Conservation easements crucial to restoring Grass Lake
WILLMAR — Two decades of complex negotiations, hydrologic and hydraulic studies, state grants, right-of-way purchases and conservation easements have been slowly woven together to develop a plan to restore Grass Lake near Willmar.
Revised plans that were reviewed this week by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners include abandoning existing drainage ditches that go through the heart of the shallow, dry lake bed and rerouting other ditches to allow stormwater from Willmar and runoff from farm fields to flow into Grass Lake.
Grass Lake is along the state Highway 23 bypass near Willmar.
Restoration of the lake is expected to provide stormwater detention and flood protection, and to improve downstream water quality and waterfowl habitat.
One piece of the puzzle that helped bring the project together is the use of conservation easements, which allow a landowner to dedicate land for conservation purposes.
Until the Legislature changed the law last year, the county assessor had the ability to lower property values of land enrolled in the voluntary conservation easement program — which provided incentive to participate. The lowered value made it financially feasible for marginal farmland to be enrolled in the program, which benefitted landowners who could not earn income from the land and benefitted the environment by reducing soil and water erosion.
Now, however, new land that is put into the conservation easement program must be taxed at the value it held before being enrolled and counties are prohibited from adjusting the valuations.
The new legislation is a “huge disincentive” to enroll property in the program, said Loren Engelby, Kandiyohi County drainage supervisor.
Engelby said Renville County has a dozen pending conservation easement agreements that may not proceed because of the land value issue, which would have negative environmental consequences.
The Kandiyohi County commissioners agreed to send a letter to Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, showing support for the conservation easement program.
During a County Board meeting this month, Koenen said the new legislation will get another look when the Legislature convenes Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the commissioners approved an amended contract with Barr Engineering to do another study on stormwater levels for Grass Lake based on new U.S. Department of Agriculture soil characteristics.
A hearing is expected to be conducted late this summer on the petition to abandon the existing ditch system that goes into Grass Lake.
Cost for the Grass Lake restoration is being covered by two grants that provided $1 million for the project.
Engelby said there’s about $800,000 left from the grant to fund the additional study and construction of a water control structure and rerouting ditches.