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Great Lakes Article:

Tour shows nearshore water quality is good
Cook County News-Herald
By Richard Franta and Joan Farnam
Published July 1st, 2004

People from all over Cook County boarded the research vessel the L. L. Smith, Jr., last week to learn more about Lake Superior and how to protect it.

Called “A View from the Lake,” the program featured a three-hour cruise on the ship giving residents a chance to see what their community looked like from the water as well the impacts they were having on it.

Educators from the Lake Superior Research Institute and the University of Minnesota’s Sea Grant program used the scene to discuss land use, development, natural resources and water quality issues. Participants also had a chance to do a few little scientific experiments as well as enjoy a beautiful, but sometimes rough, day on the lake.

The program, which is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin- Superior, Minnesota Sea Grant and NEMO (Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials), was being offered in communities up and down the shore, including Grand Marais, Silver Bay, Two Harbors and the Duluth -Superior harbor as well as Bayfield and Washburn in Wisconsin.

Three separate trips were made in Grand Marais over a two-day period, bringing in more than 70 participants, including city officials.
“It was great,” said Mayor Mark Sandbo, who was one of the city officials who went out on the boat Friday morning. “I think what it did was affirmed the feelings I’ve had about our environment and our use of Lake Superior.”

“A View from the Lake” focused on near-shore Lake Superior water quality, the impact of silt and pollutants contained in the water entering the lake from streams, rivers, and general runoff, as well as the long term effects on the aquatic life supported by the lake.

While out on the lake, those participating got to measure water clarity measures, take water temperature readings, measure dissolved oxygen levels, collect samples of suspended materials in the water column, and examine samples of silt from the bottom of the lake.

In spite of the size of Lake Superior, the near shore areas provide most of the support for its aquatic life, said Cindy Hagley, an educator with Minnesota Sea Grant. This near shore area is also the area most impacted by silt, pollution, and runoff from our towns and homes, she said, so our responsibilities here are clear.

The cruise illustrated this well, as the L.L. Smith left the harbor and steamed east toward where the Devil Track River flows into the lake. Staff on board encouraged participants to notice how development along the lakeshore could impact water quality.

Building too close to the shore and/or removing all vegetation between buildings and the lake can result in significant increases in silt and pollutants getting into the near shore waters. By contrast, homes that are set back from the lake with natural vegetation and trees left as a buffer zone, can decrease the impact of development, she said.

She said the North Shore will continue to grow, but that does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. “As you think about your community, you might think about the changes you have to deal with,” she said. “What natural resources do you value? Are there some areas you chose not to develop because they’re so important? To what degree will a development impact resources? What can you do to mitigate that impact?”

If communities are be proactive in this regard, water quality can be protected, she said. The key to it is education, she added, which is one of the primary reasons that Minnesota Sea Grant and the other organizations developed “A View from the Lake.” The program will be held again next year, she said.

Participants quickly discovered that near shore water quality near Grand Marais is quite good.

During the water clarity test, for example, a small disc was lowered into the lake until it was no longer visible. The depth reading gave a measure of the water clarity. The tests gave a visibility depth of more than 30 feet. When compared to the less than five foot visibility in the turbid Duluth harbor, it was clear that Grand Marais has a resource to be protected.
Dissolved oxygen is also a good indicator of water quality. Algae, which grow and proliferate because of nutrients in the water, use up available oxygen, decreasing its availability for fish and other aquatic life. Tests in the East Bay gave readings off the scale for dissolved oxygen. In the Grand Marais harbor itself, dissolved oxygen was again off the scale near the surface of the water, but declined slightly closer to the bottom, an indication of increased algae growth.

Future development of the harbor has to take this into account, Sandbo said. “If we don something with the harbor, we have to make sure we do the right thing,” he said.

The water temperature was in the lake was only 39 degrees, compared with 54 degrees last week near Bayfield, the participants learned. The colder water along the North Shore makes it much more difficult for all organisms to grow and prosper in the lake, Hagley said. This also makes the environment more fragile and increases the potential impact of any runoff, she said.

The bottom samples fascinated the participants. Sediment brought up revealed crustaceans, nymphs, worms, and other creatures that amazed all those aboard. But this reaction was small compared to the reactions express after microscopic examination of the samples taken from the water column. Participants observed algae, and at least two types of small creatures, complete with egg sacks attached, that are part of the lake’s diverse food chain not normally seen by those watching the lake. Again, the number of organisms found indicated a healthy lake environment.

To learn more about these issues and the project as well as Minnesota Sea Grant, check the Web site at
Also, Jack Kelly of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-continent Ecology Division will be at the North House Folk School July 14 to discuss research involving Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes to develop techniques to understand, assess, and report on the ecological condition of their shallow-water coastal areas. The Grand Marais talk will feature a tour of the research vessel, Lake Explorer. The talk begins at 7 p.m. and is free.


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