The Waterkeepers of Deer Lake

Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and “sky blue waters.” But many of Minnesota’s lakes are struggling. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 40 percent of Minnesota lakes and streams are impaired for conventional pollutants. And, 50 of these are listed as impaired due to excess chloride from road salt. While lakeshore property owners love their lakes, many aren’t often aware of the causes of their own lake’s decline.

Christmas Point. Photo credit: Tom Nelson

Members of one lake association—the Deer Lake Association (DLA) in northern Minnesota—have taken bold steps to help protect and improve their beloved lake. Information, communication, and action form the core of this group’s mission. Through its Beautiful Deer Lake Water Quality Initiative, the association hopes to tackle ongoing threats to the lake’s water quality. These threats range from damage to the lake’s ecosystem by aquatic invasive species (AIS) and phosphorus, as well as inputs from streams and septic systems.

About Deer Lake and the Deer Lake Association
Deer Lake, a 4,000-acre blue glacial lake located 12 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, serves the surrounding local community and is a fishing and recreation destination for visitors. With nearly 350 properties on the lake, many families have been on the lake for generations, resulting in a strong love for the lake. Known as the lake of changing colors, Deer Lake has historically been one of the clearest lakes in Minnesota. Recently, the lake has begun to experience concerning bouts of algae growth. A comprehensive 2013 study confirmed that the nutrient behind the greening of Deer Lake is phosphorus. Just as vegetation on land responds to phosphorous inputs with accelerated growth, so does vegetation in water. Phosphorus is deposited to Deer Lake via streams, septic systems, rainwater run-off, and shoreline erosion. In addition, like most other Minnesota lakes, Deer Lake is threatened by aquatic invasive species, including zebra mussels, starry stonewort, and Eurasian watermilfoil.

The Deer Lake Association was originally formed in 1991 and has evolved into a very active lake association. The DLA is a 501(c)(3) all-volunteer Minnesota non-profit, organized to preserve and improve Deer Lake water quality for fishing, recreational boating, the surrounding community, visitors, resorts, camps, wildlife, and Deer Lake property owners. The DLA also provides social and educational activities for its members and the community.

After the 2013 scientific study, the DLA committed to taking actions to implement recommendations cited in the study, with its highest priorities focusing on AIS prevention and phosphorus mitigation. Since the DLA is purely a voluntary organization, its first step was to provide information to property owners enabling and empowering them to make good decisions.

Aquatic Invasive Species Become a Growing Concern
Because of growing threats to the health of the lake posed by AIS, the Association has helped implement AIS strategies such as public access inspection hours, watercraft decontamination, and inspection at private and resort launches, as well as a pre-planned early detection and rapid response plan in case strategies fail to prevent infestation.

Full moon over Sherwood Bay. Photo credit: Tom Nelson.

Recognizing that AIS moves via transportation routes, the DLA partnered with the Itasca County AIS program to provide public access inspection services, then worked to support the county program by raising and donating funds, and subsequently assisted the program to optimize inspection hours. A DLA information and communication campaign was developed that offers AIS prevention strategies. Camps, resorts, property owners, and guests were participants in this campaign.

Streams Pose Additional Threats to Water Quality
Members of the DLA were at first overwhelmed thinking through how to approach and include various stakeholders along the 16 streams—current and potential sources of AIS, phosphorus, and more—that run into Deer Lake. The group decided to partner with the non-profit organization, Great River Greening, with the complicated task of developing a tributaries strategy. Great River Greening has been contracted to perform an assessment, then work with the DLA to create and implement an action plan and to help find funding through grant applications. While the work plan is in its early stages, the DLA is hopeful that productive steps will be made to address the complex issues posed by tributary inflows.

Pathogens and Nutrients from Septic Systems
A “light bulb” moment came when association members fully grasped the purpose of a septic compliance inspection. The group learned that the soil underneath a septic system drainfield acts like a filter, effectively filtering the pathogens and nutrients from effluent. Over long periods of time—15, 20, 30 years—that soil filter can become saturated. Effluent then runs unfiltered through saturated soil and into the water table and the lake.

