Friday, November 29, 2013


A WATERWORKS  Column  by Gordon Prickett

for the 12/4/2013 Aitkin Independent Age


We hear a lot about “global warming” or “climate change” in the news cycles of today. There are many places to get your updates on this topic: browsing new on-line media, watching the many kinds of TV, leafing through newspapers, magazines, and books. Not to mention radio, both public and commercial.

Some of the stories are alarming, like sea level rise and wildlife extinction. But how one responds depends a lot on who you believe and one’s attitude towards new information. Can I see and feel anything different going on? We live in the day-to-day weather.

This fall I am reporting ice-in on our lake as November 23rd. Ice-in is never as dramatic as ice-out in the spring, with its sudden break up and shattering of ice crystals. But going back 18 years it appears that this year is pretty-much normal. Our lake records for ice-out have been kept since 1976, and show a lot of variability. The two extreme dates occurred in consecutive years - March 22, 2012, and May 10, 2013.


Humankind certainly has had an impact on life in these parts in the past couple centuries, and I believe we are impacting the climate right now in the way we dig, drill, and consume energy fuels. We cannot change the way our forefathers clear cut the woods, plowed up the prairie, and killed off the native animals. We can however give serious thought to how we use modern discoveries of technology and science. Sensible limits to population, economic development, and comfortable lifestyles can go a long way towards a future our kids will want to inherit.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

TITLE: READY FOR FREEZE-UP A Waterworks Column by Gordon Prickett for the 11/6/2013 Aitkin Independent Age READY FOR FREEZE-UP Our boats and dock were the last to come off the lake. That good October fishing weather that I waited for never happened, but otherwise it was a pretty good season. Now in the next month we should be making ice - for skating, snowmobiling, and fishing on our lakes. Once again I am reminded that there is no such thing as absolutely “Safe Ice,” as I will step out with an ice chisel to measure the thickness. I’ll be sure to do my skating near the edge of the lake, for starters. KEEPING THE LAKE CLEAN Water clarity in the lakes of this area continues to attract people. Those who live at the water’s edge for a time have the opportunity to help maintain this clean water. Using natural vegetative materials like grass clippings left on lawns, and composted wastes as soil amendments to borders and gardens, can take the place of chemical fertilizers. With an unmown buffer zone next to shore, limited impervious surfaces beside the lake, and creating rain gardens, we can control runoff and erosion that muddies the water. SEASON OF MIGRATION Whether it’s juncos and finches, “V” formations of geese, or the snowbird neighbors bound for the Florida Keys, many creatures are now on the move. Birders are noting dates when species arrive at their feeders. And warm-blooded retirees bid us goodbye until Spring. Some of us wouldn’t want to miss the Fish House Parade for anything!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

TITLE "WATER AND WILDLIFE FOR SIXTH GRADERS" A Waterworks Column by Gordon Prickett for the 10/2/2013 Aitkin Independent Age WATER AND WILDLIFE FOR SIXTH GRADERS Aitkin County sixth graders spent a day in early September at the Long Lake Conservation Center just east of Palisade. This year I followed the money that ACLARA, the Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association, donated to County Environmental Services to put on this “Environmental Education Day.” I attended Tuesday, September 10th, and joined the Hill City Sixth Grade through four hours of instruction and ate pizza with them at lunch time. The first hour was about “The Earth’s Water,” presented by the Minnesota Science Museum from St. Paul. For more than four billion years the same amount of water has cycled around the earth in clouds, rain, ground water, and surface water. Just 3% is fresh water and 97% is salt water. The ice caps hold 2% of this fresh water. The lesson is clear that we don’t want to waste any of the 1% that is left. Next we learned about the wild creatures in the state and met a few of them from the Minnesota Zoo. We have 78 kinds of mammals, and 22 amphibians. In Minnesota there are 31 kinds of reptiles, including 17 snakes. And there are 428 kinds of birds, with about 45 to 50 remaining year round. The traveling zoo visitors included a red-tailed hawk, an opossum, and a snake. After lunch naturalists from Long Lake presented a program about frogs and toads. Next we went down to the shore of Long Lake to scoop up sediment and water samples. We collected this material back in the laboratory and identified numerous lake bottom organisms with the aid of charts and microscopes. A BEAUTIFUL TIME OF YEAR Days and nights are now the about same length. Warm afternoons and crisp sleeping nights. Grass cutting is just about over for the season, and the water craft are calling. Before taking in our boats and docks, it is a fine time to enjoy the clear water and the colors that are beginning to turn around the shore. A few years ago we traveled across the Arrowhead, down the North Shore, over into Northern Wisconsin to observe the Fall colors of early October. But when we returned to Aitkin County, the most spectacular show was right here!

