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Grass Lake restoration discussed at meeting attended by stakeholders

Loren Engelby of the Kandiyohi County Public Works Department addresses an audience Tuesday during the Grass Lake stakeholders meeting at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building in Willmar. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- As the first phase of the Grass Lake restoration project gets finalized in preparation for spring construction, stakeholders were asked Tuesday to work together to develop a middle-ground plan for phase two.

The group of about 60 people, including property owners, elected officials and representatives from state and local agencies, was also asked to keep an open mind about the management plan for the downstream Lake Wakanda chain of lakes.

"We need a consensus on where we're going to go," said Sen. Joe Gimse, who hosted the meeting at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building. "It's time to move this forward."

In this unique watershed that includes flood concerns for Willmar, water quality concerns for Lake Wakanda and wildlife management concerns for Grass Lake and downstream lakes, it will be challenging to develop a plan that makes everyone happy, said Loren Engelby, Kandiyohi County drainage inspector.

"We need to find a common ground somewhere in the middle," he said. "We're all a part of the problem and we'll all be part of the solution. That's the hope."

The plans hinge on restoring the original Grass Lake basin, which was drained more than a century ago for agricultural purposes.

Putting water back into the dry lake basin, located adjacent to Willmar on the southeast side of the Highway 71/23 bypass, will restore the wetland and provide treatment and flood storage for a majority of the contributing watershed, according to the plan outline and goals.

The project has been in a stop-and-go situation for at least 20 years as goals, direction and availability of funding changed. Recent news that Willmar would not be awarded storm water storage credits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency by using Grass Lake has resulted in Willmar looking for new ways to treat storm water and has caused the participating entities to develop a renewed focus for the project.

"It's been a long haul with a lot of bumps in the road," said Engelby, who's been working on the project since it began.

About $1.7 million has been spent so far to develop small wetlands and secure permanent easements from Grass Lake property owners. Easement settlements are needed for just a few more acres from two landowners, said Engelby.

There's $3 million available for phase one of the plan, which could go for bids yet this fall, said Engelby.

It's likely the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners will be asked to oversee that part of the project. It includes diverting storm water from a 3,261-acre portion of Willmar's watershed from the Branch 3 ditch, and ag runoff from the 7,665-acre Peach Creek watershed from its current route into County Ditch 23A. It would instead be rerouted into Grass Lake.

Doing that would improve downstream water quality, provide downstream flood damage reduction and restore wildlife habitat benefits, said Engelby.

Water would eventually flow through the Grass Lake outlet and back into County Ditch 23A.

The preliminary plans for phase two include developing a ditch bypass that would skirt the south side of Grass Lake to carry water from Willmar. The installation of large pumps would push Willmar water through the system during low-flow times.

Finding money to fund that phase, estimated at $3 million to $4 million, could be challenging.

It's hoped that the state's Legacy Fund, which is funded through the 3/8-cent sales tax, could be used. Because of the state deficit, Gimse that that pool of money may be the only option for state money.

Rep. Al Juhnke said the Grass Lake project is a "show piece" in the state that will likely get a good reception if grants are written.

A separate Lake Wakanda operation plan also fits into the overall goal of the quantity and quality of water coming in and out of the watershed.

Among other things, the state Department of Natural Resources is proposing to lower Lake Wakanda by half a foot during summer months in an attempt to address concerns about high nutrient and sediment levels there and flooding issues in Willmar.

Lowering a lake temporarily requires 75 percent approval by landowners. That will be very difficult to achieve, according to one landowner who said he has seen petitions from 75 percent of landowners to not lower the lake level.

Gimse said he intends to hold another meeting with Grass Lake and Lake Wakanda stakeholders at 10 a.m. on Oct. 12 at the Health and Human Services Building.

Carolyn Lange

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

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