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Voyageur's Best Features of 2006

Big Sandy Tour

A tour of the Big Sandy Area Watershed
Tour included 13 stops at various locations throughout the watershed
by John Grones  |  April 18, 2006

A bus tour of the Big Sandy Area Watershed has been talked about for five years. Thanks in large part to Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Frank Turnock and Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District Technician Janet Smude, the trip finally materialized.

“Well, there was education money left over from a grant,” said Frank. “We finally decided that this spring it was going to happen. The goal would be to drive around the entire watershed and see some of the projects that have taken place.”

The tour took place on Wednesday, April 12 and it couldn’t have been a better day to get outside. Seasonable temperatures made the trip very enjoyable for the 30-plus that attended the event.

“It was an opportunity to gather people from one end of the watershed to the other and share everything we have been talking about all these years,” added Frank, who also mentioned that it was open to anyone who has been attending their meetings.

Janet shared that there were a number of people from all corners of the watershed present. County Commissioner Brian Napstad was in attendance, as was Tamarack Mayor Bobby Johnson and Cromwell Mayor Dick Huhta. Representatives from three lake associations attended; so did members of the Tamarack River Watershed.

The tour covered approximately 70 miles and included 13 stops to examine excellent water quality improvement practices. At each stop, a representative spoke about the efforts. “Whatever area we were in... if they knew something about it, they shared,” said Frank. “Larry Paukert at McGregor or Bobby Johnson in Tamarack. They know about their sewer systems. They’re the ones to talk about it.”

Big Sandy Area Lakes Watershed Management Project sponsored by Aitkin County Commissioners recently received a continuation grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in the amount of $260,000 to be used in the watershed for the next three years. According to Janet, this money will be used for projects that improve water quality.

McGregor Sewer System

The first stop on the tour included a visit to the McGregor City Sewer pond system located south of McGregor. The construction of this four cell pond system was started in 1994 after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determined the one cell system they had was inadequate.

Larry Paukert, McGregor City Maintenance supervisor shared the Maintenance supervisor shared the importance of sunlight and oxygen in the treatment of effluent. Larry noted that he tests before discharging.

#2 – Ditch 5

Area DNR hydrologist Lonnie Thomas was present on the tour. He gave a brief history of Ditch 5, which is the outlet for the sewer systems in McGregor. The ditch initially runs east to west and goes under Highway 65 into Rice Lake, then turns north and goes under Highway 210 and then connects with Ditch 42 (also known as Sandy River).

“This ditch was the first one done in Aitkin County... probably 1906,” said Lonnie. “It has been very controversial. There is a conflict in water law. One being, ‘Once a ditch always a ditch’, assessments to landowners for maintaining it, and a request to keep it clean. That was submitted to the county board in the mid 90s.”

Lonnie then shared that an environmental assessment worksheet was done to clean out a stretch that is slightly over a mile. “The stretch includes from highway 65, through Rice Lake and under highway 210,” added Lonnie.

When referring to Rice Lake, it is important to note that it is not the lake on the refuge. This Rice Lake is difficult to notice because it looks like much of the marsh surroundings, but it is indeed a lake. According to Frank Turnock, the lake is considered a ‘succession lake’. “The vegetation grew over the top of the lake,” he said.

“The ditch goes through a public waters with a shoreline classification on it,” said Lonnie. “Over a couple years of discussions, there was a request to go around it. It is now held up. It is in the process of being approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Senate for Environmental Advocacy.”

“Discharge water quality, property rights for drainage, and the impact down stream are all the issues that are holding up that process,” concluded Lonnie.

#3 – Tamarack sewer system

The tour’s next stop was in Tamarack where Mayor Bobby Johnson talked about the city sewer system. He noted that at one point the state determined that 80 percent of city sewer systems were failing.

“They could no longer meet any specifications,” said Bobby, “so we went together with a few organizations and received state and federal funding and we got right around one million dollars to build this system here.”

The system in Tamarack is totally enclosed. Due to the flat landscape they could not use a gravity feed. The alternative was a pressurized system. “Our system runs all underground at eight feet,” shared Bobby. “It was all linear bored in. We had right around 60-plus hook ups.”

Bobby noted that there are 28 E-1 grinder pumps. “In other words, everything that is discharged from the home goes into a hermetically sealed environment,” he said. “It goes into the grinder pump and is pulverized, liquified and pumped into this constructed wetland.”

“With all this wetland around us, we decided to construct some more,” Bobby joked.

Bobby went on to explain how the constructed wetland works and he noted that when the process has been completed, the MPCA wants the water to be five to 14 percent cleaner than water in the surrounding environment. “Right know our system is meeting and exceeding all the specifications that the state and the MPCA put on us,” concluded Bobby. “It is an environmentally friendly system.”

#4 – Sulo Walli farm

The Sulo Walli farm is located between Wright and Cromwell on highway 210. The 200-acre farm surrounds Long Lake and the Tamarack River runs through the farm. Sulo recently received cost-share assistance provided by the Big Sandy Area Lakes Watershed Management Program and the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives and Continuous Conservation Reserve Programs. Technical assistance was provided by the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District.

According to Sulo, he planted the trees with a tree-planter and his John Deere tractor. “The trees west of the lake are doing very well,” said Sulo. “There is about a thirteen acre field and I have seven planted with trees. I also have an exclusion fence on the south side so the cattle cannot go into the lake or the river.”

#5 – Cromwell sewer system

The two cell sewer pond system in Cromwell is very similar to McGregor’s. City maintenance supervisor Tom Johnson talked about the phosphorous problem that they have been fighting. “Our phosphorus is high so we put aluminum sulfate in the pond,” said Tom. “We buy the barrels from a chemical company and I prop-wash it with my boat.”

Mayor Huhta added that they were first told to purchase a pontoon, but it was too expensive. “We decided to go the Finlander way,” the mayor joked.

The process takes about an hour and half. “My phosphorus level was 2.6 and I had to get it to a one,” added Tom. “When I was done, it was a .01. It took about 110 gallons of aluminum sulfate.”

This article first appeared in the April 18 issue of the Voyageur Press.