By Adam Hjelm, Makin' Waves column

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of listening to a speaker that presented on what he called the economy of our lakes in Minnesota. To say it was a fascinating presentation was an understatement and it really got me thinking about our little niche here in Central Minnesota. We are smack dab in the middle of the lakes area and one heck of a lot of our economy lies in our lakes, streams, and wetlands. Todd County’s motto is “Where the forest meets the prairie.” I think they forgot a big portion by not mentioning the importance of water.

Now there is a bit of a disclaimer that the presenter had to identify right away – when he was talking about the economy of our waters he was not looking at real estate taxes directly, but rather goods and services that are generated by the lakes and rivers. I too, agree, that is a completely different argument, however, not without merit and relevance. Having said that, whether you are a farmer, local businessperson, or a resident on the north side of Osakis, it is hard not to see the importance of our water resources. Almost 70% of Minnesota residents hit the lakes last year to wet a line, go for a swim, or go for a boat ride. A total of $1.8 billion was spent on fishing alone last year in Minnesota, with $50 million going toward bait, $34 million toward tackle, and even $8 million on ice. On average, according to the University of Minnesota, an angler spends $1,086 on fishing in Minnesota each year. Your $20 fishing license only accounts for about 2% of what you will spend on fishing in Minnesota this year.

The part that I really struggle with is how much are we putting back into our lakes and streams compared to what we are taking out? We are slowly but surely wrecking our lakes. One could even say we are loving them to death. The data is clear and rather depressing at times. Since the 1970s, very few Minnesota lakes have shown any sort of improvement, and if one looks at historical records from the 1900s, it is even more depressing what we have been doing to our lakes and rivers. A slow painful death that for the most part people are noticing, but not willing to take care of as part of their daily lives.

If you walk around any of our great small towns and talk to people, many of them will talk about hitting the lake or going fishing on a weekly basis. They will talk about what fun activity they are going to do as a benefit from the lakes. But, and it is a big but, they will not once mention what they are doing to help the lake on a weekly or even annual basis. Being on the lake is part of their daily lives, but for the most part only to benefit from the lake. They will say when asked if they are doing anything, “Well, that is why we pay taxes, or that is what the Minnesota DNR is supposed to be doing.” Many of us have no problem spending $15 on a case of beer but politely decline when the lake association or sportsman club asks for a donation or to be part of the membership.

We as farmers drain our land into a few remaining wetlands, run our ditches into lakes, and have increased the volume of water and water loaded with fertilizers, chemicals, and soil into our lakes at alarming rates. Folks who live within city limits have complex systems of storm drains that run all the excess water that can no longer soak into the ground that we have developed into our lakes and rivers. It is pretty hard for water to soak through all the hard surfaces, and instead it runs into storm drains and into lakes and rivers taking with it salt, soil, lawn fertilizers and so much more. Many folks that are lucky enough to live on the lakes have beautiful lawns right to the edge of the water increasing run-off and fertilizers in the lakes. They have put in docks and swimming beaches, removing important habitat so they can go swimming and don’t have to look at weeds while sitting on their decks enjoying a cocktail. I could go on and on and take a cheap shot at almost every person and profession in the area. But what good will that do?

The better question should be, what are you going to do this year to give back to the lake? How are you going to improve the river? What are you going to do to make sure your kids and grandkids have the same opportunities and make the same memories that you have all these years? The answers aren’t as simple as opening your wallets for a quick fix. The answers aren’t going to be easy and without controversy or confrontation. The exciting part is that it isn’t too late and the task isn’t too big. Are you up for the challenge?