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Grass Lake project ready to move ahead

WILLMAR — A crucial construction phase will begin this fall on the state's largest wetland restoration project.

After more than 20 years in the works, a plan to restore the shallow, dry lake bed of Grass Lake, located just south of Willmar, is coming closer to reality.

Local officials say, however, the end result may not please everybody.

Work will begin near the Peach Creek area to build a sedimentation pond and to reroute agricultural drainage ditches that flow into and through the 1,200-acre dry lake bed of Grass Lake.

Historical records indicate the area, located adjacent to Willmar on the southeast side of the Highway 71/23 bypass, had been an active lake until agricultural ditches drained the lake in the late 1800s.

As a result of that past action, water quality in downstream lakes, including Lake Wakanda, has been compromised.

Kandiyohi County, several state entities, local environmental groups, private landowners in the Grass Lake restoration area — which is about three miles long and two miles wide — and engineers have been piecing together a plan over the years to restore the lake.

Because there are so many players in the game, it's taken time and compromises to develop a plan that now appears ready to be put into action, said Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

"It's taken time orchestrating all those players and making sure everyone is on the same page," Kleindl said.

The final plan, however, will not be as grand as what had first been envisioned. Nor will it be as expensive.

Kandiyohi County Chairman Harlan Madsen said the plan is "not the home run that was originally planned" that would have included a design with pumps and a price tag of $10 million to $12 million.

But Madsen said the new plan is functional, affordable and will be a "very prudent use" of taxpayer and private dollars.

The plan that engineers are currently finalizing "won't please everybody" upstream or downstream, Madsen said. "But we do have a good, affordable plan."

The long planning process, which started in 1992, has included negotiations with landowners over the purchase or permanent easement of land. Without the participation of private landowners, the project would not have proceeded. Final negotiations are close to being settled on one small parcel of land.

Barr Engineering has been involved with studies that try to estimate how much water can be held in the lake and how best to filter out sediment before water is eventually sent through the ditch system and into lakes in the southern part of the county.

The goals of the restoration include improved water quality, flood water storage and the return of an environment that will be attractive to waterfowl and other wildlife.

The state has shown its support by providing several grants, including $800,000 in 2008 and $1.6 million in 2011 for the restoration project. Some of that money has been spent on hydrological studies, engineering, land and easement acquisition, constructing control structures and restoring small wetlands and rerouting private drainage ditches within the boundaries of the Grass Lake map.

Some of those smaller projects, which are part of the overall restoration design, have already been completed, said Madsen.

The kickoff of the major construction, however, begins with the Peach Creek project.

Kandiyohi County Drainage Inspector Loren Engelby said there have been numerous revisions to the master design, including a new plan to intercept the Peach Creek water further upstream and install a gravity pond in the area for Peach Creek water to flow into.

A drainage ditch branch (number 3) that goes "through the heart" of Grass Lake will also be abandoned and diverted outside of the lakebed before it joins County Ditch 23.

He said a section of Grass Lake won't be restored but will instead be used as a temporary water storage area.

This large reservoir or "surge pond" will be used to store water in the case of a heavy rain, which Engelby said will help moderate water levels in Lake Wakanda.

This plan will not have a negative effect on flood control measures in the city of Willmar, Engelby said.

Engineers will be fine-tuning the plans over the winter.

Madsen said it appears the current plan will do a good job of holding back water and improving water quality before it flows downstream, but it will not prevent fluctuations in Lake Wakanda.

Although the restoration won't be a "panacea," Madsen said for the money spent, the project will have a better return on the investment than the more elaborate and more expensive plan would have.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750