VERGAS, MINN. – It’s just a tiny sliver of land, 2 feet wide, that separates two neighboring lakes in scenic Otter Tail County.
But for more than 40 years, it’s been ground zero for one nasty dispute between homeowners along both shorelines over the lakes’ water quality and whether water from one should flow into the other.
The bitter fight between West McDonald Lake and its neighbor, Hoffman Lake, has been waged at times with an intensity that demonstrates just how passionately Minnesotans feel about their lakes and the surroundings that drew them there in the first place. It’s been fought on land and water — with words and deeds, with shovels and rakes, with concrete and dynamite.
Angry cabin owners have hurled insults in person and on social media. Mysterious “rock fairies” have altered shorelines by night, while a spy camera has kept watch from the trees.
“It’s a bad situation,” said Darren Newville, a county conservation official. “You would think that people would be neighborly.”
Hard feelings resurfaced anew this year, after the state Department of Natural Resources reversed a decades-old policy of keeping the lakes separate with a plan to create a channel between them and drain 8½ inches of water from Hoffman into “West Mac.” After a monthslong tussle with state officials that went all the way to the governor’s office, the West Mac homeowners last month filed a lawsuit in a last-ditch attempt to stop the work.
In the view of West Mac residents, their lake is a crystal-clear paradise for swimming, boating and fishing, while the much smaller Hoffman Lake is “basically an overgrown swamp,” according to Todd Yackley, president of the West McDonald Lake Association.
“They’ve got a small lake,” said Bob Rogne, a West Mac resident since 1971. “It’s no good for water skiing, it’s no good for jet skiing, it’s no good for fishing sometimes. And we have 500 acres of beautiful water.”
Sally Christenson, president of the Hoffman Lake Association, begs to differ.
“They believe what they believe,” she said of West Mac residents. “We have the scientific facts on our side.”
DNR changes its mind
According to West Mac residents, the Hoffman Lake folks have a long history of trying to cut through the thin strip of shoreline.
In the early 1970s, someone — nobody is quite sure who — blew a channel through the bar with dynamite and reinforced the opening with concrete. West Mac residents later closed it up, and have been vigilant about keeping the lake waters from mixing ever since.
Through the years, the DNR has been on West McDonald’s side, maintaining a policy that the lakes be kept separate.
As far back as 1980, DNR memos show concern about mingling the waters, noting the poorer water quality in Hoffman and a population of bullheads, which the agency didn’t want migrating to West Mac.
In 1999, a DNR inspector noticed erosion of the bar and commented on rocks, put in place to stop the erosion, that seemed to move “by the whim of the Rock Fairy.” Later, the DNR urged residents to leave the rocks in place and asked them to take down boat registration numbers of anyone spotted removing them.
As recently as 2012, the DNR noted “our intention to maintain the natural conditions that exist on the [bar],” and said it would use rock riprap at the bar’s narrowest point to prevent further erosion.
But this year, the DNR changed its mind.
Responding to a petition by Hoffman Lake residents, the agency — which owns the land in dispute — issued itself a permit to create a channel 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep at the bar’s narrowest point. That would allow about 8½ inches of water to drain from Hoffman into West Mac.
“Nature has kept these lakes separate, not us,” said Darryl Fey, a longtime West Mac resident. “Why would you want to connect two lakes that have been separate?”
Want shoreline back
Folks on Hoffman Lake see things differently. After years of above-average water levels in the county, Hoffman is brimming like an overflowing bathtub. With nowhere to go, the lake has overrun the residents’ beaches and eroded its shoreline.
“We are holding too much water,” said Sheila Eklund, a resident since 1980. “We’ve lost between 20 and 25 feet of shoreline.”
The lakeshore is littered with dead and dying trees, their roots undercut by the persistent high water. There’s no beach where grandchildren can play.
The high water has lifted cattail bogs from their roots, disturbing the fish spawning grounds that they shelter. The heavy, rogue bogs, some nearly as big as a river barge, float across the lake, taking out docks and boat lifts as they go.
Hoffman Lake residents dispute that their water is bad. A recent assessment by an independent laboratory showed that Hoffman’s water quality was rated to be “excellent” 96 percent of the year, while West Mac drew a rating of 98 percent. On the Trophic State Index, a measurement of a lake’s clarity and plant growth, Hoffman was rated 50 and West Mac 40 (a lower number is better). West Mac rates as having better water quality by all measures, but Hoffman’s quality is clearly within acceptable ranges for a typical Minnesota lake.
Hoffman residents also quash the notion that they want to somehow make the two lakes one.
“No, no!” Eklund exclaimed. “We don’t want that. We just want our shoreline back.”
Christenson, the lake association president, said that West Mac’s efforts to prevent overflow actually contribute to the erosion of the bar. Just as distressing, she said, is the erosion of civility among neighbors.
“Todd [Yackley] has said some pretty nasty things about our lake, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. It didn’t help relations when the West McDonald group mounted a spy camera in a tree, cloaked in camouflage covering, hoping to catch people removing rocks from the bar.
“We don’t talk about [tension], but it’s always in the back of your mind,” Eklund said.
Nature could settle it
The DNR was set to dig its channel this month. But in late September, the West McDonald homeowners filed suit with the Minnesota Court of Appeals to keep that from happening. The DNR has agreed to hold off until the court decides the case, which typically takes about nine months, according to Sherry Enzler, a DNR attorney.
Citing the pending lawsuit, DNR officials declined to comment on their decision to dig. But in an e-mail earlier this year to the West Mac association, the agency assured residents that the channel would have “no significant negative impacts on fish, wildlife [or] water quality.”
Ironically, the whole dispute could be settled by the time the court reaches a decision. As the bar continues to erode because of high water, a good push from winter ice could wipe out the 2 feet of sandy soil already there, rendering the entire exercise moot.
“If you get 12- to 15-inch ice, it will move a house,” said Rogne, the West Mac resident. And he’d be OK with that.
“If Mother Nature’s doing it — well, Mother’s the boss,” he said. “But if people are doing it, well, don’t mess with Mother Nature.”