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Tony Nixon holds up a rusty crayfish caught in the White Iron Chain of Lakes. The lake association has been monitoring the water for 20 years and ramped up its protection efforts in 2010 with a grant from the state. Aquatic invasive species like this crayfish have become a top concern for the residents. Submitted photo.

Volunteers spearhead efforts to keep lakes clean

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Invasive species, erosion, septic system contamination, mining - there is a seemingly endless number of things that can negatively affect lake water.

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That's why, 20 years ago, a group of landowners on the White Iron Chain of Lakes in northwestern Lake County decided to take their water's health into their own hands. They started a lake association and began regularly testing water. Three years ago, the project expanded to the watershed surrounding the chain.

"It was four guys in a boat," vice president Ken Wichmann said of the beginning of the White Iron Chain of Lakes Association (WICOLA). "It has grown to hundreds of volunteers."

Wichmann has owned land on the chain for 20 years, but relocated there permanently about 10 years ago. Six years ago, he joined WICOLA.

"At the time I joined, it was just general interest in the watershed as a property owner. I wanted to know more about what was going on," he said adding that the primary goal of WICOLA, is to identify the baseline health for the chain of lakes so they can track changes and address any problems promptly.

"They wanted to know, 'What do we have?'" Wichmann said of those first volunteers. "We really knew very little about the water. As it improves or degrades, you don't know what you've got."

The association is unique because it seeks to preserve a healthy watershed rather than fix a damaged one. In fact, when they were awarded a grant in 2010 from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment Act, it was the first time such monies had been awarded for protection and enhancements, not remediation.

The $225,000 grant expanded the group's project to the Kawishiwi watershed, a 1,353-square-foot area around the chain of lakes. They hired engineer Derrick Passe to oversee the newly expanded project, dubbed the Kawishiwi Watershed Protection Project, or KWPP.

"It was kind of a daunting task," Passe said, especially since the grant money all had to be used before this year. "We were mainly successful."

WICOLA monitors five different spots along the chain of lakes throughout the summer. The KWPP added 12 lakes and 12 streams.

"Really what we're trying to do is get the base line, because things are changing," Passe said.

In addition, the White Iron Chain borders the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, so keeping it clean is vital to the BWCA's health.

"What happens in the watershed happens to the BWCA," Wichmann said.

The grant also allowed WICOLA and KWPP to fund a paleolimnology study to dig even deeper into the history of the lakes. They made aquatic invasive species a priority, buying traps to remove rusty crayfish from a number of lakes. Education became an important piece as the project expanded and WICOLA members worked to inform surrounding landowners about how to best protect their watershed.

"The purpose of what we are doing is to maintain what we have," Wichmann said.

The work WICOLA and the KWPP have accomplished will now be integrated into the MPCA's watershed management plan for an even bigger swath of land - the Rain River watershed. Other parts of their work will be used in the U.S. Forest Service and county water plans.

"We're just trying to see where it's headed and see what we're doing to keep it a desirable watershed," Passe said.

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