Certain fish and bugs aren’t doing so hot in several Douglas County waterways.

Teams of state monitors tested multiple streams and ditches in the county, and say they were unable to find critters that should have been there, indicating something may be amiss with the water quality. They are recommending that five waterways, plus Lake Louise, be added to Minnesota’s list of waters known to be impaired in some way.

These six locations are among the 581 water bodies that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants to add to the list in 2020.

The announcement came with a bit of good news. One lake near Osakis — Faille Lake, just south of Lake Osakis near Highway 27 in Todd County — was among four lakes removed from the impaired waters list because restoration efforts have improved water quality, according to the agency.

Heavy concentrations of phosphorus were found in Faille Lake years ago, prompting the agency to call for reducing the phosphorus by 70%, according to a water quality report issued two years ago. The report identified agricultural runoff as the main source of phosphorus, along with failing septic systems and roadway runoff.

The impaired waters list began in 2010 with funding from the voter-approved Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment and now includes about half of the state’s legendary 10,000 lakes.

“We’re right around half and half being impaired versus being in good shape,” said Stephen Mikkelson, an agency information officer. “It looks like this enormous number of impaired waters, but the reason there are so many numbers is because we finally have good information.”

The six spots in Douglas County that are now considered impaired are:

  • Northwest of Osakis, 1.7 miles of Crooked Lake Ditch where it crosses Calvary Road NE, County Road 3 NE and Ottertail Trail NE.

  • Northeast of Nelson, 1.68 miles of Crooked Lake Ditch where it crosses County Road 73 east of County Road 74.

  • An unnamed creek from Fanny Lake to Chippewa River, a 1.94 mile section that crosses under I-94 south of Evansville.

  • An unnamed creek from an unnamed lake to Chippewa River, a 3.45-mile section south of I-94 along Douglas County’s western line.

  • East of Forada, 5.15 miles of an unnamed creek that flows into Ellen Lake.

  • Lake Louise, about 4 miles northwest of Alexandria, a 214-acre lake where monitors discovered mercury in fish tissue.

Steve Henry, president of the Douglas County Lakes Association, said the Lake Louise designation didn’t surprise him.

“I don’t know if there’s a fishable lake that doesn’t have that because it’s from coal electricity-generating plants and it comes with rain,” he said.

He welcomed data from creeks and ditches and said more such testing could help explain substandard conditions in some lakes, such as Jessie Lake, which joined the impaired list in 2014.

“It frustrates me that we monitor the lakes, but we mostly just do one location in one lake, and we don’t do any ongoing testing in streams,” he said. “Some of them, we know what the problem is. But Lake Jessie out there, it should be pretty pristine. It’s not heavily developed.”

A closer look at one site

One of the proposed sites, Crooked Lake Ditch, was not unknown to pollution monitors. Once a wild stream, it flowed into Crooked Lake, which no longer exists except on certain state maps. The stream was turned into a ditch and lengthened so that it drained the lake and ended up in Lake Osakis, said research scientist Ben Lundeen, who works on water quality issues for the Pollution Control Agency. It also continued on the eastern side of Lake Osakis in Todd County.

On the eastern side, the ditch was discovered to have e.coli, as well as other troubles.

Monitors haven’t found e.coli in the Douglas County side of the ditch, but they did discover that certain small critters seemed to be in trouble.

They found leeches and snail species that tolerate poor water quality in the ditch, but not a minnow species called dace that can handle some pollution and should be there. Also missing was a small insect with two pairs of wings called a caddisfly that will also thrive despite some pollution.

“We would have liked to see caddisflies,” Lundeen said. “We didn’t see any caddisflies at all.”

Water quality standards for ditches like Crooked Lake Ditch are well below the more stringent standards for streams used for fishing or recreation. Still, this particular segment of Crooked Lake Ditch failed even those looser standards, Lundeen said.

“I get that this is a ditch; what do you expect to see?” he said. “But there should be some sign of life and the bar for a modified ditch is not a very high bar.”

Listing could provide answers

What researchers don’t yet know about these creeks and ditches in Douglas County is why these species seem to be struggling.

If they are added to the list of impaired waters, researchers will then be able to figure out what is happening and propose ways to fix the problem, Mikkelson said.

In general, 85% of Minnesota’s waterways and water bodies are impaired by pollution that comes from multiple sources, including nitrogen, bacteria, chloride and phosphorus, the agency says.

It also marks the end of the first 10-year cycle of examining all 80 of the state’s major watersheds at a rate of about eight per year, Mikkelson said. The next cycle will allow monitors to revisit sites tested a decade ago and track changes.