The great divide
WORTHINGTON — Three years and one month ago this week, nearly 30 people gathered on the shores of Lake Ocheda’s east basin to discuss potential actions to remove a prolific carp population and improve water quality in the 1,778-acre lake.
Despite efforts to bring in a commercial fisherman to seine the rough fish from the lake — and two winters of low water levels leading to minimal fish kill — the lake’s health isn’t any better today.
So, meeting at the same locale with nearly all of the same property owners in attendance Tuesday evening at the Langseth Retreat Center, there seemed to be a consensus that something needs to be done.
In July, the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District’s board voted 3-1 (Rolf Mahlberg, Les Johnson and Casey Ingenthron in favor, Jay Milbrandt opposed, and Jeff Rogers abstaining from the vote) to ask the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to write a management plan for Lake Ocheda and manage it for water quality.
Tuesday night’s gathering gave landowners an opportunity to provide input on the direction the board has taken, express concerns and ask questions. Much like past meetings, it also included reflections from long-time lake residents about past water quality in the shallow prairie lake.
“As kids, we had water clarity,” said event host Paul Langseth. “We had a mud bottom, but you could see 2 to 3 feet down.”
“It was like looking into an aquarium at the end of your dock,” added Rolf Mahlberg.
In 2010, the west basin of Lake Ocheda was placed on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s list of impaired waters and, earlier this year, the Ocheyedan River from Lake Ocheda to the Minnesota-Iowa line was added to the impairment list.
“We’re looking at a lake that’s been listed as degraded,” Langseth said. “A number of factors have influenced the water quality. One of the main issues is the carp that dig up all of the bottom.
“We’ve got to do something to improve what we’ve got,” he added.
Disagreement arose, however, when people talked about encouraging vegetative growth in Lake Ocheda. Some, like Langseth, want to see reed beds and cattails return to the shorelines, while others, like Joe Vander Kooi, don’t want aquatic vegetation hampering his ability to run his jet-ski on the lake.
“Where some people part company tonight is (with) submergent vegetation,” added Madonna Carlson, a homeowner on the west basin. “I think everybody wants water quality, right? It’s un-American if you don’t.”
Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Administrator Dan Livdahl told the gathering they can either have murky water with a lot of carp and no vegetation, or clearer water with a lot of vegetation. They can’t have clear water and no vegetation.
“As soon as you get rid of the carp and you have more sunlight getting into the water, you’ll have submergent vegetation,” Livdahl said.
That vegetation could include sago pondweed and other native plant species.
“In order to have clear water, you need those weeds,” he added.
Livdahl said that in order to improve water quality in the lake, periodic drawdowns starting in the fall and continuing through the winter — or longer — will be needed to force a fish kill. Once that has been successful, the DNR could stock the lake with bluegill and game fish that feed on carp eggs to keep the rough fish from quickly taking over the lake again.
Yet, Livdahl cautioned that the first drawdown attempt may not be successful.
“This lake has a small enough watershed that we’re going to get carp back. We can’t keep them out,” he said. “We’re going to have to keep doing periodic drawdowns. We have to realize this isn’t a one-time thing.”
In response to a question about how the drawdown would be done, Livdahl said Ducks Unlimited has offered to survey the lake and determine whether it could be drained through gravity or if other actions are required, such as modifying the dam on Lake Ocheda’s west basin.
“If we did it on our own, it would cost $70,000 to $80,000,” he said, adding that Ducks Unlimited would do the work at no cost to the watershed district.
“The reason Ducks Unlimited wants to do this (is) if you get clean water, you get ducks,” he said. “The ducks need vegetation to eat. You also get aquatic insects.”
Vander Kooi then asked why there was such a push to get the Lake Ocheda landowners to accept a plan for a “heavy vegetative base” when the watershed board isn’t pushing for residents along Lake Okabena in Worthington to do the same.
Mahlberg replied that there are areas of heavy vegetation in Lake Okabena. He also talked of the work the watershed board has done for Lake Okabena in the last 20 years, including the installation of new desilting basins on Sunset Bay, completing a flood mitigation structure north of Worthington and establishing a 40-acre marsh to help filter sediment from water as it flows toward Lake Okabena.
Now is the time for work to be done on Lake Ocheda, he said.
“We talk about view a lot, but when you look at the lake, it’s really in a coma,” Mahlberg said. “It needs cardiac shock to bring it back to life.”
In 2011, the DNR reported finding zero aquatic plants in Lake Ocheda. Mahlberg said that isn’t normal.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Justin Langseth.
Jim Schissel, who lives on the west basin, said, “I think this lake has been this way for 100 years, and it will be this way for another 100 years. You’re not going to do anything to improve it.”
Meanwhile, Mark Holden, also a resident on the west basin, said, “I feel we’re at the same point we were two years ago. To me, a drawdown with seining is an action. You’re right, we’re not going to get all of the carp out … but it’s something.”
“It’s a chance,” added Paul Langseth. He said if local people don’t come up with a plan for Lake Ocheda and start making decisions, the state will come in and make the decisions for them.
Both Vander Kooi and Schissel said that might already be the case by asking the DNR to develop a management plan for the lake.
Livdahl explained that a job vacancy in the DNR shallow lakes program likely means there will be no movement on a management plan for Lake Ocheda for the next few months. He encouraged landowners to read through the draft management plan and submit comments in writing to the watershed board.
“We hope we’ll have a couple meetings this fall just to talk about goals for the lake — what you’d like to see and what is possible,” he said.
The DNR, in writing the management plan, will take local, watershed and county input, and there will eventually be a public hearing.
“After the hearing, based on testimony and the feasibility of the plan, the state will decide whether to go ahead with a restoration on the lake,” Livdahl explained. “If they move ahead with the restoration of the lake, they would take a look at it every 10 years.
“I think the watershed board is at the point that doing nothing is no longer an option,” he added.