The Whitefish Lake Institute celebrates 10 years as a nonprofit devoted to preserving and studying a community centerpiece

Story by Dillon Tabish

As fate would have it, Mike Koopal arrived in Whitefish in the late 1990s just as the upstart Whitefish Lake Advisory Group was drifting apart.

Koopal, a fisheries technician and biologist, had eagerly joined the group with the hope of studying and protecting the community’s namesake lake, which had become the subject of increasing concern as development smothered its shorelines and users flooded its wavy interior.

“By the time I volunteered on the committee, it was disbanding. I thought it was unfortunate that the lake was left without a voice,” Koopal said.

Unable to leave well enough alone, Koopal began devising a replacement organization, something that would act as a sentinel for the lake while also raising awareness and conducting scientific research.

Over the next few years the concept trickled together as Koopal gathered support in the community and crafted a business model, using an entrepreneurial spirit for an upstart nonprofit. By 2005, Koopal had elicited the support of a major donor and formed a passionate, like-minded advisory board.

Ten years later, the Whitefish Lake Institute is a revered organization that is considered vital to the lake and surrounding waterways while also being woven into the town’s fabric.

Koopal and his four-person staff, based in a cozy downtown storefront, have taken the ambitions and ideals of the initial advisory group and expanded them into a full-fledged living mission of promoting science, education and stewardship.

Mike Koopal, executive director and founder of the Whitefish Lake Institute

Mike Koopal, executive director and founder of the Whitefish Lake Institute

The institute is similar to the well-known Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay in that it monitors data and studies the science of the lake, but it has also taken on the role of intermediary between the natural resources and residents.

“We’re trying to create that community stewardship and interaction between the community and the lake,” Koopal said.

The team has accomplished various projects in the valley, from restoring damaged creeks to building interpretive public nature trails. Students from the elementary and high schools have participated in field trips and special projects, studying wetlands or helping restore degraded areas.

But the prominent lake nestled on the north end of town remains the heart and soul of the group’s work.

In recent years, the institute has raised awareness of various potential health risks and problems in the lake. The group released a report in 2012 that revealed “septic leachate” in five shoreline neighborhoods from failing and outdated septic systems located on properties around the lake. The group has received grant funds to begin restoration and engineering projects over the next decade to help address the problem.

In 2007, the group also found heightened levels of benzene, which can cause various public health issues, in the water around City Beach. Koopal and his team found that boaters were dumping their water tanks that also contained high levels of gasoline, polluting the water. The Whitefish City Council followed Koopal’s recommendation and is installing a drain at the boat ramp to prevent oily bilges from further contaminating the lake. That ramp is being installed this summer.

“The institute has brought an awareness to our community regarding the threats to Whitefish Lake water quality,” Whitefish City Mayor John Muhlfeld said. “More importantly, the research conducted over the past 10 years has resulted in tangible solutions to some of the more pressing water quality issues, in particular septic leachate and aquatic invasive species.”

Perhaps its greatest achievement is surfacing this summer.

Since the institute was founded, Koopal and volunteers have been collecting baseline data from the lake, such as physical and biological characteristics and chemical constituents. After 10 years, Koopal now has a data set that can provide comparative analysis over a considerable timeframe.

“There is so much variation in data, so unless you have eight to 10 years of data to compare with, it’s meaningless,” Koopal said. “Now we have trend data collected over time, and this is really the moment in time for us to report on that.”

In July, the institute will release the findings of its study with a comprehensive scientific breakdown of the lake, its various characteristics and the potential threats and issues hurting the water. Whitefish Lake is unique in that it’s the only lake in Montana that is completely annexed by a city, Koopal said.

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Fishing on Whitefish

“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘How’s the lake?” Koopal said. “It all depends on what you’re talking about, but that’s what we’re looking forward to with this status report.”

In conjunction with the report, the institute will hold more public meetings to gauge the community’s interests and concerns that can be incorporated.

“We’ll be looking for community input, and that provides us with a road map of water quality improvement task items that we can undertake as a community,” Koopal said.

After 10 years, the report will mark the culmination of the organization’s past efforts and future mission.

“It’s our lake. We want it managed appropriately and in order to do that you have to have the best available science,” he said.

“Really, after 10 years, starting from square one, we’ve had large community support and there’s no way we would be sitting here today if the community didn’t recognize the need for WLI.”