Cleaning up Powers Lake

Kim Fundingsland/MDN This dredge will soon begin its third year of operation, removing sediment from the bottom of Powers Lake.

POWERS LAKE – It is a long process, a very long process, but progress continues to be made on one of the most innovative clean-up endeavors in the state. As soon as practicable after ice is off the water, a dredge will again be removing silt from the bottom of Powers Lake. The dredging is entering its third year.

A lake with the same name as this northwest North Dakota community was once a show-piece and asset to the town. It was a recreational spot unmatched in the region for boating, swimming and fishing. In time though, the once beautiful lake began to experience a dramatic change in water quality.

No longer was the water clear and inviting. Instead, algae outbreaks became so extensive and frequent that the water quality in the lake regressed to the point where there was little public use. Visibility in the water had noticeably diminished and was progressively getting worse each year. The lake that once was the pride of the community had become so laden with chemicals, primarily due to runoff, that it had lost its earlier appeal. Something had to be done to reverse a disturbing and disgusting trend.

A group of concerned residents vowed to restore the lake to its former glory as a welcoming recreational facility that enticed extensive public use. It was a huge undertaking without any precedent in North Dakota. Nevertheless, the Powers Lake Watershed Project was born.

Committee members recognized that the first step to improving water quality in Powers Lake was to curtail the way runoff from melting snows and rainfall entered the lake. Studies showed that runoff into Powers Lake carried with it a very high level of nutrients, nutrients that had been settling onto the bottom of the lake for many, many years. Those nutrients were the fuel that triggered algae outbreaks that degraded water quality.

The first phase of the clean-up project began with the cooperation of landowners adjacent to the lake. The Watershed Project approached them with both a helping hand and a request for help in reconfiguring drainage into Powers Lake. It worked.

The Watershed Project built small earthen dams, planted grass buffers and otherwise improved the drainage into Powers Lake so that runoff, and the heavy nutrient load it carried, would be naturally filtered rather than run unchecked into the lake. Landowners benefited too. Not only did they show they were very interested in improving water quality but, in some instances, benefited by having some stored water on their land available for livestock.

With the inflow of nutrients reduced, phase two commenced with the purchase of a dredge to remove years and years of sediment from the lake floor.

“If the lake can come alive it will mean something to the town again,” said Kenny McDonald, Powers Lake Watershed Project.

McDonald, who holds a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries from the University of South Dakota, has been operating the dredge on Powers Lake since 2016. The eight-foot wide dredge is meticulously driven on the lake, removing about eight inches of silt in its path. The silt, or “slurry”, is pumped through a 900-foot-long, 8-inch-diameter hose to a collection pit. Last year the silt removed by the dredge contained nearly 700 pounds of phosphorus.

“The silt was super high rich in phosphorus,” said McDonald. “It tested as 33 parts per million, twice the range of normal farmland. Ours is double what average cropland is. Phosphorus causes algae blooms.”

Algae blooms were very limited on Powers Lake last year. That was a positive development but cannot be completely attributed to work done by the Watershed Project. Nevertheless, it was encouraging.

“There’s no way to tell,” explained McDonald when asked if watershed improvements and dredging was responsible for a relatively algae-free year on Powers Lake. “We’re trying to get as much done as we can. There’s no way you can do the whole lake. Maybe that’s for the next generation.”

Over time, as the dredge continues its work, it is expected to yield noticeable improvements in water quality.

“It’s a slow process, a very slow process,” remarked McDonald.

Last year the dredge was operating on Powers Lake for about 220 hours. McDonald had hoped for more than that but mechanical problems and an abundance of windy days that kept the dredge off the water limited the amount of work that could be done.

Among the younger generation that may some day continue the Watershed Project are participants in the Powers Lake Fishing Derby. The event was revived two years ago after an absence of many years.

“We’ve had pretty good success the last two years with our fishing derby,” said McDonald.

Northern pike are the dominant fish in Powers Lake, a challenging and enjoyable species for young fishermen. As water quality improves so too will the fishing, providing a source of recreation for both youth and adults in northwest North Dakota.

Funding for the Powers Lake Watershed Project received a boost from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, insuring that the one-of-a-kind endeavor will not soon fade away from a lack financial support.

“We’re okay right now, doing pretty good,” said McDonald. “We’ll be in business the next two years for sure.”

In addition to removing tons of nutrient-laden sediment from the bottom of Powers Lake, the dredge is also responsible for the removal of an assortment of items that have been dumped in the lake, intentionally or otherwise, for decades.

“It’s quite a collection,” laughed McDonald. “It’s amazing how much you find.”

The most common item collected by the dredge is fishing line, miles of it. Other items include a decoy bag, buckets, fishing rods and reels and an assortment of bottles and cans from days gone by. What unexpected items turn up in the dredge this summer remains to be seen but, barring wind and mechanical issues, the removal of tons of silt will continue with visible results.

“Hopefully it all comes together and we get past that breaking point with a lot less nutrients in the lake in the long run,” said McDonald.