Watershed receives grant
WORTHINGTON -- The Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District was awarded nearly $36,500 from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council's Conservation Partners Legacy grant recently to enhance the grasslands surrounding Lake Bella in southern Nobles County.
The watershed district was one of 35 agencies statewide, and the only entity in this area, to receive a grant. More than 125 applications were submitted in the first round of funding.
The grant will be used to establish prairie grasses and flowers on approximately 68 acres of grassland within Lake Bella Park and along its northern shores, according to Dan Livdahl, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Administrator. The district owns the land, which is also located within the Worthington wellhead protection area.
Existing grasslands on six different sites will be killed off beginning in June, with some tillage planned to level off gopher mounds. Prairie grasses and flowers will then be planted next spring.
"The lake has been surrounded by fairly poor quality grasslands since it was built in the late 1970s," said Livdahl. "Our understanding of what makes good buffers for lakes and what makes good wildlife habitat ... has changed quite a bit since the 1970s."
Establishing native vegetation will better serve wildlife and make it easier to control weeds, he added.
The project's benefit to wildlife is ultimately what led to it being selected as a grant recipient.
Worthington's Scott Rall, who serves on the 12-member heritage council, said the group worked to balance dollars between small acquisitions and enhancement or restoration of habitat on lands with permanent conservation easements.
"If the property is open for public hunting, it increases its score (for funding)," said Rall. "(The Lake Bella project is) an enhancement ... on a piece of property that is in a permanent conservation easement that's open to public hunting and is designed to increase the carrying capacity of wildlife on those acres."
While Livdahl said the grant was awarded to the watershed district to create wildlife habitat, the prairie seeding project will also benefit water quality.
When the federal government provided funds nearly 40 years ago for the Lake Bella reservoir, the development was to have an established buffer area to help protect water quality and enhance recharge of the city's wells.
"Having a good quality grassland buffer around the lake is important," Livdahl said. "Once we get the grassland going, we will not need to continue adding pesticides to the grasslands in that highly vulnerable area near Lake Bella in order to keep thistles down."
Plans are to get a minimum of 25 different local ecotype native prairie seeds -- a mixture of both grasses and flowers -- for the planting.
"One of our options is to use seed harvested off of good quality prairies in the area," said Livdahl. "Our other option is to go to a local seed distributor and get locally produced seed."
While most of the seedings will occur on property along the northern half of the lake, he said a couple of smaller plots will be planted within a 1.5-acre area in Lake Bella Park.
"Hopefully we can create a high quality prairie that people can look at and enjoy without having to walk long distances," Livdahl said. "The other sites will be more difficult to get to."
The 127 applications received for the Conservation Partners Legacy grant totaled $16.5 million, but only $4 million was available during this first round of funding. A team of technicians from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prioritized and selected the grant recipients.
The grant dollars come from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment approved by voters in 2008. That amendment granted the state permission to increase the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent beginning on July 1, 2009, and continuing until 2034.
Rall said a second $4 million appropriation was requested from the state legislature for the LSOHC grant program this year.
"The conservation legacy grants are open to all types of entities -- sportsmen's clubs, lake associations, watersheds and other government entities," said Rall.
Grants awarded for fiscal year 2010 ranged from $10,000 to $400,000.
"The fact that the OOWD was selected means they did a good job of submitting the grant," said Rall. "They did a good job behind the research -- they put forth a well-rounded, well-documented application."