Higgins Lake’s crystal waters are under threat. Blame poop (and other stuff)

Higgins Lake sign

The Higgins Lake Foundation this summer funded signs urging residents of the Roscommon County lake to stop fertilizing their lawns, after tests showed increased levels of algae. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

ROSCOMMON – Venture onto Higgins Lake and it’s easy to see why it’s one of Michigan’s most beloved, with its clear waters and sandy bottom.

But trouble lurks in the depths of Michigan’s 11th largest inland lake, where the crystal waters abruptly turn turquoise. More than 100 feet below the surface, decades of lawn fertilizer, septic remnants and road runoff have created a nutrient-rich stew that is beginning to choke the lake and provide a breeding ground for algae that has made a mess of Lake Erie.

“You look at Higgins and it’s like the Caribbean. It seems like a spectacular ecosystem, and it is,” said Mark Luttenton, a biology professor at Grand Valley State University who has tested algae in the lake for five years.

“But we are seeing trends that gradually Higgins is moving toward a system that could be really affected by [human] activity.”

He and other scientists have studied Higgins, just west of Roscommon, for years and say similar problems are brewing in northern Michigan’s so-called oligotrophic lakes – ones formed by glaciers and cherished by vacationers for their clear waters.

They’re clear because such lakes contain relatively few plants, but that’s changing with an influx of nutrients from lawn fertilizer and septic systems. The nutrients breed algae, which muddy the waters, reduce the amount of oxygen in lake depths and lead to nuisances such as swimmer’s itch.

“If we keep adding nutrients like phosphate and nitrogen into the lakes, it all stays in the lakes and it’s just a matter of time,” Luttenton said. “The way to stop this and perhaps reverse it is to reduce or eliminate any [pollution]. The sooner they start, the better.”

Higgins Lake

Higgins Lake is a good example of what scientists call an oligotrophic lake, ones that have little plant life, producing clear waters. That’s one reason the lakes in northern Michigan are so popular with vacationers. (Courtesy photo)

This summer, signs began popping up next to cottages and summer homes that surround the 9,900-acre lake reading, “Love Your Lake: Skip the Fertilizer.” 

The signs, which encourage homeowners to stop using nitrate-rich fertilizer on their lawns because it seeps into the lake, were funded by the Higgins Lake Foundation. The nonprofit also has sponsored research into the water quality of the lake and funded two boat washes to stem the spread of invasive species. In recent years, divers have detected zebra mussels and vegetation-suffocating plants such as Eurasian watermilfoil and the starry stonewart in the lake.

“The (signs) are one of many attempts to get people to take individual responsibility and do what they can do because bit by bit, chunk by chunk, we are beating up our lakes,” said Vicki Springstead, chairwoman of the Higgins Lake Foundation.

No doubt, reducing fertilizer will help, especially if conservation efforts prompt residents to think about their role in their environment, said David Hyndman, a professor of hydrogeology and chairman of Michigan State University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 

But the biggest impact in reducing algae would be for surrounding communities to switch from septic to sewer systems, he said. Northern Michigan lakes are highly unlikely to experience algae trouble on the scale of Lake Erie – which is covered by a bloom or sheen of algae that is eight times the size of Cleveland – but research has shown that waste from septic systems increasingly is making its way into lakes and rivers, Hyndman said.

“Switching to sewers is a long-term good investment for the water quality of these lakes,” he said.

Statewide, 1 in 3 homes rely on septic systems, which have led to elevated fecal bacteria in 64 Michigan watersheds, according a 2015 Michigan State University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More than 130,000 septic systems are believed to be failing in Michigan, one of the only states without uniform septic codes, despite several efforts at reform.

Higgins Lake

A push is underway to switch summer homes and cottages surrounding the vast Higgins Lake away from septic systems and onto a municipal sewer. Two communities, Lyon and Gerrish townships, are amid a feasibility study. (Bridge photo by Anne Feighan)

But sewers are expensive, and there’s no consensus Higgins Lake residents and cottagers would fund such an investment, said Craig Williams, treasurer of Lyon Township that abuts the lake. His community and another township, Gerrish, commissioned a feasibility study into a wastewater and treatment system last year but it isn’t complete.

“This would be huge, and it’s a long process,” Williams said. “Some people say we need (sewers). Some say we don’t need it. There are two sides to every story, so we’re just going to complete the study and see what happens.”

He said “influential lake-fronters” began advocating for a sewer system after one was completed about 10 years ago to serve Camp Curnalia, a community of military veterans off the northwest corner of the lake.

