Looking again to Grass Lake; New restoration plan under consideration

WILLMAR -- The need to treat agricultural runoff and accommodate storm water from the city of Willmar has officials once again looking to Grass Lake.

WILLMAR -- The need to treat agricultural runoff and accommodate storm water from the city of Willmar has officials once again looking to Grass Lake.

A new proposal that would restore Grass Lake to treat ag runoff and move storm water from Willmar around the dry lake bed into a new diverted ditch system was presented Friday to a group of landowners and decision-makers.

The proposal, which was presented as a less costly alternative to a plan that was shelved in the 1990s because of its $7 million price tag, will get a preliminary review by the Senate bonding committee next Thursday during a tour of the Willmar, New London and Spicer communities.

The wetland restoration plan, which was developed by the Board of Water and Soil Resources, could provide environmental benefits on several levels, said Ron Harnack, executive director of the state agency.

The plan calls for putting a dam with a control gate on the outlet of Grass Lake southeast of Willmar. Runoff from about 7,600 acres of farmland would go into the lake bed, and stay there to be treated. It would eventually continue downstream through Ditch 23. Doing that would restore Grass Lake to a wetland and help treat the runoff.


Storm water generated from more than 3,200 acres in Willmar would be channeled around Grass Lake through a new diversion ditch and then rejoin Ditch 23.

Harnack said the initial financial bonding request is for $2.2 million. If it is approved in the next legislative session, construction could begin in 2007.

Old vs. new plan

The old plan from the 1990s called for building a berm on the edge of Grass Lake and installing lift stations to pump Willmar's storm water into the lake bed, restoring it as a wetland.

Because Willmar's elevation is equal to or slightly lower than Grass Lake, the berm and pumps were needed to prevent water from backing up into the city during heavy rains. Someone at the meeting made the comparison of Willmar and New Orleans, which also has a lake that's higher than the city.

Because of problems with elevation and the high cost, decision-makers in the 1990s determined the plan wasn't feasible and it was abandoned.

Harnack said by working with county, city and state agencies, an alternative plan "that everyone could live with" could provide some positive environmental benefits.

There was no consensus in the room, however, that the new proposal was the best plan to pursue, in part because Willmar's storm water would continue to go downstream without being treated.


Allan Bjornberg held up a jar of greenish-black water that he and his wife, Linda, dipped Tuesday from Ditch 23A before it rolled into Lake Wakanda. He had another jar of thick, black water that was collected this summer further upstream in the ditch, closer to Willmar.

"It's terrible. It just stinks," said Allan Bjornberg, of the water in Ditch 23A.

The Bjornbergs are part of a group that's sampling water along the ditch, which carries storm water from Willmar and eventually into Lake Wakanda.

The water quality of the lake has deteriorated drastically during the last half-dozen years, according to several people who spoke at the meeting.

Bruce Vruwink said people were "completely waltzing around the issue" by not looking at the quality of water coming from Willmar through the county ditch system.

Without "finger pointing," Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said the city "needs to be cognizant" that some people believe the pollutants are coming from Willmar's discharge of storm sewer and sanitary sewer into the ditch.

Mel Odens, Willmar public works director, said the city is meeting the state Pollution Control Agency standards and has always "been at the table" on environmental issues and has been "a good steward." Odens said the city has not discharged treated sanitary sewer water into Ditch 23A since 1980.

The city's storm water, however, does travel through the ditch system, which slices through the heart of Grass Lake. The ditch is about 7 feet lower than the floor of Grass Lake, said Ryan Peterson from the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District.


If Willmar's storm water is sent through a new ditch around Grass Lake, it still won't be treated before it heads downstream, said Steve Wood, a property owner. Larry Larson said he's concerned the alterative plan would flood his rich farmland.

Peterson said he supports the alternative plan because it provides the opportunity for additional treatment of Willmar's storm water in the future in the Grass Lake area. "It's a step in the right direction," said Peterson.

Harris Duininck, who is developing commercial land on the south side of Willmar, said he's putting in an 11-acre holding pond on the site to help with storm-water retention in town.

Duininck, whose company built the state Highway 23 four-lane project, said he was "absolutely wrong" about the state requirement for building so many retention ponds along the highway. He said he's seen the positive effect on Green Lake, where he lives. Duininck said the 11-acre pond for his new development project won't solve Willmar's problems, but it will help.

Kim Gorans, a poultry farmer, said he's involved with a five-year study to look at pollutants in agricultural runoff. He said storm water that's coming from Willmar and farmland needs to be studied and a "science-based" plan needs to be developed, rather than "just a look good" plan.

No decisions

Thomas Wenzel, an engineer working for the Board of Soil and Water Resources, said the alterative plan is not a "final solution" but the initial phase of an ongoing planning process.

Sen. Johnson said no decisions have been made on whether it should be done or not. "We have a lot more to do on this," he said, adding that, in the end, the "right thing" needs to be done.


Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said letting the bonding committee tour the area was a way to make them aware of the project before they make a list of projects to be funded.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Falk said the county would "take a real hard look" at the proposal. "This is the first we've heard of it."

Harnack said the bonding bill requests needed to be made by July. Even though there are numerous issues to work out, the Grass Lake project was included in the capital budget request. He said, "Things won't get better until some things are done." But he said it doesn't make sense to move ahead with the project if there is not consensus on a plan.

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