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Worthington City Council meets with hydrologist on water issues

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington City Council met with DNR Hydrologist Tom Kresko in a special early morning meeting Thursday to discuss water levels on Lake Okabena, the city's ability to get water from Herlein-Boote Slough and the concerns over the dropping water levels at the city's well fields at Lake Bella.

Kresko, who works from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office in Windom, said water levels in Lake Okabena have fluctuated 3.5 feet in the last couple of years. Mayor Alan Oberloh asked Thursday morning if the significant drops in lake level, such as what is seen now, could potentially be averted by letting less water flow over the dam.

"Right now, the lake is at an alarmingly low level," Oberloh said. "Is there a way the city can react quicker to hold water in?"

While it may seem like a simple solution to stop water from flowing out, Kresko cautioned that a sudden, significant rain event would cause the city to "run the risk" of water pushing into Worthington's flood plain areas.

"It can be done," Kresko said, explaining that public hearings would need to be conducted -- and signatures from all landowners around the lake would need to be collected -- if the city wanted to raise the lake level.

"I would be interested in hearing the public comments," he added.

Oberloh said he'd hate to be one of those people who, as an owner of lake property, would petition to raise the water level of Lake Okabena and then have a storm roll through that causes flooding in homes along Winifred Street.

"You have a very complicated situation that once the lake fills up, the water goes a number of different directions," Kresko said. "There are far more negative effects for raising the water levels on Lake Okabena than there are positive effects."

Declining water resource

Kresko said water levels on Lake Okabena have declined not just because of the ongoing drought, but because landowners around the lake, as well as the golf course, are siphoning off water to irrigate their lawns. With the law of averages, that siphoning amounts to roughly 2 inches of water taken off of the entire lake surface per year. But with the lack of rainfall in the last year and a half, that amount could be significantly higher.

The local golf course has a maximum withdrawal of 34 million gallons of water from Lake Okabena per year. Yet, despite the water taken for lawn care, Kresko said even more water is lost through evaporation -- upwards of tens of thousands of gallons. The high winds from the Buffalo Ridge that often impact Worthington increases the evaporation rate, he added.

"We just need Mother Nature," quipped Councilman Ron Wood. "Quite frankly, Mother Nature needs to change."

Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark asked Kresko what the city could do, "other than getting down on our knees and praying," to be proactive.

"The city could be, especially when it comes to watering lawns, reducing the ability for those gallons to be lost," Kresko replied, adding that people can get low-flow shower heads, reduce those 10-15 minute hot showers and find other ways to reduce water use.

"I think all of the low-hanging fruit has been harvested in the last couple of decades," he said. "The last things that are left, no one wants to give up their lawn watering."

The city of Worthington did enact a watering ban last October.

"Lawn sprinkling seems almost trivial when you think about limiting people's businesses (car washes) or showers," said Clark.

Oberloh said he didn't see any harm in developing an ordinance, adding, "I think we need to do whatever we can to encourage our businesses to be more conscious of conservation efforts."

Herlein-Boote diversion

The council also discussed the DNR's closure of the diversion channel at Herlein-Boote Slough, which was done in the winter of 2011-2012.

Kresko, along with Nate Hodgins, assistant area supervisor for fisheries at the Windom DNR office, said gates were closed to prevent water flow toward Worthington primarily because of the threat of invasive species.

"The Asian carp are our biggest concern right now," said Kresko, adding that the medium- to large-sized fish are "looking for greener pastures."

"They're a resident species now in the Missouri River," added Hodgins.

Also, the DNR observed Mooneye, a riverine species in the Missouri River, in the Rock River, just below the dam to the Little Rock River, in the spring of 2012. This species' discovery in the Rock River proves it is highly connected to the Missouri River system.

"If Herlein-Boote is full of invasive species and Okabena is free of invasive species, we would never open it up," Kresko said of the diversion channel.

The water Herlein-Boote could provide for Lake Okabena is also minimal -- there likely wouldn't be water available when it is needed, and water would be available when it isn't needed.

There seemed to be a consensus among city officials that keeping the gates closed at Herlein-Boote was for the best.

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

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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