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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Superior faces development pressure
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published June 29th, 2004

ON LAKE SUPERIOR - Just off Red Cliff Creek last week, Phil Knapp lowered a small white disc into Lake Superior to evaluate water clarity. The Secchi disc remained in full view when it hit bottom.

"Wow, that's clear," said the Iron River man, one of a dozen Northland residents who toured Lake Superior June 22 as part of a joint educational effort by the University of Minnesota Sea Grant and University of Wisconsin's Lake Superior Research Institute.

The sharp visibility through 21 feet of water suggests Lake Superior is in good shape at the test site.

That diagnosis was confirmed when Doug and Diane Koening of Port Wing sifted through sediment lifted from the lake's bottom under the L.L. Smith Jr. research vessel. The sand and muck contained not only vibrant coonstail weeds, but a wealth of critters like scuds and insect larvae.

"Everything is interesting about this lake," Doug Koening said.

Other tests showed the cold, 41-degree water contained about 11 parts-per-million of dissolved oxygen, more than enough for fish, which need at lest 5 parts-per-million to thrive.

And when a beaker of Lake Superior water plucked from below the vessel revealed a myriad of tiny creatures, mostly zooplankton swimming in what he thought was sterile water, Sam Knapp, 14, recoiled in disgust.

"That's creepy!" said the Iron River boy. "I'm not going swimming any more."

In fact, those zooplankton -- like the many bottom dwelling creatures -- helps researchers learn and show that Lake Superior is functioning as a healthy ecosystem.

"It's interesting to see what's in the water that you really never think about," said Pat Shields of Washburn, another passenger on the boat.

But looking back at shore, passengers could also see some problems around the big lake. Cliffs of sand and clay are eroding into the water, especially near roads and new development. Large new houses with manicured lawns stand where trees and wild grasses once dominated, sending runoff and sediment into the lake. New marinas and other tourist-oriented developments have displaced open land nearly up to the shore.

While Lake Superior covers an incredible 31,700 square miles, only four percent of that area is considered "near shore," the kind of shallow lake habitat critical to nearly all kinds of living water organisms.

Everything from trout and herring to minnows and the tiny creatures that fish eat use the shallow areas because they are the warmest, most fertile spots in an otherwise cold, infertile lake.

"Most organisms spend at least part of their life cycle in that near-shore area, and that's the area where what we do on shore has the most impact," said Sue O'Halloran, University of Wisconsin Extension educator. "Anything we do to this small area of the lake is going to have a big impact."

Consequently, everything that happens in rivers that run into Lake Superior also is important, O'Halloran noted. And it's why the few remaining wetlands around the lake are as valuable as ecological gold.

The point, said Cindy Hagley, Minnesota Sea Grant educator, is that sewage spills, leaky septic systems, polluted runoff and sediment that run into the lake really aren't diluted by the its sheer volume. while those problems affect a relatively small part of the lake, the impacts can be traumatic.

Phosphorus and sedimentation both increase more than 500 percent when land converts from undeveloped to developed, Hagley said. That can cause algae blooms and cover fish spawning beds. Rainwater runoff through forests is only about 5 percent of the storm's total water. In a city, where there's little undeveloped land where water can soak in, 55 percent runs off, carrying pollution and grit along with it.

Passengers on the L.L. Smith not only asked questions about the on-board research, but about problems like the contaminated Stryker Bay Superfund site in Duluth and the old refinery polluted site on Ashland's harborfront.

"We built a cabin in Port Wing, and we're having problems with erosion around us. Anything we can learn about the lake, we're interested in," Koening said.

Dave and Ilona Harju recently moved to Bayfield from southern Wisconsin, in part to be within sight of Lake Superior. They took the boat trip to learn more about issues that concern neighbors but which they still haven't fully digested. They're closely following plans to build a new sewage treatment plant to serve part of the Bayfield area.

"Whatever it takes to get the job (sewage treatment) done, I'm for it. We can't cut corners on this lake," Dave Harju said.

Passenger Paula Bonk of Grand View said the view from the lake is a valuable perspective for residents who typically only see the water from shore.

"This is a great idea. As a citizen of the basin, I want to know as much about the lake as I can," she said. "The more people can be made aware of what they do on shore affects the lake, the better off we'll all be."

JOHN MYERS covers the environment, natural resources and general news. He can be reached at (218) 723-5344 or at


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