On a sunny day in June, Lake Independence is calm but certainly not clear. A wide ribbon of green algae swirls through a roped-off swimming area. At a nearby fishing pier, invasive plants surround the dock, turning the water a dark and murky green.
In another month or two, this natural treasure will be covered in green slime and smell like a sewer. Thickets of Eurasian water milfoil will clog boat propellers and snare swimmers.
"You can't see much more than a foot deep in the middle of summer," said Mike McLaughlin, who has lived along the lake for 20 years. "People don't like to swim in it anymore."
This unpleasant cycle has intensified over two decades as the lake, about 20 miles west of Minneapolis, chokes on phosphorus from horse manure, chemical fertilizers and other local sources.
Alarmed by rising pollution levels, state officials put the lake on their list of "impaired" waters in 2002. Citizens mobilized, scientists studied the water and $410,000 in state money was set aside to tackle the problem. Lake Independence emerged as the first lake in Minnesota with a state-approved cleanup plan.
Eight years later, almost nothing has changed.
"It's very frustrating," said McLaughlin, vice president of the Lake Independence Citizens Association.
As a test of the federal government's Clean Water program, Lake Independence is a warning sign. It shows how hard it may be to significantly reduce pollution in 1,200 other lakes on the state's "impaired waters" list, which tracks water bodies that fail one or more ecological standards. Also on Minnesota's list are 436 rivers.
Federal law requires public waters to be clean enough for swimming and fishing, and state governments are supposed to figure out how to rehabilitate all lakes and rivers that don't meet federal standards for excessive nutrients, bacteria and other pollutants. But there are no deadlines for improvement, and no penalties for inaction.
Agricultural sources of water pollution are exempt, except for large feedlots. And cleaning the water is left largely to local government and watershed groups, which are unable to enforce federal standards.
So far, Minnesota has not taken a single lake off its list in 18 years. In fact, the state has approved just 28 cleanup plans, covering a total of 20 rivers and 12 lakes. That's less than 2 percent of all impaired water bodies in the state.
"The law doesn't say clean up. The law says write a plan," said Steven Taff, an economist at the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
With so many damaged lakes lingering on a cleanup list that keeps getting longer, environmentalists and others say the risks of permanent damage -- of losing idyllic lakes that have long defined life in Minnesota -- are growing.
Like 'dumping Miracle-Gro'
Lake Independence got its name when settlers first encountered it on July 4, 1854. Over the decades, the land surrounding the mile-wide lake was converted to farms, cottages, small resorts and homes. For many, the lake is a less expensive alternative to Lake Minnetonka for recreation.
Thousands of city kids have learned how to sail and water ski at the YMCA camp. Anglers are drawn to one of the best-stocked lakes in the Twin Cities area. Last year, more than 400,000 people visited Baker Park Reserve on the south shore of the lake, which contains a campground, two swimming beaches and a fishing pier, according to John Barten, director of natural resources management for Three Rivers Park District.
Since 1990, park district officials have measured slow but steady increases in the lake's level of phosphorus, a nutrient that runs off the land from manure, human waste and chemical fertilizers. Phosphorus is a good thing for plant growth and crop yields, but in water it supercharges algae and weeds that degrade fishing and boating and ruin swimming and waterskiing.
"Basically what we're doing is dumping Miracle-Gro into the lakes," said Jonathan Foley, who directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
Barten and McLaughlin were members of a stakeholder committee that began meeting in 2004 to develop a plan to reduce phosphorus in the lake, as required by the federal Clean Water Act. The group also included area mayors, landowners and representatives of farming and horse associations.
Once a lake is put on the impaired list, scientists calculate how much pollution it can receive without getting worse. Essentially, the water body is put on a pollution diet. Scientists first determine how many pounds of phosphorus must be reduced to stop adding to the problem. The next step is creating a cleanup plan, which specifies how much improvement is required by each pollution source to improve water quality.
In Lake Independence, scientists blamed 58 percent of the problem on chemical fertilizer and manure runoff, while 23 percent was linked to urban development near the lake. The rest came from erosion, goose droppings, failing septic systems and other sources. To make progress, incoming phosphorous had to be reduced by 51 percent, or 872 pounds per year.
Altogether, cleanup costs were estimated at $2 million to $3 million. A local watershed commission received a $410,000 state clean water grant to attack the biggest piece of the problem.
41 offers, just one taker
The main targets of the cleanup effort were horse and cattle owners, who are responsible for the most phosphorous. Potential projects included hauling manure out of the watershed, storing it in tanks and spraying less of it on fields. Farmers were also encouraged to build fences to keep animals out of wetlands. For most projects, government would pay 75 percent of the costs and farmers would pay the rest.
To promote the program, the watershed commission worked with nearby cities and Jim Kujawa, a consultant on the cleanup for Hennepin County Environmental Services. They sent out multiple mailings to livestock owners and crop farmers. They held a free lunch. They hosted a booth at community events and distributed brochures.
Kujawa talked to all 41 livestock owners in the watershed. But after a year of knocking on doors, he found just one taker.
Barbara Zadeh, a board member of the Lake Independence Citizens Association, received $2,550 in clean water legacy money for a $10,000 project that could divert about 12 pounds of phosphorous per year, or 1.3 percent of the total problem. To keep her two horses out of a wetland that drains into Lake Independence, Zadeh built a new composting facility for manure and 700 feet of fencing.
"I don't know why anybody wouldn't do this," Zadeh said.
