Twenty years ago, concerned homeowners on the White Iron Chain of Lakes area near Ely made a ground-breaking decision: They committed to protecting their lakes so the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would remain clear and clean forever.
The homeowners were alarmed by subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes to their beloved lake region. More land was being cleared, more roads paved, more obvious water quality problems were surfacing, and perhaps most surprisingly, invasive species were already calling the area home. Immediate action was needed. The residents knew exactly what to do before things deteriorated beyond repair.
Creating a productive partnership
Their first step was to create White Iron Chain of Lakes Association (WICOLA). Next, they began a collaborative partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. MPCA scientists and water quality experts taught the ardent volunteers how to use Secchi disks to monitor water clarity, take water samples and monitor for the very problems they were hoping to avoid in the future.
In 2010, stewardship efforts and a $225,000 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment grant — the first-ever Legacy grant awarded for protection and enhancements — allowed WICOLA to hire a professional manager, conduct a comprehensive overview of water quality in developed and undeveloped areas, identify additional areas for monitoring, train more water monitoring volunteers and expand their research and monitoring efforts.
Later that year, WICOLA’s efforts, goals and intentions became the Kawishiwi Watershed Protection Project. They created an ambitious, multi-year joint plan to partner with the MPCA, St. Louis and Lake counties to maintain or improve water quality within the 1,353 square mile Kawishiwi watershed.
The project’s goals included collecting baseline water quality data and creating a comprehensive management plan. The plan would:
- document their efforts
- assess previously untested lakes and streams
- develop a list of waters requiring protection
- identify human impacts affecting water quality
- combat aquatic invasive species
- develop geographic information system (GIS) maps for suitable/unsuitable development
- create a searchable public database of their findings
- conduct additional outreach and stewardship education efforts
The project’s raw data became available in mid-2013; it will lay the foundation for, and give a head start to, the state’s 2014 Kawishiwi’s 10-year Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies process. The volunteers’ other findings, including erosion issues at camp sites and boat launches, aging septic systems in sandy lakeshore areas, will be incorporated into the U.S. Forest Service and county water plans.
Twenty years in the making and the results, clean and clear lakes, never looked better.
For more information
About the watershed, visit the MPCA’s related web page at Rainy River - Headwaters watershed.
For more information about the projects, visit the WICOLA webpage.