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What's Killing Lake Mille Lacs?
by Tim Post
April 25, 2000
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The Environmental Protection Agency says Lake Mille Lacs is threatened by sewer run-off. Failing septic systems at communities and homes on the lake shore are contaminating the water with phosphorous. Local officials are trying to convince residents that a $23 million wastewater treatment plant will fix the problem.

If toilets or sinks back up, it may indicate that drainfield soils are becoming saturated.

Wet areas, lush grass, or foul odors around the drainfield may indicate that effluent is surfacing and that the septic system is not functioning properly.

In shoreline areas, a distinctly colored patch of bottom sediment or noticeable weed or algae growth developing in the general vicinity of the drainfield can indicate excessive nutrient enrichment from a malfunctioning septic system.
OFFICIALS AT THE EPA have tested the water at Lake Mille Lacs and say its quality is being degraded by sewage. Bob Newport, a water quality expert with the EPA, says the lake is healthy now, but that could change soon.

"We have a threshold that we sometimes use for total phosphorous that 30 micrograms per liter," he says. "We have some samples from a couple of years ago that show we are at 27 micrograms per liter, so you can see we are really starting to get close to this number where we could start to see a change."

A change that could choke the relatively clear waters at Mille Lacs with algae and aquatic plants. That's a concern for anglers because the lake is a haven for walleye. It's also a concern for local residents because faulty septic systems not only pollute Lake Mille Lacs, but also the groundwater.

The EPA says that the best fix for the pollution problem is a new wastewater treatment plant. One has been proposed by the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe. The band says they want to build and operate a $23 million facility that treats wastewater from the entire west side of the lake.

John Schley, mayor of Garrison on the west side of Lake Mille Lacs, says his town has tried to get a wastewater treatment plant for 12 years, but can't afford it. Now the Mille Lacs band has asked Garrison to join in on the waste water proposal. Mayor Schley says he thinks it's a good idea, and hopes the project will be up and running as soon as possible. "We have to look at not only protecting the lake, but also the ground water," Schley says.

The Mille Lacs band wants to see Garrison become a part of the wastewater treatment plant. Not only do failing septic systems pollute Lake Mille Lacs, but also an aquifer, affecting the Mille Lacs Indian reservation's drinking water. Mille Lacs band environmental programs director, Patty Burk, says residents of the entire area need to work together to fix the pollution problem.

"If there is any danger to the quality of Lake Mille Lacs, everybody in the area has a huge vested interest environmentally and economically," she says. "We have to take responsibility for everyone's role into it, and we are pleased to have a regional solution where everyone is participating in it."

Burke says the situation at Mille Lacs is an environmental and health emergency. She says federal and state grants could pay for most of the wastewater treatment plant, with the band picking up the rest.