The system cost about $6 million and costs 405 cottage owners about $700 per year in fees. The wastewater system covers about 64 acres.

Gerrish and Lyon townships, in contrast, have nearly 7,000 homes and cottages spread over 72 square miles, or 47,000 acres.

More northern communities could face similar decisions in coming years if they want to keep lakes pristine, according to the MSU study.

Springstead, whose family has owned property around the lake for generations, supports the sewer system. She said her foundation has been going strong and advocating for the lake for 30 years because members keep in mind a phrase from one of its first big donors.

“If someone took Higgins Lake from you, how much would you pay to get it back?” Springstead said, recalling the words of a woman who gave the group $10,000 at its first meeting.

“This is a battle,” Springstead said. “Michigan really needs to step it up.”

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Fri, 09/06/2019 - 9:40am

What is America’s love affair with green lawns. You see outsiders move to the desert and they must have a green lawn even though there is no water and the desert people have some form of decoration fashioned out of sand, stone, and native plants. Adapt to the environment. If it isn’t native, then maybe it shouldn’t be there.

M Brown
Fri, 09/06/2019 - 9:42am

There are not two sides to the story
Continue on the present path and you will destroy the lake. Simple. There are people that will spend money to save the lake and there are people that don’t want to spend money to save the lake. That does not create two sides to the story but does create an economic issue regarding the survival of the lake

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:15pm

My guess is that the the residences on Higgins lake, as well as the majority of Michigan lakes are not on a public water system, which means that the septic yuck is also in people's wells. Their response is to drink bottled water which is causing huge environmental damage world wide (not to mention the negative health impact of consuming plastic which has leached into the water), but what do they do when they shower? Do they really believe that the shower water is coliform (poo bacteria) free? The self centeredness of people never ceases to amaze me, especially when they are also damaging their own health and well as their neighbors and more importantly the environment - very sad

Robyn A Tonkin
Fri, 09/06/2019 - 1:00pm

Since we live on a lake in a remote part of the UP, a sewer system (which I would be completely in favor of) is out of the question. We have, however, this summer replaced an older septic system with a state-of-the art chambered septic tank and conventional field installed by a highly trained and experienced professional who we trusted implicitly to do the best job possible. Had we chosen the mound system route, we could have installed a much cheaper system, close to the original system, which came with the house. However, we had a contiguous, high value unimproved lot, on high land that perked for a conventional system. We put the field, which includes a geotextile blanket covering to impede percolation of surface water into the field, on that lot. Neighbors were amazed that we didn't opt for the mound system because the lot where we located the field is worth a bundle. We bought that lot decades ago for use as a field. When I explained to the neighbors that siting the field where we did was the only ecologically responsible choice, they suddenly looked puzzled, as though I had suddenly started speaking a foreign language. Maybe I had. Our lake is clearly showing signs of increased eutrophication. Forty years ago, there was no filamentous algae growing on underwater woody debris, and no algal blooms. Now algae growth on submerged logs and limbs is common, and blooms occur in spring, and at times, the water is distinctly turbid.

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:52pm

While it is in the water over the dam column, the townships were offered a large federal grant to install a sewer system back in the 70's but turned it down. So much for thinking ahead.

Sun, 09/08/2019 - 11:45am

nestle payed the State $ 200 dollars to take out michigan waters too sell back to you in plastic bottles..and yOU living in michigan has to pay pay pay pya for all dirty waters>flint.while our state legislature laugh all the way to "climate change destructing>you water bill goes up and up while NESTLE get FREE sweet water from Michigan .and all we get is NO GROUNDWATERS dirty drinking waters.etc etc

Paul Jordan
Sun, 09/08/2019 - 12:22pm

I don't know specifically about Higgins Lake, but in western Michigan every few years homeowners around lakes spend thousands of dollars on studies regarding all the algae and weeds in their lakes. All the studies recommend eliminating individual septic systems in favor of a sewer system.
And uniformly the homeowners balk at the cost. Then, several years later, they commission another study...etc.
Maybe, instead of a sanitary sewer system, they should build a common very large septic system (with a drain field farther from the lake) that could be regularly pumped out. It might be cheaper and more effective than the current strategy--doing nothing.

Vince Caruso
Mon, 09/09/2019 - 9:23pm

Another issue found with similar septic systems on bodies of water showed that your grandkids are probably swimming in sewage. E-Coli readings generally mean sewage in the water, likely in front of your cottage, yuck. Be 'greedy' and save your lake and your grandkids health. This is not rocket science, just simple public health learned over a hundred years ago and more recently learned water quality rules you can not break. This lake is also for the generations to come and the natural systems also.