overwhelming sense of ‘challenge accepted’ from the crowd of about 40 lakeshore owners. Jamie continued his presentation, outlining this year’s proposed carp management program and success of three recent stormwater pond enlargement projects that will lead to 50% greater pollutant removal than when the ponds were originally designed and built.

Martin Lake, a relatively small lake (238 acres and less than 20 feet deep) in Anoka County, was first placed on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s statewide impaired waters list in 2004. It was listed for excess nutrients (phosphorus), primarily sourced from upstream Typo Lake (67%), direct runoff to the lake (25%) and a spattering of other smaller loading sources. The lake drains to the Sunrise River, which drains to the larger St. Croix River at the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. The Sunrise River is recognized as Minnesota’s largest contributor of suspended solids and nutrients to the St. Croix River.

Martin Lake in Anoka County. The lake has approximately 140 lakeshore homes and has moderate recreational use – mostly fishing and boating by local residents. Photo source: Google Earth

Issues with water quality on Martin Lake were observed for decades prior to its impairment listing, with one 1954 MN Department of Natural Resources fisheries crew describing the water color as ‘green algae.’ High populations of ‘rough fish’ (fish that are undesirable food or sport) were recorded as far back as the 1940s. Recreation has been primarily limited to fishing, boating, and some light swimming in the early summer. From July to September, algal scums have historically made it difficult to recreate on the lake.

Jamie Schurbon, who also works as the day to day contact for the Sunrise River Watershed Management Organization, has played a significant role in helping marshal partners, available resources, and funding to take on the water quality challenges of Martin Lake over the past 15 years.

“Improving conditions in Martin Lake is a high priority, not only because it’s has been a significant source of pollution to downstream waters, but also because we have wanted to improve the overall lake ecosystem and recreational use for the community,” says Jamie. “Being able to form a strong partnership with the lake association has been key, and the Martin Lakers have been amazing. They’ve worked with us for 15 years, and now they are starting to experience the dividends of cleaner water after years of incremental improvements.”

Those improvements have included multiple water quality projects, ranging from installation of rain gardens and stormwater ponds, reducing “rough fish” populations by installing inlet/outlet barriers and holding carp fishing clinics, and multiple lakeshore restorations. There has also been significant educational outreach, with the Martin Lakers helping facilitate workshops about proper septic system care, volunteering at events, and talking to their neighbors about planned projects.

And it’s working. Total phosphorus levels have seen a marked decline in the last 10 years, with the past several years at or below the state water quality standard. Water clarity has also improved overall, with the lake staying clearer for a longer portion of the summer season before being overtaken by algae.

Total phosphorus data for Martin Lake starting in 1997 through last year. The red line represents the state water quality standard.

“Fifteen years ago, I would go to the end of my dock and not be able to see more than 12 inches into the water,” says John Mattila, current president of the Martin Lakers. “Now, I can see at least 3 feet down – sometimes much more depending on the time of year. It’s night and day to how it used to be.”

While the Martin Lakers aren’t going to be able to see their lake de-listed just yet, they do still have cause to celebrate. Martin Lake drains to the West Branch of the Sunrise River, whose section between Martin Lake and Sunrise River Pool 1 in Chisago County WAS removed from the impaired waters list this year.

The West Branch of the Sunrise River between Martin Lake and Sunrise River Pool 1 was delisted for impairments in pH, turbidity, and fish biota.

Jamie was quick to point out the lakeshore residents’ contribution to that outcome – “Because of our actions here, we’ve made downstream better. That story wouldn’t be happening without all the efforts you have contributed over the years.”

It’s a true statement, and now with Martin Lake so close to being de-listed, the Martin Lakers are eager to step up even more. By the end of the meeting, Jamie had numerous volunteers to help with the carp management efforts planned for the summer, and five lakeshore site visits to make in the following weeks.

“Water quality in lakes reflect the values and priorities of its surrounding community, and these folks are committed to help Martin Lake achieve a water quality status that it hasn’t seen since before historic records were taken,” says Jamie. “It’s incredibly inspiring.”

*Featured top image of Martin Lake by Amy Piccott