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With funds secure, work on Marsh Lake rehabilitation to begin in September

APPLETON -- The date for the demise of Marsh Lake can be pegged to the years 1936 to 1939, when Works Progress Administration workers installed a dam and rerouted the Pomme de Terre River as part of a water control project for the upper Minnesota...

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The Marsh Lake dam is a fixed structure that has prevented water levels from dropping during dry years. It has produced a turbid water system devoid of the aquatic vegetation that can support wildlife, capture nutrients and reduce the resuspension of sediments. It will be rehabilitated starting in September. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

APPLETON - The date for the demise of Marsh Lake can be pegged to the years 1936 to 1939, when Works Progress Administration workers installed a dam and rerouted the Pomme de Terre River as part of a water control project for the upper Minnesota River.

It is now known when its recovery will begin. This September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will award bids for the estimated $12.9 million ecological restoration project, according to Capt. Dwight Howell, project manager with the St. Paul District.
Howell was recently at the site of the 1930s vintage dam, along with Dave Trauba, regional wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Randy Melby, supervisor of the flood control structures in the Upper Minnesota River system with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Now that the Corps of Engineers has allocated $7.6 million and the state of Minnesota nearly $4 million for the long awaited project, the hard work begins, according to Trauba and Howell. A structure will be built into the existing dam to allow for periodic drawdowns of Marsh Lake. The Pomme de Terre River will be restored to its original channel so that it will flow into the Minnesota River and Lac qui Parle Lake below the dam, as it had before the 1930s project.
Marsh Lake was once known as a destination for waterfowl hunters and anglers alike. Its waters once filled with migrating waterfowl which came to feed on its abundant, submergent vegetation. As recent as 25 years ago, there were patches of sago pondweed thick enough to stop motor boats, said Trauba.
That’s when anglers could count on catching limits of walleye and northern pike, too.
Today, DNR staff who survey the lake are unable to find any submergent vegetation. Instead, they find 5,000 acres of shallow, turbid water stirred by winds and carp. Carp represent two-thirds of the fish biomass in the lake.
The goal of the project is to shift the system from turbid water back to one of clear water, according to Trauba.
Periodic drawdowns will allow submergent vegetation to return. In a natural system, these plants rely on water fluctuations that occur when there are a mix of dry and wet years.
Returning the connectivity of the river means that sediments will be spread out over the floodplain, and not allowed to accumulate in the lake where they are constantly re-suspended, or poured directly into Lac qui Parle Lake.
The connectivity also means that walleye and other game fish will again have access to the wetlands connected to the lake and the feed and spawning habitat that the Pomme de Terre River offers, according to Trauba.
Lac qui Parle Lake and points downstream will benefit by the improvements, he said. Marsh Lake will again serve as a “nursery’’ for game fish in the upper Minnesota River watershed.
And yes, duck hunters will see better days again too. He guarantees that waterfowl numbers will improve well beyond anything seen in the last 20 years.
Capt. Howell said it could take as long as three years to complete the entire restoration project, although he is optimistic a contractor will complete it sooner.
Once the work at the site is completed, Trauba said the first step will likely be to “shock’’ the system by starting a drawdown and allowing natural vegetation to again take hold.
He’s not ready to set a date on when fishing and waterfowl hunting will be good enough to once again make this lake a western Minnesota destination for those who love the outdoors.
“Marsh Lake didn’t decline overnight,’’ he said. “We’re not going to be able to rehabilitate it overnight. It’s gonna take some time.’’
Thanks to a federal and state partnership, there’s now a starting line for it.

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U.S. Corps of Engineers funds Marsh Lake restoration

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Marsh Lake
Pelicans hunt for food in the waters below the Marsh Lake dam. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

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