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Watershed district marks 50 years

Representatives of the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District pose with 50th anniversary plaques received from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts. Pictured are Nobles County Commissioner Gene Foth (from left) and OOWD board members Jim Mc Gowan, Les Johnson, Rolf Mahlberg, Jeff Rogers, OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl and Jeff Williamson. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- The Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District was honored by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources Tuesday night for its 50th anniversary in humble fashion with little fanfare -- much like its beginning in Nobles County back in 1960. It was then when the Worthington Drainage and Conservancy District and Nobles County Board of Commissioners petitioned the state for the formation of a watershed district.

That request was granted on Feb. 28, 1961, and the conservancy district was dissolved. County commissioners hand-picked a five-member governing board for the OOWD, giving primary consideration to individuals who could make tough decisions for the good of the watershed.

Today, three of the five board members are former Worthington High School ag teachers -- an arrangement OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl said works well. Rolf Mahlberg, Jeff Williamson and Jeff Rogers all have strong agricultural backgrounds, yet they are also well aware of the importance of conservation. All three have strong ties to the farming community.

Mahlberg and Rogers fill the two spots on the board traditionally reserved for farmers, with Williamson, Jim McGowan and Les Johnson rounding out the leadership team.

Johnson is the longest-serving member of the OOWD board, garnering a seat in late 1998. For the past five years he has served as board chair.

Stewards of the district

While much has been accomplished within the watershed district in the last 50 years, Johnson is most proud of the collaborative efforts used to benefit the waters and the land in southwestern Nobles County.

"One of the things that I'm most pleased about is the support we've had from the community," said Johnson.

The OOWD has established numerous partnerships over the years, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources to Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the city of Worthington, Worthington Public Utilities, Pheasants Forever, the E.O. Olson Trust and Nobles County.

Johnson said those collaborations have helped the OOWD get "the most bang for the buck."

Through partnerships with Pheasants Forever and Worthington Public Utilities, the watershed has contributed considerable financial support toward the purchase of marginal lands in the Lake Bella Wellhead Protection Area. By taking those lands out of production, the watershed is working to protect and improve water quality for Worthington residents. A side benefit is providing additional habitat for wildlife.

"We're trying to get everybody to work together," said Mahlberg, now in his 13th year on the OOWD board. "If everybody helps a little bit, it's astounding what can be done."

Both Mahlberg and Johnson were raised with similar philosophies about land stewardship and conservation. When Don Mahlberg and his family settled south of Lake Ocheda in 1964, he was quick to install terraces for soil conservation and fence line to keep his livestock out of the lake.

"He instilled in us the stewardship obligations that you have while you live," Mahlberg said. "A board like this gives me a chance to share the kinds of stewardship principles I think I inherited from my father."

Small steps, big impact

Within a year after the watershed district was formed, the governing board developed a list of 11 goals, ranging from controlling and alleviating damage caused by flood waters to diverting water courses, providing and conserving water supply, monitoring drainage systems and regulating landowner improvements along lakeshores, streams and marshes.

Its initial projects included the installation of a desilting basin in Mudhole Bay (now known as Sunset Bay) in 1969, followed in the next two years by the creation of a Bigelow branch drainage ditch, an upgrade to the channel between Lake Okabena and Lake Ocheda, and the construction of the Lake Bella dam and manmade lake.

"One of the major reasons that the watershed was formed was to create Lake Bella," said Livdahl. "Lake Bella was created as a multipurpose structure to improve Worthington's water supply, to improve recreation and prevent flooding across the Iowa line, for the people downstream from Lake Bella."

In more recent history, the OOWD has focused its efforts on smaller projects that will help improve water quality throughout the watershed -- a direction initiated by the 1985 Farm Bill.

"Since then, we've had a lot fewer structures built, and we're working more on cost-share practices and focusing on wellhead protection," said Livdahl, who began providing administrative services to the OOWD in 1996 through his role in the Nobles County SWCD office. He was hired by the watershed district as full-time administrator in early 2007.

Over the years, funding for various projects has come not only through property tax dollars, but from local, state and federal sources as well. The E.O. Olson Trust has been a great source over the years, funding projects that benefit water quality, well water supply and recreation from Lake Okabena to Lake Bella.

"(Olson) really started the legacy -- he foresaw the water issues that were forthcoming, and that was in the middle '50s," said Johnson. "He left a fund that is doing good to this day."

Work continues

As the agricultural community continues to migrate toward more sustainable practices, the OOWD continues to promote projects such as shoreline buffers and conservation easements.

Work that began at the north end of the watershed district, near Herlein slough, has now progressed down to Lake Okabena.

"We're now discussing Sunset Bay ... talking about slowing water flow into that basin as well," said Mahlberg.

Efforts done thus far have already led to noticeable improvement, particularly to water clarity in Lake Okabena.

"At one time we were warned that if water clarity improves, we might see more algae, and I think that may be what we've seen in the last couple of years," Livdahl said. "I think we've seen Lake Okabena begin to turn, and it's at the top of the watershed. Hopefully we can start working further down the watershed. To be honest, we've got a lot of work to do. We've started and we've done the work we felt the public was willing to pay for with taxes, and we're plugging away."

The district's next focus is Lake Ocheda -- issues the board and its administrator are eager to address. Water clarity is "in really bad shape," said Livdahl.

A pair of landowner meetings were conducted last winter, and the board plans more informational meetings again this winter.

"The consensus is that everybody wants clean water; the question is how to get there, at this point," said Livdahl.

After 50 years of work in the watershed, it's clear to board members the work will continue well into the future.

"The nice thing about being on this board is there's always work to do. It's important to not feel comfortable with status quo," added Mahlberg. "We've never been comfortable. We always feel that there's a task at hand to improve water quality in our watershed.

"We're not interested in standing still."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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