It all started with a phone call from Josh Kavanagh.
He asked if the four shallow lakes flowing into Diamond Lake in Kandiyohi County could be managed to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.
To answer the question, Jim Streifel, a professional engineer with Ducks Unlimited, realized he would have to figure out how to reverse the natural flow of water through Hubbard, South Wheeler, North Wheeler and Schultz Lakes.
A daunting engineering challenge, but he figured out how to make that magic happen. It required cutting a 30-foot deep trench on the north end of Schultz Lake and placing a 24-inch diameter pipe, 2,100 feet long to connect the chain of lakes to Kandiyohi County Ditch 28. It also required installing water control and weir structures on Schultz, North Wheeler and South Wheeler Lakes so that the flow could be reversed when needed, and then shut off so that the natural flow could return.
But Streifel confided that he never thought any of this would happen for an entirely different reason. How would you get all of the landowners affected by a project of this scale to go along with it, particularly the farm family that would be looking at that 30-foot scar later referred to by Kavanagh as the "Grand Canyon" in the midst of their corn/bean field?
Stan Lilleberg answered "yes" without hesitation when Josh Kavanagh approached him about the idea. He told Kavanagh how much he appreciated the chain of lakes and the wildlife they held.
Kavanagh, formerly with Ducks Unlimited and now a shallow lakes technician with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Margaret Johnson, executive director of the Middle Fork of the Crow River Watershed District, worked with landowners throughout the basin to find the support needed. They were joined by partners including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Kandiyohi County and the Diamond Lake Area Recreation Association.
They all gathered on Tuesday near the now buried 'Grand Canyon' to mark the start of a new era for the chain of lakes and Diamond Lake, one of the county's popular fishing destinations. None of this would have happened without the support of landowners, said Streifel, as he presented Ducks Unlimited wildlife prints to two of the farm families most affected by the project. Erik Lilleberg and Mike Buer accepted the prints on behalf of their families.
It's unusual for a shallow lakes project to involve an entire chain of lakes due to all of the complexities involved, Kavanagh pointed out. Support from all of the partners, as well as financial support from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment was essential. Construction costs totaled $755,430, and there were access easement costs of $57,220 and a $65,900 cost for a rough fish barrier on Diamond Lake.
Reversing the flow in the lakes makes it possible to draw them down. A drawdown is already underway on Schultz and North Wheeler Lakes. Sometime this September, the waters on South Wheeler and Hubbard will also be lowered. If things go as planned, that will set the stage for a winter kill of the carp and other rough fish in these waters, and expose much of the lakes mud bottoms.
Like hitting the "reset" button, the drawdown will allow the lakes to return to a clear water state. Aquatic vegetation will return as the waters rebound to their normal levels next year. Absent the carp which uproot them, the aquatic plants will stay in place and help absorb the nutrients in these waters. The four lakes provide 45 percent of the water flow to Diamond Lake, while delivering 75 percent of the nutrients that impair the popular lake, Johnson explained.
"We want to go into this winter with a really hard winter kill, really push this thing in the right direction, and then hopefully bring it back to full service or normal elevation,'' said Cory Netland, wildlife manager with the Minnesota DNR.
He and Kavanagh pointed out that the partial drawdown is already showing positive results, with clearing water and the return of vegetation.
The managed drawdowns essentially mimic the wet and dry cycles that once naturally caused periodic winter kills in these shallow lakes, Kavanagh pointed out.
The intent is to drawdown the lakes possibly once every 10 years or so to hit the reset button. A fish barrier added to the natural outlet at Diamond Lake should slow the return of rough fish to the shallow lakes.
In the meantime, the Middle Fork of the Little Crow River Watershed District will continue to work with landowners in the basin to implement best management practices to reduce the nutrients that reach the waters. Reducing the nutrients and sediment reaching the waters represents the best, long-term approach to protecting the county's lakes, the project partners noted.
They are optimistic that landowners in the basin will continue to support efforts to improve the waters. Kavanagh explained it this way: "The support here has has been amazing. I can't say enough about that. That's why the project is successful, that's why we're here today. If we didn't have local support, landowner support, we wouldn't be here standing talking about this project.''