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Julie buntjer/Daily Globe Heron Lake Watershed Technician Ross Behrends and Administrator Jan Voit stand next to a sign recognizing all of the partners that helped with the restoration project on the Fulda Lakes. The HLWD was recognized last week with a 2012 Environmental Initiative Award for Natural Resource Protection and Restoration.

Heron Lake Watershed District wins state award

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FULDA -- Nearly 20 years after discussions began regarding the poor health of the Fulda Lakes, the Heron Lake Watershed District (HLWD) has earned a state award recognizing it for efforts to improve water quality and clarity.

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Last week, HLWD administrator Jan Voit and technician Ross Behrends accepted the Environmental Initiative Award in the Natural Resources Protection and Restoration category. Winners were announced in each of five categories at an awards dinner at the Nicollet Island Pavilion.

The award recognized the HLWD for the "grassroots effort to bring back the Fulda Lakes" through partnerships with multiple agencies, from the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Fulda Fish and Game Club, Murray County, Bondin Township, the Heritage Society, City of Fulda, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and numerous watershed landowners.

Efforts to improve water quality in the lake began upstream in the mid-1990s, on lands that drain into Fulda Lakes 1 and 2. Filter strips were installed along Judicial Ditch 13 in Murray County. Open tile intakes were replaced with rock inlets and a wetland restoration was completed at the outlet.

In addition, work with upland crop farmers led to a 73 percent increase in the amount of acres enrolled in conservation tillage practices.

That initial work led to more focused efforts in the lake itself, from replacing the fixed-crest dam with a variable-crest structure, to manipulating water levels, eradicating rough fish and restocking the lake with panfish and game fish. In all, nearly $409,000 was spent by the HLWD and partnering agencies. That included purchase of farmland near the lake that was converted to native grasses, wetland restoration, pond cleanout, sediment pond creation, rock inlets, a grade stabilization project, incentives for conservation tillage and cost-share for shoreline restorations and rain gardens.

"Funding is always the biggest challenge," said Voit, adding that both Clean Water Partnership and Environmental Protection Agency grant dollars, amounting to $65,600, went toward the Fulda Lakes project.

"I think it's a great tribute to the partners involved," she added. "We all worked together. It couldn't have been done by ourselves."

The Fulda Lakes project didn't come without its challenges. Aside from funding, HLWD and its partners had to work on changing the mindset of property owners who live along the Fulda Lakes shoreline.

Three shoreline restoration projects were completed, thanks to Fulda Fish and Game Club and Murray County commissioners' involvement in helping to persuade shoreline owners to consider new tactics to stop shoreline erosion. Those projects, one of which included a complete bank stabilization, are hoped to encourage more landowners along the lake to incorporate similar practices in their shoreline.

The result of all of the work done thus far is a lake so clear that boaters and shore fishermen can see the bottom of the lake, and the turtles and fish swimming in it.

"Aquatic plants can finally take off," Behrends said. "That is the reason the fisheries are so good."

Ryan Doorenbos, area supervisor at the Windom office of the Department of Natural Resources has overseen fish stocking efforts of the Fulda Lakes since a liquid Rotenone treatment was done on the lakes to kill all aquatic species.

Restocking efforts began in 2009, when largemouth bass, bluegill and walleye were introduced. In 2010, the DNR Fisheries added 182 black crappie adults, 308 northern pike adults and 1,313 yellow perch adults; and last year another 170 adult northern pike, 1,790 northern pike fingerlings and 8,903 walleye fingerlings were added to the lake.

The success of the Fulda Lakes project can be attributed to the sheer size and scope of the waters that flow into the two basins. For every one acre of lake, there are 18 acres of upland area that flow into it. For perspective, Voit said Heron Lake has a 40:1 ratio.

Statistics from water quality monitoring from 1997 through 2002 and again in 2010 show the work on Fulda Lakes has greatly improved water quality and clarity. Total suspended solids have decreased by 72 percent on both lakes, chlorophyll. A decreased by 62 percent on First Fulda Lake and 70 percent on Second Fulda Lake, while total phosphorus on those same bodies decreased by 45 percent and 56 percent.

Additional work continues to ensure the Fulda Lakes remain in good health. Connections between the HLWD and students at St. Paul's Lutheran School, 4-H'ers from the Bondin-Belfast and Seward Trail Blazers clubs, Master Gardeners, landscapers and the general public have been forged to educate people about water pollution and to work toward keeping the lakes healthy. Among the plans of the HLWD for this three-year project are to do classroom presentations, hands-on installation of five rain gardens and conduct a tour of the rain gardens.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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