Bear Island. Photo credit: Margaret Duxbury.

Septic systems, like anything else manmade, have a shelf life. A certified septic compliance inspection includes hand-drawn soil borings near the drainfield and the septic tank. Soil borings indicate whether the tank is leaking and whether the soil underneath the drainfield is continuing to act as an effective filter. A failing result means pathogens and nutrients from human waste are likely making their way to the lake. These failed systems need repair or replacement.

To address septic system issues, the DLA created an information and communication campaign to highlight how septic systems work and to offer best practices for pumping and inspection. Septic systems can be expensive to replace, so the DLA offers to pay the fee for septic inspections for eligible property owners. The Association is also working to arrange an option for no- and low-interest loans for those whose inspections fail. Hoping to sign on ten volunteers the first year, they were delighted when they got 16. The group is focusing on sharply increasing these numbers in the coming years.

Loving Our Lakes Back to Health
Deer Lake property owner and DLA’s president, John Davis, contributes a few of his thoughts about our Minnesota lakes.“Sometimes we love our lakes too much. Property owners and guests love to be in the lake, near the lake, on the lake, and to sit looking at the lake, both at the shoreline and in their lake cabins. Early on, property owners sometimes clear-cut their shoreline to improve the view. But we now understand that shoreline vegetation filters harmful nutrients like phosphorus that fuel algae and weed growth.

Forested shoreline is the best for protecting water quality, followed by deep-rooted native grasses. Unfortunately, mowed lawns don’t serve as a good filter. We are fortunate because most Deer Lake property owners have maintained forested shorelines. The DLA created an information, communications, and incentives strategy that recommends property owners with forested shorelines keep them forested, and those without consider installing vegetative buffers and low berms.

Higher than usual rainfall and water levels the past few years have caused shoreline erosion on the lake. Shoreline erosion deposits phosphorus attached to soil particles and other nutrients into the lake. So, we’re encouraging and incenting property owners to repair shoreline erosion by installing natural solutions such as fiber logs and deep-rooted native plantings.

These initiatives and incentives cost money. We knew our $25 per family annual membership fee would not cover such expenses, so we created a budget and a fundraising campaign. First, we identified a core group of supporters and quietly solicited contributions. Then, once we had a strong base, we reached out to all property owners. We also decided to leverage the money raised from our own members by identifying, writing, and submitting matching grant applications to private foundations and governments.

A loon dances on Deer Lake. Photo credit: Rich Anderson.

We are set up to measure phosphorus levels and water clarity, but we’re only in the early stages of our effort. It may take 5 – ten years for anything we do to show up in measurements because first we need to arrest existing negative momentum. In the end, though, we’re optimists and believe in the butterfly effect … even a small change now can create conditions for a major change later.”

John Davis’ Suggestions for Lake Associations
“I think the best resource is to look at what other lake associations are doing. That’s where we started. Our website is

“Our area includes a “coalition of lake associations” that meets a few times a year to share information. Our group is with the Itasca Coalition of Lake Associations ( That was a good resource for us. Another idea is the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations (

“A good, short, ten-minute video produced by the Itasca County AIS program shows what our lake and many lakes in Minnesota are up against. While the focus is on Itasca County lakes, the video’s content is relevant to most Minnesota lakes. Several scenes from Deer Lake are in the video, (

“Programs across the state offer volunteer training and tools to perform lake and stream monitoring. Anyone who lives on a lake or stream should help ensure their waters are being monitored and to keep abreast of monitoring data. Citizen volunteers provide crucial data that is used to assess changes in water quality over time. We are monitoring Deer Lake in conjunction with AW research labs. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MNPCA) and The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities have citizen lake monitoring programs. MNPCA maintains a list of lakes and streams that are classified as impaired in Minnesota. It also compiles data on numerous lakes and streams throughout the state that is available to the public to review.”

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