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Bonding committee hears about goal to restore Grass Lake

WILLMAR -- A $2.2 million request to restore Grass Lake is on the list for the Minnesota bonding committees to consider during the next legislative session. But a commitment by the city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County is also needed to make the plan work, according to agency officials. The Senate Capital Investment Committee heard a presentation Thursday about issues with Willmar's storm water and possible options for addressing the problem.

One option that's being floated by the Board of Water and Soil Resources includes a new bypass drainage ditch for Willmar's water and restoration of Grass Lake, a 1,200-acre dry lake bed located southeast of Willmar, for agriculture runoff. Currently water from both sources is sent downstream.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources has put the $2.2 million request on the committee's list, but without a commitment by the city and county, the organization won't "take a more aggressive" position on the project, said Thomas Wenzel, an engineer working with the Board of Water and Soil Resources. The entities should be the "main drivers" of the project.

If the entities do get on board with a project, Wenzel said the board could return with an even larger request.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said Willmar is the "linchpin" in the project. He also said the state Pollution Control Agency needs to become a "participant" rather than an "observer" in the process.

Because of the high cost, the city of Willmar rejected a $7 million plan proposed in the 1990s that would have pumped the town's storm water into Grass Lake to provide flood control and treatment of the city's storm water before it went downstream.

Bruce Vruwink, one of those downstream property owners, told the committee that the city is "in denial" of its storm-water problem, in terms of quality and quantity. He said people in Willmar "don't want to be polluters" but need to be educated about the water they're sending downstream to Lake Wakanda, Little Kandiyohi and Big Kandiyohi lakes, and eventually to the Mississippi River.

Vruwink and three neighbors have been testing water at various locations, including Willmar's storm-water drainage ditches, since March. Data from those samples show fecal coliform as high as 79,000 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters -- far above the 200 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters maximum standard level.

Wenzel, in a later interview, said Willmar does have problems with the quantity of storm water it has to discharge but said it was unfair to "jump to conclusions" about the quality of that water.

Marilee Druskin told the committee how "heartbreaking" it's been to watch Lake Wakanda deteriorate in the last four years. She said she could see 6 feet to the bottom of the shallow lake. Now the depth is about 6 inches.

"The lake is silent," said Druskin, who said she and her neighbors hoped that the data they collected from water samples would generate action. Their plea for assistance is what prompted Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, to ask the Board of Water and Soil Resources to look at the Grass Lake plan again.

"We're a little grassroots group," said Druskin. The committee, she said, has the "power" to make things happen.

Wenzel said he will be meeting with city and county officials in the near future to discuss this new, less expensive option for restoring Grass Lake, as well as other possibilities for treating Willmar's storm water.

Some landowners in the Grass Lake area think the original plan from the 1990s is the best option while others don't want to see it restored as a wetland at all.

Wenzel said the state has acquired easement and ownership of nearly 85 percent of land in the Grass Lake area, which is crucial to future restoration of the lake.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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