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Board seeks $2M for Lake Okabena

WORTHINGTON -- Members of the Okabena-Ocheda-Bella Clean Water Partnership joint powers board voted Tuesday to request $2 million in legacy funds be dedicated to Lake Okabena and clean water projects in the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District. The ...

Lake Okabena
File Photo: A pair of anglers enjoy clear skies while they fish early Monday night along Worthington's Lake Okabena as darkness begins to descend. (Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Members of the Okabena-Ocheda-Bella Clean Water Partnership joint powers board voted Tuesday to request $2 million in legacy funds be dedicated to Lake Okabena and clean water projects in the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District. The legacy funds are from the city's 2008 sale of Worthington Regional Hospital, of which more than $10 million has yet to be earmarked for specific projects.

Mayor Alan Oberloh and Alderman Mike Kuhle serve on the joint powers board with Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District (OOWD) board members Les Johnson and Jim McGowan and citizen representative Steve Johnson. Established in 1996, the joint powers board was created to allow the city and the watershed district to work together on projects outside of the city limits that affect water quality in Lake Okabena.

The Clean Water Partnership's request for $2 million in legacy funds initially arose last September, but no official action was taken at that time.

On Tuesday, Oberloh suggested the board recommend specific projects for funding and also said he'd like to see the money focused on Lake Okabena and points upstream, rather than on Lake Ocheda and the city's wellhead protection area at Lake Bella, both south of Worthington.

"There are several areas west and north that are critical," he said.

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"I think it's important to dedicate some funds to the lake and for clean water," added Kuhle. "I think we need to be a little more aggressive in fixing the water today in this lake. We can do all these things, and that's great, but are we ever going to get to a point of lake improvement?"

Steve Johnson said knowing there is a dedicated source for funding will allow the Clean Water Partnership board to seek matching funds and to also begin work on projects within the watershed that will help to improve water quality.

"Two million (dollars), if that's the number, doesn't mean we're going to go out and spend the money in two years," Johnson said. "I think this is an excellent opportunity for us."

OOWD board members spoke of the importance of having money available to leverage for cost-share dollars.

"You have to have money to get money," said Les Johnson. "In today's world, a lot of these people appropriating the money like to have (cost-share offered)."

"If the ($2 million is) dedicated, we know we at least have a fighting chance," Steve Johnson added.

Easy fixes

OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl, an advisor to the Clean Water Partnership joint powers board, said the projects completed in the watershed district thus far have been the easier projects -- offering incentives to landowners to install filter strips and establish grass waterways.

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The city helped fund a $125,000 water quality study in the early 1990s and contributed nearly $400,000 toward the W-9 dam project north of town, as well as filter strip payments to landowners over the past 12 years.

Bigger projects like wetland restorations, dam modifications or replacements and fish barriers, however, cost a lot of money.

One project the OOWD has identified is to solve the flooding issue near the Super 8 Motel and Lucy Drive.

"With storm water storage or wetland restorations, you could have multiple benefits ... that certainly lead to cleaner water downstream," said Livdahl.

"The cleaner we can make the water going into Lake Okabena, the cleaner the water is in Lake Okabena," said Steve Johnson.

Other projects under consideration include catch basins for storm water retention, and addressing water issues in the Campbell Addition.

Funds required

For several years, the city has contributed $50,000 to the Clean Water Partnership fund -- money that up until the early 1980s was spent on dredging Lake Okabena. In 2010, the city made an additional $50,000 contribution to the fund.

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If the city council approves the $2 million request to the Clean Water Partnership, the funds would be earmarked for projects that specifically target Lake Okabena and the waters that flow into it from the north and west.

The money would also be separate from the OOWD levy, in which approximately $130,000 is collected annually for the district. Those funds cover the administrator's salary and are used as cost-share incentives to landowners for installation of filter strips and other projects that can help improve water quality.

Les Johnson told the CWP board Tuesday that when specific projects are identified, the watershed board can vote to increase its levy to a maximum of $250,000.

"We've been really frugal with our watershed money," he said. "I hate raising taxes ... but, we also have to take care of our resources."

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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