Dec 13, 2013

The View from another Angle

This is our first winter in 17 years to be away from our Little Canada home and Savage Lake. Right now, we're parked above what used to be a giant New Mexico lake, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, and I can't help reflect on the turn of events that changed the climate so drastically for people in this area and how that same sort of change would affect us in Minnesota.

This is the view from outside of our RV. What isn't obvious is that the "lake" is barely a pond. All of that sandy "beach" you see between the water and the edge of the campsites used to be underwater. Suffering from a decade-long drought, New Mexico has become "the driest state in the nation"; but not by much. When we left Texas, we drove past dozens of dry or nearly-dry man-made lakes, most of which were surrounded by abandoned or down-scaled mansions that reflected an opulent lifestyle gone wrong.

When our VW-based Winnebago suffered electronic problems due to exposure to 350 miles of ice, sleet, and snow in western Texas, we stayed with friends in a small town south of Albuquerque while waiting for car repairs. At first, we were a little surprised at how decimated their yard was; just like all of the yards in this part of New Mexico. Our dog never figured out how to deal with the overwhelming tack-burrs that covered a good bit of their backyard. When they explained that they have been under water-rationing rules for about ten years and even had to let their fruit trees die to comply with water regulations, the condition of the yard seemed minor in comparison. Their descriptions of how lush and green the area was when they first moved here, 15 years ago, seemed completely incompatible with the place we've experienced.

On this trip, we've passed thousands of acres of abandoned grape vineyards, apple orchards that appear to be either dead or dying, and some of the most parched farm land I've seen in my lifetime. So far, this drought isn't up to the historical worst years of the area, but it's not over yet.

I've been surprised at how callously and carelessly Minnesotans treat lakes and rivers, coming from a near-desert state, Kansas, and having spent several years in places where water was about as accessible as oil. Our little "watershed" is a good example of how a neighborhood, city, state, and nation (considering the abusive way the Interstate intersected the lake) can blow off one resource because there are others more substantial. The state DNR (Does Not Respond?) plays games with pretending to be working at eradicating invasive weeds downstream from Savage Lake, while ignoring the fact that our lake is a seed bed for these plants, upstream from the treatment. MNDOT uses the lake to drain off sediment and contamination from the freeway, clogging their own drains with runoff and slowly filling the lake with sand and salt. The county and  city salt the roads and washes sediment directly into the lake, filling the edges with sediment and contamination. The attitude seems to be "We have 'real lakes' and water in abundance, why worry about this little pond?" Texas and New Mexico used to have "real lakes," too. Now they'd be happy to have clean drinking water and enough water to manage minimal agriculture.

There are been three major droughts in this area in the last 75 years, including the Dust Bowl years. A large part of the country is going without water for normal activities and we might be wise to pay attention to what happens when the most precious resource on the planet goes away. This flashing photo depicts Elephant Butte Lake in 1994, at 89% of capacity, and this past September, at 3% capacity. It doesn't take long for a precious resource to vanish.

Sep 16, 2013

Community Conversations in the Watershed - Central Area

Thanks to Barbara Marsh, I learned tonight that there is a meeting tomorrow night about the following topics:

To get in on this conversation, you need to register for the event at:

Obviously, one of the most critical topics regarding our lake should be the sediment allowed to drain from the freeway into the lake and the uncontrolled invasive plants that have taken over the lake.

Sep 8, 2013

Spot Crime in Our Neighborhood

Here is a handy tool for looking at neighborhoods, including ours, around the country: Getting right to our general area can be found here:

Jun 10, 2013

So Far, So Good

It is finally spring in Minnesota and, so far, the lake is reasonably clear of lilies. The milfoil, however, is going great guns. I noticed that the county or DNR dosed Lake Gervais with some toxic chemicals for undisclosed reasons. Making the wild assumption that this might be because of the runaway invasive species, it seems sort of backward and half-baked to blow resources downstream while allowing the supply lakes and ponds to run rampant with these invaders. Maybe the country is unfamiliar with how water flows?

May 17, 2013

MnDOT & Little Canada Sound Barrier Final Proposal

The city's MN Pass Municipal Concent document was delivered to everyone concerned in February. It's worth reading. Apparently, construction on the Mn Pass lane and the rest of the project should begin this summer.

