WATSON — Like sand in an hourglass, the waters of Marsh Lake have been steadily receding for about one-and-a-half years, but no more.
The drawdown of Marsh Lake that began at the end of 2019 has ended.
The gates of the new control structure were closed on June 21.
Water levels in the lake are expected to rebound ever-so-slowly. In the midst of a drought, it’s anybody’s guess when the waters will return to more familiar levels.
Waterfowl hunters will face a difficult challenge on the lake this season. “It’s hard to navigate with water levels where they are,” said Walt Gessler, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. There are places where people will be able to walk out and hunt waterfowl, he said.
The walk may be worth the making: Gessler is optimistic that Marsh Lake will once again attract migrating waterfowl in the kind of numbers that once made it a mecca for waterfowl hunters.
“(I’m) really excited. With water returning to the system, we will see some exceptional things out there,” he said.
It’s due to the water drawdown that was made possible as part of a $13 million project to restore the riverine ecosystem of Marsh Lake. For 80 years, a fixed crest dam held the lake waters. As a consequence, the lake has lost much of the vegetation that attracted migrating waterfowl.
It’s coming back. Gessler said the DNR is hoping to conduct an aerial reconnaissance to determine just how much of the shallow lake’s bottom has actually been exposed by the drawdown. His guess is in the neighborhood of 2,000 to possibly 2,500 acres of mud and sand flats were exposed within the footprint of the lake, which normally covers over 5,000 acres.
These exposed areas are now rich with a variety of emergent vegetation for wildlife. There are river willows 10-feet tall in areas, and dense growths of a variety of bull rushes and sedges and other native plants.
The wild greenery should attract migratory waterfowl as surely as the end zone attracts football running backs. “It’s my experience, where there is really good habitat, the wildlife will find it,” he explained.
The DNR, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Upper Minnesota River Watershed District are managing the lake in a partnership, and will be assessing the benefits of the drawdown.
The return of the emergent vegetation is the most obvious benefit to date. “To go and walk out there is a breath of fresh air in terms of quality waterfowl habitat out there,” said Gessler.
He said the drawdown was purposely initiated in the winter of 2019 to give early emerging, native vegetation an opportunity to get ahead of cattails as the waters receded. “It amazed me how quickly this vegetation has grown out there and become established,” said Gessler.
He said the drawdown has also helped reduce the population of carp in the lake. Carp root up vegetation from the lake bottom and keep sediments suspended, causing turbid, cloudy water.
Gessler said the drawdown has not noticeably improved water clarity, at least so far. Some carp remain in the system, and the open expanse of the lake allows the winds to keep the waters churned, he noted.
Perhaps most important, a hoped-for return of aquatic vegetation has not occurred, he said. The hope is that aquatic vegetation will return and water clarity will improve in time.
Marsh Lake is home to one of the largest pelican nesting colonies in North America. The island nesting locations continued to hold pelicans. Gessler said he does not believe the nesting was adversely affected by the low water. Pelicans can land and take off from land, and did so.
The low waters surrounding the islands adversely affected nesting cormorants. Cormorants are dependent on sufficient water for landings and take-offs, he explained.
The partners in this project will also be watching to see if the ecosystem restoration benefits the lake’s fishery, in particular northern pike. Gessler is optimistic. He noted that drawdowns on similar water bodies in the Dakotas have led to large rebounds in northern pike numbers.
The restoration includes a new fish spillway which will allow the migration of game fish between Marsh Lake and Lac qui Parle Lake. Thanks to the restoration, Marsh Lake will offer lots of spawning habitat for northern pike. Walleye will also benefit by being able to migrate for food into Marsh Lake.
The Pomme de Terre River was restored to its natural outlet into the Minnesota River just below Marsh Lake as part of the project. It had been diverted to pour into Marsh Lake above the dam when the fixed crest structure was built in the 1930’s.
Three sandbars now mark the river’s arrival at its natural outlet into the Minnesota River. The return of this connectivity will benefit fish species in the river and Lac qui Parle and Marsh Lakes as well.
Gessler pointed out that the restoration represents a major change. Marsh Lake is no longer the reservoir we have known for 80 years. “People need to realize the lake looks nothing like it has in anybody’s lifetime,” he said. He encourages anyone with plans to hunt the lake this fall to scout it ahead of time.
He is well aware that there are those unhappy with the changes. He also hears from those who understand wetlands and waterfowl, and appreciate the benefits the restoration provides.
Going forward, he noted that variability in water levels will be the norm in the system. Managers will also learn how best to manage this system with time. “I always say that managing Marsh Lake is a bit like turning a big ship. You have to be thinking a few months ahead and start steering that boat where you want to go,” he explained.
Yet no doubt, Mother Nature will have the final say on how it all goes. Said Gessler: “I was asked, ‘are you going to get water in Marsh Lake this year?’ My answer to him: Can I make it rain? He got it.”