Monday, September 2, 2013

TITLE - SURFACE WATER USE A Waterworks Column by Gordon Prickett for the September 4th Aitkin Independent Age SURFACE WATER USE I just finished a very close look at my 2013 Minnesota Boating Guide. At a recent meeting the topic of boating safety came up, and I raised two concerns. The first was about operators of motor boats under twelve years of age. There is absolutely no age limit in this state for a child running a boat and motor with a rating of 25 horsepower or less! My second concern was about the speeds at which watercraft in Minnesota may travel on our lakes and rivers. There are no limits. You can’t be drunk or chase wildlife, and you should give the right-of-way to sailboats, canoes, and kayaks, but so long as you’re not careless or reckless, boat speed is unlimited. When I am out in my canoe, paddling well below the slow, no-wake speed of 5 mph, I’ve got to wonder how the operators of high speed motor launches can see me, and the loons on the lake, in time to avoid a collision. The best I can do, in the absence of any sensible safety regulations about little kids and speedboats, is wear my bright orange life jacket. THE HEALING POWER OF NATURE Last year we saw severe flooding and extreme high water in the County. Surface runoff was heavy in June and July before the rains let up. This caused much sediment and litter flowing into our lakes and rivers, with unusually poor clarity from summer into fall. After a late ice-out this May, and a lot of rain in May and June, our lake levels were pretty high, but lake water transparency at area lakes is returning to normal. Though no residents talk very much about it, the fishing isn’t too bad either.

Friday, August 2, 2013

TITLE - STATE ENFORCEMENT IN AITKIN COUNTY A WATERWORKS Column by Gordon Prickett for the 8/7/2013 Aitkin Independent Age STATE ENFORCEMENT IN AITKIN COUNTY A year ago SarTec Corporation from Anoka, Minnesota, was observed emptying 275-gallon canisters containing a dark oily liquid on a 20-acre hay field in Section 4 of Nordland Township. Repeatedly, over a period of weeks, neighbors watched as a SarTec truck hauled trailer loads of this industrial waste into the middle of the field, where a backhoe had prepared pits to receive this material. The pits were then covered. Towards summer’s end, they didn’t bother digging any more pits, but poured the contents directly onto the sloping land, farther in from the township road. The oily liquid collected in pools in a wetland that drains into Nord Lake. The current owner of this land is an officer of SarTec Corporation. Placement of such material on land in Aitkin County requires a permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. This action was reported to Aitkin County Planning and Zoning in October, and an inspector was on site the very next day. SarTec has been fined for this violation, but it has appealed its penalty. An administrative judge will hear the case in St. Paul in September. It is being prosecuted by the State Attorney General’s office. Violations of our shoreland regulations do have consequences. The neighbors are waiting to learn about the chemistry of these waste products and what remediation is planned. HOW MANY LOONS? After the BP Horizon oil platform fire and spill in the Gulf of Mexico there has been concern by Minnesota’s Non-Game Wildlife Division in the DNR, because loons from this region winter over in the Gulf. As a loon watcher for the DNR, I take a yearly census in early July. In 2012 I counted eight loons on my early morning patrol. We have observed three nesting pairs, six adult loons, on our lake for several years. In the census this year I counted only three adult loons, and there appear to be only three resident adults as the summer progresses. We have observed no surviving loon chicks for 2013.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

