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Groundbreaking sets Willmar poultry lab expansion, renovation in motion

WATSON -- A project to restore Marsh Lake was part of the president's budget and one of only four construction projects proposed as new starts nationwide for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.The $2.7 million in the president's budget for the Mars...

Willmar Poultry Testing Lab
Stacy Pollack, lab manager at the Willmar Poultry Testing Lab, and Ken Peterson, of McGough Construction, look over plans for an $8.5 million expansion project at the lab during a groundbreaking ceremony Monday. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE )

WATSON - A project to restore Marsh Lake was part of the president’s budget and one of only four construction projects proposed as new starts nationwide for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The $2.7 million in the president’s budget for the Marsh Lake project was changed to a goose egg during behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the federal budget now approved.
“Disappointing,’’ but not necessarily the setback it might seem, according to Dave Trauba, regional wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New Ulm.
The new federal budget allocates $20 million to the Army Corps of Engineers for ecological restoration projects, which is the intended goal for the Marsh Lake project. Trauba said project supporters are now contacting Minnesota’s representatives in Congress to urge the Corps to allocate a portion of the funds for the Marsh Lake project.
“I remain optimistic,’’ Trauba said. “We’ve got good support on the congressional end.’’
Trauba said he’s also been told that congressional support is important to the Corps.
Overall, the Marsh Lake project is estimated to cost $12.9 million. A key component of the project is to do what nature once did, and allow lake levels to fluctuate. A fixed-crest dam installed in 1937 has not allowed for natural fluctuations and as a result, contributed to the demise of aquatic vegetation that relies on natural water level cycles.
This past year, DNR crews surveying the lake were only able to find one strand of Sago pondweed. It’s a staple food source for migrating waterfowl, and one of the reasons that Marsh Lake was once known as a duck hunter’s mecca. The lake once held beds of thick Sago pondweed.
The Marsh Lake project calls for adding a sluice gate structure to the fixed-crest dam to allow periodic drawdowns of the lake to allow aquatic vegetation to re-establish itself. The project would also would restore the Pomme de Terre River to its natural channel so that it again enters the Minnesota River downstream of the dam. Over 25 species of fish would once again be able to migrate to feed and spawning habitat.
The project would also
include elements to improve fishery habitat and stabilize the riverbanks by restoring natural vegetation.
By itself, the project will not solve all of the lake’s problems. Its waters continue to receive too many nutrients. But the work should go a long way toward improving water quality, while helping restore the riverine water body so that it again can hold waterfowl and a much improved fishery.
The lake is a 4,500-acre impoundment of the Minnesota River located west of Appleton, but lying mainly in Big Stone County. Its islands hold one of the largest nesting colonies of pelicans in North America.
The Minnesota Legislature in 2013 approved a $2.63 million appropriation toward the project. The Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recently recommended another $2 million allocation toward the state’s share of the project.
Trauba said the hope is that the federal government will allocate the initial $2.7 million to launch the project. A total of $8 million in federal funding is being sought.
If federal funding is awarded, the project could be launched next September with work to begin in May or June of 2017. The project could be completed in 2018.
Supporters are urging area residents to contact the offices of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
There is urgency: The Army Corps of Engineers will announce its funding allocations by late January.
Trauba said a wide variety of hunting, fishing and conservation organizations and citizens have joined with the state to support the project. He’s hopeful they will respond to this call for action.
“We wouldn’t have gone through this very long and formal process just to let it go at the end,’’ he said. “I’m not going to let it go.”

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Dale Lauer
Dale Lauer, supervisor of the Willmar Poultry Testing Lab, gets ready for the groundbreaking ceremony Monday on an $8.5 mil- lion expansion and remodeling project. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE )

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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