Media in sewer with hysterical "pollution" coverage.

by Joe Fellegy


In a 100-plus-page 1992 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) report on Lake Mille Lacs water quality, the big lake was characterized as being in the normal range of "minimally impacted" north-central Minnesota lakes.

On a recent visit to MPCA's office in Brainerd I picked up a brochure describing the Mille Lacs Watershed Management Project. The brochure admirably urges safeguarding the lake and its watershed for future generations. As for the present, the brochure dubs Mille Lacs "relatively pollution free." The last five years of the 1990s brought some of the clearest water in memory, winter and summer. Anglers could for the first time observe rocks, crevices, and even boat anchors on rock reefs they'd been fishing for years. Viewing large schools of suspended walleyes in the clear water became great sport. And secchi disk readings of 20-plus feet (three times the old norm) were sometimes common.

This writer has attended numerous Mille Lacs meetings, enjoyed hours of conversation with DNR Fisheries biologists, and listened to experts galore pontificate about the lake. None of them had indicated any dramatic or sudden negative change in the lake's water quality. In fish consumption advisories for Minnesota lakes, Mille Lacs fares well alongside other state walleye capitols.

Like thousands of others, I was therefore shocked several weeks ago when the Star Tribune, the St. Cloud Times, and other news organizations declared that Mille Lacs and its walleyes are suddenly "in trouble," "threatened," and on the brink of becoming a bass-panfish lake! Twin Cities television stations told viewers the lake and its walleyes are threatened, in a "fragile state," "contaminated," "damaged," "polluted," and even "poisoned!"

Internet chatlines heated up. Mille Lacs tourism officials received numerous calls. And some folks wondered if they dare to fish or swim in the lake. A friend of mine vacationing in Paris read about the impending demise of Mille Lacs and its fishery.

Have there been new studies showing sudden negative change? Sources at MPCA, DNR, and the Mille Lacs Watershed Management Group say no. So what's going on here?

The hysterical adjectives - threatened, damaged, poisoned, etc. - can be traced to a public relations effort by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to gain public (and media) backing for a regional wastewater collection and treatment system for the west side of the lake, including the village of Garrison and the Band's rapidly expanding casino, tribal government, and residential complex at Vineland (both in serious need of expanded and upgraded service). Hook ups to the system by businesses and residents in the west-side corridor would be mandatory.

The various residents and user groups impacting lakes, streams, and watersheds must indeed be partners in keeping our waters clean, despite the physical, scientific, and political hurdles. In the Mille Lacs case, we're talking about federal, state, county, township, village, commercial, and individual interests, not to mention the challenges and mysteries of dealing with a "sovereign" tribal entity. Mille Lacs residents are learning that partnerships can be less than equal.

The recent Band/EPA-spawned and media-participated-in public relations disaster about poisoned fish - one that deserved, but never got, sharp criticism from high state government officials and the state Tourism director - was obviously designed to frighten Minnesotans into immediate support for the sewer project, no questions asked.

Questions exist. Like why should the treatment facility be built on tribal trust land and not on simple fee land owned by the Garrison Kathio West Mille Lacs Sanitary District (GKWML) or even by the Band, with Minnesota in charge? (Trust status, now being applied for, carries a ton of legal specialness as Indian Country, with federal/tribal bureaucracies, jurisdictional tangles, and questionmarks in tow.) Why burden the project with issues prompting legitimate concern and hassle? Why must tax dollars flow by the millions to the Band and not to the Sanitary District? And should the state, local governments, and the District be doing deals and signing documents with tribal and federal agencies which redraw the map of Minnesota by suddenly resurrecting an old 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Indian Reservation covering three townships?

Despite the scurrilous media manipulation and irresponsible reporting aimed at fast tracking the project, Mille Lacs walleyes appear quite healthy enough to survive a few months of holding officials accountable while plans to keep Mille Lacs clean take shape.