TITLE WHAT PRICE SAFETY? A WATERWORKS Column by Gordon Prickett for the 7/3/2013 Aitkin Independent Age. Every year drowning victims are reported in the news - starting before ice-out until a solid freeze-up state-wide. One of the best safety posters I have ever seen shows two enlarged pieces of fishing tackle. On one side is a Bobber and on the other a Sinker, with the word "OR" between them. Near the bottom of the poster is the command "WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET!" It is one of the DNR’s better messages. I thought about that poster early last week shortly after sunrise as I saw two guys standing in a small fishing boat with large outboard motor, speeding from the public landing. It’s now the time when loon chicks have just come from the nest, and they are vulnerable to speedboats and other quicker predators. We have three nesting pairs of loons on our lake which is only 400 acres in area, less than a mile across it. This was a concern a week ago when a brand new neighbor brought two jetskis to the lake, and his kids and guests displayed no knowledge of the restrictions on these watercraft. Like "slow, no-wake speeds until 150 feet from shore." Some lake people have complained that nobody can estimate such distances. Maybe they have never seen the 50-yard-line on a football field. The jetski can speed up when it gets to the goal line. Each yard is three feet. (old math) Boating safety becomes a major concern on summer Saturdays when every type of watercraft is afloat. Canoes, kayaks, and sailboats, dodge among power boats towing wake boarders or their tiny tots hanging onto rafts. And some of us are quietly fishing. As boat traffic increases, now that a very short spring has left us and summer is here, I just hope that all of these fragile bodies have life jacket protection.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

TITLE - LEARNING AT THE LAKE - A WATERWORKS Column for the Aitkin Independent Age, June 5, 2013. Before settlement a hundred and fifty years ago our lake country was pristine, the pines and hardwoods had not yet been clear cut. Shorelines of the lakes and rivers were natural. Bands of the Dakota and Ojibwe people had lived many years in the region without impacting the wildlife and forests. Today our children are being given an environmental education, and older folks can learn how to make a smaller footprint beside our beautiful waters. On Saturday, June 15th, at Rippleside School in Aitkin, from 9 am to 2 pm, the 17th Annual Aitkin County Rivers and Lakes Fair will be celebrated. We will learn about beaver, the floods of 2012, aquatic life, and bats, to name just some of the topics. Stop by our ACLARA booth for an exhibit about the 20 lake associations that make up our coalition. If you live by a lake without an active association we have outreach workers to lend a hand. When new folks buy lake property or families inherit the cabin in which they have grown up, there is a lot learn about: individual sewage treatment systems, water wells, fire regulations, seasonal road restrictions, limits on impervious surfaces, private road funds for grading and snow plowing, and watercraft and dock regulations. At least four state and county agencies have something to tell you about your life at the lake. A good place to look for answers is our Rivers and Lakes Fair. The many booths in the Rippleside gym will inform you about what is new up here. There are classroom programs and hands-on activities for all ages. FISH STICKS The DNR Fisheries Division wants you to leave the trees that fall into the water at the shoreline. No need to clear away branches or trunks. In fact, these trees enhance the fish habitat along the shore. Shelter and shade provided by this downed timber makes a place where the population can grow. Once again we can regain some of the natural aspect of our lakes.