With time running out to spend the grant, Kujawa and the watershed commission received permission from the state to spend the remaining money on less effective urban projects, such as creating rain gardens and storm-water ponds. In the end, the cleanup effort reduced annual phosphorus levels by just 70 pounds, or 8 percent of the total, and local officials returned about $27,000 in unspent funds.
By comparison, one farm contributes about 166 pounds of phosphorus each year to the lake, according to the cleanup study, and five other farms each add at least 50 pounds. None of those farms agreed to participate.
The only polluter that may be forced to join the cleanup is the city of Loretto, whose aging sewage treatment system dumps about 53 pounds of phosphorous into the lake each year, or 6 percent of the total. State officials told the city it must reduce that to zero or be cited for violations, a penalty reserved for municipalities and other government entities. The only way to do that, said Loretto Mayor Barry Anderson, is to spend $750,000 to $1 million to hook up to the metro-wide sewer system.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense," Anderson said.
Farmers deny responsibility
Voters probably expected a lot more from cleanup efforts when they approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 that provides about $75 million a year to restore impaired waters, test water quality, protect drinking water and fund other water-related programs. The money is generated by a sales tax add-on that will last 25 years.
"If we're going to succeed in Minnesota, and if the amendment money is going to result in clean water, we've got to find new ways to address agricultural pollution," said Kris Sigford, water policy director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
More than 400 lakes in Minnesota, one-third of those on the state's impaired waters list, have too much phosphorus. Many of those watersheds are dominated by agricultural land, but farmers must be coaxed into joining cleanup programs. Farming representatives contend that 90 percent of the industry is already doing everything possible to minimize risks to the environment, but there is no evidence in Minnesota to validate that claim.
"As an industry, farmers feel that they're somewhat vilified," said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resources Coalition.
At Lake Independence, the single biggest polluter is the farm of Paul Merz, who owns the last dairy in the watershed. His son Jim runs an operation that includes 60 cows. The farm also grows corn, oats and alfalfa.
"We're sensitive to the issues and we sure strive to do a good job with our livestock and with our cropping," Jim Merz said. "Farmers are kind of an independent bunch. They don't like a lot of rules and they don't like to have people breathing down their neck."
Independence Mayor Marvin Johnson, who served on the committee that created the cleanup plan for Lake Independence, questions the accuracy of its findings. Johnson, who is also a farmer, said he doesn't believe that phosphorus from crop fields and feedlots is a major problem for the lake. "It's easy to point the finger at us," he said.
But Barten, a lake expert who worked on the study, said it's clear that farmers and livestock owners generate most of the lake's pollution. He said the findings were based on three years of records tracking how phosphorus entered the lake.
Phosphorus is especially dangerous because it remains in lake sediment for thousands of years and continues to be recycled internally, even as lakes accumulate more each year, according to Foley of the U of M's Institute on the Environment. Lakes may reach a "tipping point" of no return, he said, and change "from being a nice, clear water lake to a green, soupy eutrophic lake."
Reid Wagnild of Plymouth thinks that process is well underway at Lake Independence. Standing on a bridge at the lake's southern outlet to Pioneer Creek, he and a friend were bow fishing last month for carp. Several bloody 10-pounders lay on the road beside them, flapping weakly in their last hours of life.
In the past five years, Wagnild said, the lake's condition has declined dramatically. "I came out here with my boat a couple times last summer, and you have to take the weeds off your trolling motor constantly," he said.
Success takes patience, cooperation
Over the next few years, as more lakes and rivers are tested, the state's "impaired list" is expected to grow significantly. So far, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has checked just 17 percent of streams and 20 percent of lakes larger than 10 acres. Eventually, hundreds more lakes will be added to the list, state officials predicted.
Nationwide, nearly 40,000 waters were impaired in 2008, and just a few hundred -- mostly streams and rivers -- have been cleaned up, according to the EPA.
"At the end of the day, the big question is whether this voluntary approach [to reduce pollution from farms] is going to work," said Dean Maraldo, deputy chief of the watersheds and wetlands branch at the EPA regional office in Chicago.
Taff, the U's extension economist, said: "I think we've proved that the voluntary gets you only so far, and it's not far enough."
In the late 1990s, the EPA proposed new rules to strengthen the program and require "reasonable assurance" that cleanup efforts would take place once studies were done. National farm groups sued, Congress slapped a moratorium on the effort and the agency withdrew the rules in 2001.
To reduce pollution, stakeholders must avoid pointing fingers and work together, Maraldo said.
That's what happened on a small lake in northeastern Wisconsin, which is in the final stages of being dropped from the impaired waters list.
Like Lake Independence, Bass Lake in Marinette County had a phosphorus problem. Most of the sport fish died because two dairy farms dumped so much of the chemical into the lake between 1970 and 1990. County, state and federal agencies spent about $700,000 to restore the 37-acre lake and its fishery between 1986 and 2000.
One farmer closed his dairy and the state purchased a conservation easement on 55 acres of his cropland and 2,000 feet of lakeshore. The other farmer agreed to extensive changes that kept the cows indoors, stored their manure in a tank, dredged a nutrient-rich pond on his property and diverted a stream. The project also treated the lake in 1999 with alum, a chemical that binds to phosphorus in the lake sediment so it's unavailable to fertilize the aquatic plants.
Water quality improved noticeably in the lake, which is one-twentieth the size of Lake Independence. Even after the cleanup, however, Bass Lake still took 10 years to fully recover.
That sort of patience also will be required in Minnesota, especially for larger lakes, said Barb Peichel, who manages several lake and river cleanups for the MPCA.
"It took 20 years or more for the lakes to get this bad," she said. "It's going to take quite a long time to get them healthy again."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388