One of the statements in the document that I thought was most "entertaining" was one that stated:

The idea that this giant sand "island" could have come from anything other than MnDOT's crappy drainage design is a huge warning that some monkey business is likely to result from an assortment of bureacrats passing the blame around until the barrier is built and nothing is done about the sediment damage. Any idiot can see the drainage pipe is completely buried and backed up and that the overspill from the ramp is continuing to deposit crap into the lake. Over the years since the last construction, I've watched the characters from the Watershed District paddle out, measure random stuff and paddle back without anything good coming from their "efforst." Even to them, it ought to be obvious where that sediment is coming from. For about a year, there was a plume of crap spreading out from the pipe after every rainstorm. It only took a year for the pipe to clog and the damage to be pretty much complete. However, in the years I've spent fighting for our disregarded and damaged lake I've found that MnDOT and, especially, the DNR hire specially "talented" idiots with no clue, concern, work ethic, or personal honesty. The best we can do is hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Both ends of the lake, northeast and southeast, have been harmed by excessive freeway runoff. The old docks at the southeast end have been hauled out of the water and twisted out of shape by the obscene amounts of sediment runoff. The new Gopher drainage design just dumps Gopher's parking lot crap straight into the lake. At this rate, we can probably expect the lake to fill in a few years and development to being in the resulting mosquito swamp. Sometimes it feels like we're living in Florida (and that is not a compliment).

Jan 20, 2013

Winter Lake Status

I can't explain why, but one of the things we love about our abused and battered little lake is walking on the ice on a moderate winter day. There is something oddly cool about making a lap or two around the island when the sun is out, the lake is frozen solid, and traffic is blasting past us, oblivious of our presence. It's not quiet. It's miles from pastoral, but it is oddly peaceful. A little more snow and the lake would be cross-country ski-able. A little less and, I guess, you could skate it. Before the winter hammer fell on Last Saturday, we were out on the lake enjoying the moderate temperature and windless day.

A few years ago, this was a 3' diameter concrete
culvert. Today, it's packed with freeway sediment.
The lake's level is as low as it has been in years. So low that I was able to take some pretty pointed pictures (say that 3X fast) of the damage MNDOT's past "engineering" has done to our lake. For example, smack in the middle of this shot is what remains of a drainage culvert MNDOT used to drain water (and massive quantities of sediment) from the south-bound I35E Little Canada Road freeway entrance. When we moved to Little Canada in 1997, this drainage culvert was completely exposed and the lake was approximately 4' deep about a canoe paddle's length away from the culvert. That general condition and relative height stayed constant for years (discounting the catastrophic lake level drop when the Watershed District screwed up the water levels at the end of the 1990's) until the freeway redesign a few years ago.

This picture gives some perspective on how large the
sediment "beach" is, at least the above water beach.
For a couple of seasons, all of the freeway entrance ramp drainage was routed through this culvert and over the edge of the ramp's curbs until the drainage culvert was filled with sediment. The rest of the silt and sediment is simply poured off of the ramp into the lake, resulting in a dramatically eroded lake shore and an increasingly steep bank. At one time, this was the deep end of the lake by several feet. There was some source of water movement that always kept the ice either thin or clear about 30' west of this point, but after the freeway redesign the massive influx of sediment filled in that source of current and helped allow the nearly complete coverage of water lilies by making the lake shallow enough for them to take root. The sediment shelf is completely above the water-line right now and anyone can walk out and examine the damage done. You can also see the erosion effect by looking at the freeway fence posts. The concrete post footers are being rapidly exposed as the lake bank vanishes from runoff erosion.

This was my first opportunity to see the Little Canada-funded Gopher Electronics parking lot drainage plan and I'm not particularly impressed. We gave this design a shot on the drainage pipe at the south end of our property about 12 years ago and it worked for a season, but was quickly overwhelmed by the quantity of sediment pouring into the lake from Lake Shore Ave and the sediment "island" has continued to expand since. This design is not a "trap," but is more like a temporary diversion with a little landscaping.

Sediment traps are either holding ponds, like those we see along the eastbound sections of the new I694 design, or complicated concrete affairs that have to be regularly maintained. Any man-made system requires maintenance and that is often the fatal flaw in major construction designs. The designs are fine, but the follow-up is insufficient or non-existent. Supposedly, we have traps like the ones illustrated in the mechanical drawings (on the left) for all of our street drains, but if no one cleans the traps they were one more waste of taxpayer dollars.

It's not like all of this hasn't been reported to the city, county, and state in the past, but if you'd like to see what's really going on with our lake, now is the time to take a walk on the ice. Worst case, the lake is about 4' deep at the deepest spot right now. The water levels are probably 2' below where they were early last spring.

If we get the noise barriers and the construction of those barriers doesn't do more harm than good, the quality-of-life value of our lake could improve dramatically. It would be nice to get some of this street and freeway drainage problem solved at the same time so that the lake just doesn't slowly fill with sediment and become a mosquito breeding ground.