Friday, April 26, 2013

WATERWORKS by Gordon Prickett A monthly Outdoors Column for the 5/1/2013 Aitkin Independent Age WEATHER GUESSING One of the veteran pilots in my Navy Air Anti-submarine Squadron had been trained as a meteorologist and had served in that capacity at the Jacksonville, Florida Naval Air Station. Commander “Red” Reider was his name, and he introduced me to the term “Weather-Guesser” when we needed a weather briefing for a scheduled launch. Red had a sense of humor and always emphasized that forecasting the weather was a shaky business. These are memories from the 1960's. With modern atmospheric models for the 21st Century we might expect some improvement. Just maybe we have had our final “Spring snowstorm.” It is the First of May. But forecasts and predictions have been shaky for the entire month of April. Last year the ice went out in March on our lake - the earliest in at least 36 years, and this year it will surely be the latest ice-out date in as many years. It’s fair to say that we have had weather extremes in recent years. Severe rainstorms and flooding last June and July were followed by the dry spells of September and October. In the words of my shipmate Red Reider, what will come next is “anybody’s guess.” IMPERVIOUS SURFACES One of the best little water quality booklets that I’ve come across has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Extension Center for Land Use Education. Its title is "Impervious Surfaces - How They Impact Fish, Wildlife and Waterfront Property Values." Copies are available from the county zoning office. It is illustrated with underwater photographs of fish, pictures of waterfowl and wildlife, as well as good and not-so-good treatments of shoreline. There are graphics to show what happens to runoff volume, phosphorus input, and sediment input when shoreland is managed in different ways. Certainly when you pour concrete and spread asphalt near the lake there will be harm, but is gravel considered impervious? Here is a quotation that I found to be helpful: “A common question is whether gravel driveways and walkways are considered impervious surfaces. Noncompacted gravel “mulch,” such as that used as landscaping material, is generally not considered impervious. On the other hand, gravel used for driveways, parking lots or other high-use surfaces, becomes compacted. After compaction, gravel driveways and parking areas will create runoff even during minor rain events. If gravel is used, it should be free of clay and other fine particles to help prevent compaction and “clogging” of spaces between gravel particles. Half-inch or 3/4 inch “clear” crushed rock is a good choice for this application. “Clear” indicates that the gravel is virtually free of fine particles.”

Thursday, March 28, 2013


WATERWORKS by Gordon Prickett A column for the 4/3/2013 Aitkin Independent Age FIFTEEN YEARS! This monthly column called “Waterworks” has now completed fifteen years in the Sports and Outdoors Section of the Aitkin Independent Age. Back in 1998 the Citizens Water Planning Task Force was looking for a way to get the attention of the public. We were a group of citizens and agency people who had come together a decade earlier to write a Comprehensive Local Water Plan for Aitkin County. I had written letters to newspapers while living in several states over a number of years, and I volunteered to gather the ideas from the task force each month and submit an edited outdoors column. Marcia Thurmer was the member who coined the name “Waterworks” for our column. Publisher Dick Norlander agreed to run the column for us every month. After a year of collecting input from the task force, I announced that the source of Waterworks content would usually be from this writer. Since that time I have concentrated on water quality topics within Aitkin County, and the current publisher, Matt McMillan, has continued to carry Waterworks once a month. SOME MILESTONES Eight years ago this month a revitalized coalition for county lake associations, called ACLARA, was launched. The new Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association grew out of three educational meetings arranged by the Citizens Water Planning Task Force and the Executive Director of the Minnesota Lakes Association. From a corps of leaders in five lake associations, ACLARA has expanded to include twenty active member lake associations. Regular meetings and programs are held in April through October. A major emphasis by ACLARA has been upgrading and publicizing the shoreland standards by which the state government mandates how county and local governments manage the shoreline of the water bodies within their jurisdictions. After several years of development by a DNR-led pilot project, a set of alternative standards was published for our five-county area. Within three years the Aitkin County Commissioners amended our Shoreland Management Ordinance to include new shoreland standards that were most appropriate for Aitkin County, effective January 1, 2009. The time has come for a Fifth Generation of the Comprehensive Local Water Plan. Citizens will be asked once again for their views about the quality of our waters, and what measures we should take to insure that healthy surface and ground water will be here for future generations.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


