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Forum focuses on Northern Watersheds

The Kawishiwi River is one of Lake County’s most scenic and utilized rivers. It is part of the Rainy River watershed. Photo by Ken Vogel.

Ken Vogel

The International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum was held in International Falls earlier this month Regional researchers and resource managers gathered to discuss one of the region’s most valuable resources – water. Within Lake County’s borders are portions of several watersheds, the largest of which is the Rainy River headwaters, part of the Rainy Lake basin in the northern part of the county. Parts of the Lake Superior-North and Lake Superior-South, and Cloquet River watersheds stretch across the southern part of the county. The health of the watersheds is critical to the life-forms within them and researchers are watching them closely.

Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Rainy River Coordinator, Derrick Passe attended the forum and discussed local efforts to gather information and monitor water quality. Data have been collected here since 2006.

“Volunteers have collected 5000 temperature samples … in (the Rainy River) watershed and have discovered that water temperatures are rising; now we need to have this data analyzed to determine the cause,” he told the Lake County News-Chronicle. The data have also revealed that Ph levels in the watershed are rising.

“It is the reverse of acid rain,” Passe said, and the overall opinion of experts at the forum was that the rise in these levels is the result of emissions restrictions which in turn cleaned up the atmosphere.

Of concern however, is the threat of aquatic invasive species – non-native life-forms that have been found in Lake Superior and some inland lakes throughout the state. Their presence can result in a wide variety of issues affecting native species and water quality. So far Lake County as fared well; education and enforcement efforts and the vigilance of residents and visitors have paid off.

“Currently Lake County has only one lake on the infested water list, which is Thomas Lake for curly leaf pond weed,” Passe noted, adding that he’s been taking his message into local communities to increase awareness of the problems caused by some non-native plants and creatures.

“After the parade on St. Urho Day, I spoke with people at the Clair Nelson Center. I told them we have a huge threat with the abundance of AIS in Lake Superior,” he said, “so far we have done an excellent job of keeping them out of inland lakes and we have a responsibility to continue.”

The forum also touched on the concerns of many -- the potential impact of industrial operations on the water supply -- as plans to allow non-ferrous mining in northern Minnesota have crept through the permitting process.

“Part of the forum discussion was the issue of water usage in comparison to how much water is available,” said Passe, “industrial development by itself will change the character of the environment.” Representatives of the mining company poised to begin operations in the region say that they’re plan addresses water use and water quality issues and their operations will be limited to the Lake Superior watershed area.

“All water discharged from the project will be in the pH neutral range and within the range observed in the receiving waters,” said PolyMet vice- president of corporate communications and external affairs, Bruce Richardson. As for water consumption and conservation on the Iron Range, where PolyMet plans to set up shop, he added that “the NorthMet project has been designed to capture and reuse as much water as possible, thus significantly reducing the amount of new make-up water that will be required. The project will use more than 10,000 gallon per minute of water in the mining and processing operations. This is water that will be recycled and reused over and over again, so we anticipate that on average, only about 275 gpm will be new or makeup water.”

If Polymet’s estimates are correct, the average amount of new or extracted water used in its operation would be 396,000 gallons per day from the Lake Superior watershed. Passe broke the figures down and assessed PolyMet’s assertions.

“Speaking from an engineering standpoint, the figure of 10,000 gpm is the equivalent to the water usage of a city of 160,000 people,” he said. “As far as recycling or the reusing of water Polymet is talking about, 275 gpm of new water would be equivalent to (water use for) a city of 4,000, that would be commendable if those figures are accurate.”

Referring to a quote by John Wesley Powell which is posted on the EPA’s website, Passe said: “A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is: ‘that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.’ ”