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Lake Shaokatan, Source of the Yellow Medicine River


The Lay of the Lake


c. 1910 threshing in Yellow Medicine County

Minneapolis Public Library, Minneapolis Collection

Lake Shaokatan is found in Lincoln County, along Minnesota's western border with South Dakota. Shaokatan is situated in a deep valley, created by an ancient river which flowed through the area to the southwest. When the glaciers that once covered the area receded, the flow of the ancient river, now called the Yellow Medicine River, changed to the northeast.

This channel was called by the Dakotas "the hole in the mountain" because it cuts through the Altamount Moraine belt which otherwise dominates the landscape. The Lake itself was formed by the remainder of a thirty foot high glacier.

The Lake serves as the headwaters of the Yellow Medicine River, which cuts a wide swath through the rich farmlands of Lincoln, Yellow Medicine, and Lyon Counties, draining over 680 square miles of one of the largest grain producing regions of the world before joining with the Minnesota River at Granite Falls.

The Lake's surface area is approximately 101 acres with a mean depth of 7.3 feet.

The History of People at Shaokatan


Dakota Te-na-se-pa. 1862

Little Crow's wife and children. 1863


Hanley Falls Drug Store 1887

Swimming at Hanley Falls 1925 on the Yellow Medicine

Photos: Minneapolis Public Library, Minneapolis Collection

The Dakota Indians lived for thousands of years on the banks of Lake Shaokatan and throughout the Yellow Medicine River watershed. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of Chippewa presence in the area as well, and Dakotas residing near the lake in the late 1800's told of great battles with the Chippewas. The Dakotas hunted and fished around the lake, and collected wild rice on Lake Shaokatan as well as other area lakes.

Early settlers called the lake "Shakatopee." It is unclear when or for what reason the name changed. The Dakota meaning of the name is likewise unclear. The Dakotas are responsible for the naming of the Yellow Medicine River, which is called "Pezhihutazizi kapi" in Dakota. The name is broken down as:

peji: generic name for grasses and all erect plants without wooden stems
huta: root
zi: yellow
kapi: they dig

Thus, the Dakota named the River, and the region, after the diggings of the yellow plant root, or medicine, found nearby. The Yellow Medicine River Watershed District is currently working with the upper Sioux Agency of Granite Falls, Minnesota to identify this plant.

Tensions between the Dakotas and the slow but steadily increasing settler population reached their peak in 1862 when, led by Little Crow, the Dakotas throughout the western portions of Minnesota attacked many settler communities. Several battles were fought in Lincoln and Yellow Medicine Counties before the federal troops ultimately prevailed.

Although fur traders and early explorers had been through the region as early as the 1816-1820, the first settlers did not come to the shores of Lake Shaokatan until after the 1862 conflict, building sod dugouts along the south side of the lake in the 1870's. Soon thereafter, wooden shanties and log cabins appeared on the north side of the lake, and Shaokatan Township was organized in 1879.

From the beginning, these early settlers set about transforming the prairie into farmland, a process well-completed today.


A Lake in Trouble

Lake Shaokatan was heavily polluted from agricultural drainage.

Until recently, Lake Shaokatan was a lake very much in decline. Excessive nutrient loadings from the surrounding watersheds resulted in frequent nuisance algal blooms. On several occasions, the algal blooms were so severe that they produced algal toxins that resulted in the death of livestock.

A Lake Restored

In 1991, the Lake Shaokatan Clean Water Partnership was organized as a result of local concern over the quality of the Lake and a desire to improve and protect lake water quality. The Partnership is comprised of the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District, Lincoln County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Shaokatan Lake Shore Association, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The Partnership developed a two stage process for restoring and protecting the Lake. Stage one involved collecting and analyzing extensive data on the Lake and its contributing watershed to determine the causes of declining lake water quality. Stage two involved the development and implementation of a plan to address the identified causes of declining water quality.

In stage one, the Partnership first collected data through sampling to determine the amount of pollutant loadings into the Lake and where the loadings were entering the system. After identifying the locations of pollutant loadings, the partnership then determined the sources of the loadings. The Partnership determined that the two largest loadings, accounting for the majority of loading to the Lake, originated from uncontained swine and dairy farms. The final step in stage one involved determining the amount of "internal" loading in the Lake. Lake sediment sampling was conducted to determine how much phosphorus loading was being generated internally from phosphorus trapped in lake bottom sediment. The results showed that internal loading was not significant.

The Partnership next turned to developing a plan to address the causes and sources of declining lake water quality. The result was an Implementation Plan consisting of six actions designed to address external loadings:

  1. Construction of a stream diversion channel to alter the course of a stream away from a swine operation. The stream diversion was completed in the fall of 1993.

  2. Establishment of a wetland in the severed portion of the stream. In conjunction with construction of the stream diversion channel, earthen berms were constructed to isolate the severed portion of the stream to create a wetland.

  3. Buyout of the uncontained portion of the swine operation. Negotiations with the landowner to buyout the uncontained portion of the swine operation along with a twenty acre parcel including the wetland and buffer on either site of the stream were completed in the fall of 1993.

  4. Construction of a sealed containment pit at a dairy operation. A sealed containment area was constructed at the dairy operation in the fall of 1994.

  5. Establish shoreline ordinances addressing upgrading of septic systems and cattle exclusion practices adjacent to the Lake and its major tributaries. Efforts are currently underway to involve all the stakeholders in drafting a model shoreline ordinance.

  6. Enhance wetlands at several locations in the lake's watershed and provide buffer zones along the streams entering the Lake. The Partnership has purchased and is continuing to negotiate with several landowners to obtain buffer strips and wetlands along the streams entering the Lake. The wetland purchases were funded primarily through cooperation with Duck's Unlimited Inc., the Federal Fish and Wildlife Federation, and the Minnesota River Improvement Project.

The results of the Partnership's efforts are impressive. As of 1994, sampling indicates a reduction in loading to the lake resulting in lower in-lake phosphorus concentrations, higher clarity, and reduced algal growth. The project has also served as a tool for community involvement and a model for public-private cooperation.

Making a Difference: Terry Renken

Terry Renken currently serves as a manager on the Board of Managers of the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District.

His involvement with the Lake Shaokatan project began when he was designated by the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District as the watershed district's project representative.

During the course of the Project, he worked closely with representatives of the Shaokatan Lakeshore Association, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Lincoln County Soil and Water Conservation District, and local landowners. Terry collected the data from the monitoring stations installed for the project and was responsible for speaking to and working with the local landowners.

According to Terry, his ultimate satisfaction with the completion of the project has been in watching the public's excitement about Lake Shakokatan's improvements.

"Lake lots are now developing at a rapid pace. Economic values have increased, as well as the lake's increased recreational value. The Picnic Point County Park rests along the south shore, offering campsites, a new playground, and a newly created beach. A supper club has reopened on the north shore."

The Yellow Medicine River Watershed District Board, whose members are Terry Renken, John Boulton, Richard Erickson, Delmar Mamer, and Doug Gregoire, has now undertaken a new project, The Clean Water Partnership, intending to improve the water quality of the Yellow Medicine River from Lake Shaokatan to the outlet of the Yellow Medicine River near Granite Falls, Minnesota.

According to Terry, "through the Lake Shaokatan Project , new knowledge was gained. As a result, the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District has grown, redeveloping and extending its interests, broadening our horizons."

Additional information about the Lake Shaokatan Project, the Yellow Medicine River project, or the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District can be obtained by contacting:

Cindy Potz
Yellow Medicine River Watershed District
Box 267
Minneota, MN 65265
(507) 872-6720


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