from WATERWORKS, a column by Gordon Prickett for the 3/6/2013 Aitkin Independent Age A NORMAL WINTER With plenty of snow for the trails and the snowplows, and timely thick ice on the lakes, this has been a pretty good winter in the northland. Septic mounds are safe under adequate snow cover. I’m reminded that this spring it is time for us to pump and inspect our individual sewage treatment system. It’s seventeen years old and doing fine. Last summer we replaced a two-inch drilled water well that was thirty-six years old. The quiet solitude of winter at the lake is an opportunity for bird watching and tracking critters in the fresh snow. Also, it is a good time for taking stock of tasks completed, and those still left. WHY JOIN A LAKE ASSOCIATION? Whether year-round residents, snow birds, or weekend cabin people, there are about two dozen active lake associations in the county that try to figure out how to get most of these property owners on their lakes to join and show up for picnics, boat parades, and special events. A fair number of us came up north to get away from crowds and congestion, and would just like to be left alone. Times change and lakes change, but as I remarked earlier, "quiet solitude" has its place. Our county coalition of lake associations, ACLARA, recently revised the statement of purpose that spells out how we serve the lakes. There are five ways in which ACLARA does this. For lake people and for associations who contemplate either joining or urging neighbors to join, I have included these five ideas: 1. Protect, preserve, and improve the waters and shoreland. 2. Serve as a voice to governmental agencies. 3. Inform citizens about stewardship of water resources. 4. Connect with other lake associations and coalitions. 5. Support safety and courtesy on the water and shoreline. UPDATE ON SHORELAND INDUSTRIAL WASTE This column mentioned an episode of industrial waste disposal near a lake in Nordland Township, first in the Age’s January 2nd edition, and then "The Rest of the Story" on February 6. Oily waste material was spread last summer and "inspected" on October 19th. I have just been informed by the County that still no information can be released or discussed by governmental agencies until the case has run its course and is closed. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 1, 2013


WATERWORKS Column by Gordon Prickett for the 2/6/2013 Aitkin Independent Age THE REST OF THE STORY Last month I wrote in this Waterworks column about a dumping case in Nordland Township near a Recreational Development lake. Last summer industrial waste was trucked up north in canisters from a bio-diesel plant in Anoka and poured into pits dug in a hayfield in Section 4. Our zoning office was surprised last fall when they learned about this dumping, because no permit had been applied for. In October the County notified the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about this waste disposal, and an inspector was on the site within hours. SPILL AND COVER-UP It turns out that neighbors had known for weeks that something unusual had been happening in this hayfield, which lies between a horse farm and a pine plantation. In fact, a trailer load of waste canisters had recently overturned at the corner of Highway 47 and Dove Street, a mile east of Aitkin. The sheriff had been called, and oily liquid had been cleaned off the pavement with absorbent powder. Work crews had been unloading canisters in the field and ignoring questions from neighbors. But the folks could see that the vehicles carried the name of SarTec Corporation. This activity was out in the middle of the field, hundreds of feet from the township road. Eventually concerns arose in the neighborhood about the safety of nearby water wells, so several of us took a look. We saw yellow and brown oily pools and caked white sludge, beside the freshly excavated and covered pits. That’s when the Environmental Services Department got the word at the courthouse - on Thursday, October 18th. By Monday afternoon, October 22nd, the area had been tilled and all traces of the disturbance had been removed. “No Trespassing” signs were posted. QUESTIONS REMAIN The neighborhood is still trying to find out what chemical compounds are buried in the field which lies in the Shoreland Zone of a 400-acre lake. What is the restoration plan, and what penalties were paid by those responsible for this pollution? The latest word from the authorities is that any answers are considered “non-public information at this time.” “The company has been directed to cease disposing of material at the site.” Last year the hay crop had been defoliated, and some new grasses and sedges were planted. They appeared to be non-edible plants for experimentation with bio-diesel fuels. Stay tuned.