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Minnesotans make a difference as volunteer water monitors

Lowell Deede, a retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office, began volunteering for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in 2015, collecting water samples and measuring water clarity.

Lowell Deede has been a water monitor volunteer for the Minnesota Pollution COntrol Agency since 2015. Here, he observes water conditions on the Straight River, at the border of Hubbard and Becker counties.
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

While walking Becker County roads, Lowell Deede got to wondering why the Buffalo River, west of Detroit Lakes, transformed from a beautiful, crystalline river “into a muddy, brown soup” a mere three weeks later.

“How did this change so drastically?” It got me to thinking maybe I can do something to help with that,” he recalled.

That was in 2015.

Deede, a retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office, began volunteering for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), collecting water samples and measuring water clarity. He shares the data with the MPCA.

Each spring, the MPCA kicks off its popular Volunteer Water Monitoring Program, which relies on Minnesota residents to help monitor lakes and streams.


Clean water, one volunteer at a time

For over 40 years, Minnesotans like Deede have gathered critically important data on the state’s 12,000-plus lakes and 92,000-plus streams.

The information helps the MPCA better understand the health of Minnesota’s waters and protect them for future generations.

Lauren Lewandowski, MPCA communications specialist, said they are currently recruiting volunteers to measure water clarity in numerous lakes and streams – including several high-priority sites in the Park Rapids area – and then report back to the agency.

“This is the perfect opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts and those interested in helping protect our state’s natural resources,” she said.

How it works

Through this program, volunteers do a simple water clarity test twice a month during the summer.

Lake monitors venture to a designated spot in the lake, while stream monitors record data from the streambank or a bridge over it.

The MPCA provides all the equipment and training. No prior experience is needed.

Stream monitors use basic tools – like this Secchi tube – to measure the clarity of a stream.
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

Lewandowski said, “Program volunteers come from all walks of life – from retirees and families to teachers with their classrooms and entire community groups. Anyone can be a volunteer.”


The MPCA analyzes the data to determine whether lakes and streams are meeting water quality standards designed to protect aquatic life and recreational activities, like fishing and swimming.

Lewandowski said, in some cases, the information gathered by volunteers is the only monitoring done on a particular lake or stream.

Lake monitors are asked to sample the water from May through September, while stream monitors typically begin in April.

An easy, yet vital reading

While working at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, Deede had performed transparency sampling, so he was familiar with the process. He retired in 2015.

It’s a simple test, as he demonstrates.

On this day, Deede draws water from the Straight River with a five-gallon bucket while standing on a bridge above it.

He pours the water into a Secchi tube. He lowers a weighted disk attached to a string down the tube until it disappears. That distance, measured in centimeters, is the water clarity reading.


Looking down into the tube, volunteers lower a weighted disk attached to a string until the disk disappears. The distance at which the disk disappears is the water clarity reading, which is recorded in centimeters. A high Secchi tube reading reflects better water clarity.
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

Lake monitors use a Secchi disk – an 8-inch, circular, all-white metal plate attached to a calibrated rope – and lower that into the water to take a reading.

Why monitor water clarity?

According to the MPCA, water clarity is an important indicator of lake and stream health.

“It signifies the amount of algae or sediment in the water, which can affect plant, insect and fish communities and impact recreational opportunities. Long-term monitoring by volunteers can detect declines or improvement in quality of a lake or stream,” says the website ( https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/volunteer-water-monitoring ).

For streams, a low clarity reading reflects excess sediment.

For lakes, a low clarity reading reflects excess algae.

Consistently low clarity readings indicate poor water quality and can affect plant, insect and fish communities, plus reduce recreational opportunities.

Long-term water clarity data collected by volunteer water monitors help detect signs of degradation to a lake or stream. It is generally easier and less expensive to restore a lake or stream if problems are detected early.

Deede, like other volunteers, keeps track of the Secchi tube readings on a datasheet.
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise


Making a difference

Like most of northern Minnesota, Becker and Hubbard counties have an abundance of surface water.

According to the Becker County Soil & Water Conservation District, its six major watersheds encompass nearly 500 lakes and countless wetlands.

Deede points out that Becker County is unique in that 15 named rivers flow out of the county, yet only one river flows in.

Hubbard County has three major watersheds: the Crow Wing River, Leech Lake and Mississippi headwaters.

Over the years, Deede observed varying water transparency, particularly after heavy rains.“There’s different levels of clarity. Some look really great, some look really muddy and not-so-great. I decided to do a pretty extensive sampling effort,” Deede said.

At first, Deede monitored 23 different sites. He sampled the Shell River, Straight River and Hay Creek, located on eastern edge of Becker County and adjacent to Hubbard County.

“It took me two-and-a-half days to do that, a couple hundred miles,” he said. “I don’t know anybody else that’s done that.”

Recently, he reduced his sampling to five or six sites.


As for Buffalo River’s muddy transition, Deede found the answer. His investigation revealed a six- to eight-foot gully along a county road, eroding directly into the river.

Without regular water clarity testing, the problem never would have been discovered, Deede said. It was brought to the attention of the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District, and engineers designed a solution.

To join the volunteer program, visit https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/join-volunteer-water-monitoring-program

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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