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Lake Ocheda drawdown progressing in advance of dam modifications

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Since the Lake Ocheda drawdown began Aug. 26, the lake level has dropped more than half a foot. This image shows the channel leading up to the dam, showing the large amounts of silt deposited over time in the channel. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — A little more than a week after the first stop logs were removed from the Lake Ocheda dam, water levels in the three-basin lake have dropped nearly half a foot, according to Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Administrator Dan Livdahl.

During Tuesday’s meeting with the watershed board of managers, Livdahl said one full row of stop logs and three logs on the second tier have yet to be removed.

The impact downstream has been minimal. In fact, Livdahl said there hasn’t been a measurable change to water levels at Lake Bella, which is taking on the Lake Ocheda water flow.

The lake drawdown is being done in advance of a project to renovate the Ocheda dam and install a fish barrier to prevent carp from traveling upstream and back into the lake. Land Pride Construction of Paynesville is expected to begin work on the dam the last week of September.

If all goes well, the plan is to continue with lake drawdown efforts through the fall in hopes of forcing a fish kill.

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A large carp population has contributed to the lake’s poor water quality and lack of vegetation. If the lake can be rid of mass quantities of carp, the basins would be restocked with predator fish to help control the rough fish population.

OOWD Board Manager Rolf Mahlberg said there's talk of doing a lake cleanup when the drawdown is complete to remove items such as tires and debris that have been found in the lake’s shallow waters.

In other business, the board:

  • Adopted the 2020 budget and district levy of $253,000.

  • Voted in support of a grant application to Minnesota’s Board of Water and Soil Resources for funding to purchase a 56-acre parcel from landowner Jesse Drost in the wellhead protection area. The land is adjacent to Pheasant Run 1, along 320th Street. The grant program uses Reinvest In Minnesota dollars for land purchases in places where easements may not be appropriate. The watershed district will apply for a $494,792 grant, and Nobles County Pheasants Forever plans to contribute $100,000 toward the land purchase and preparation for public use.

  • Discussed the potential for legal action to be taken against Wenck Associates, the engineers who designed the water quality improvement project at Prairie View, north of Worthington. The spillway, designed with Flexamat material, failed during flooding in June and July 2018, and again during snow melt and flooding in April.

Livdahl and two managers met with attorney Jeff Flynn to discuss options and reported to the board Tuesday the suggestions that were made.
Livdahl said he would like to wait with possible litigation and see if the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves full funding for the repairs.

“In my opinion, we might get 100% from FEMA to fix it,” he shared, saying he would rather go that route than spend the money that would be needed to hire an engineer who would state on record that wrong materials were used during construction of the spillway.

  • Approved a permit for Mike and Joan Phillips, Worthington, to complete shoreline landscaping repair on their property.

  • Discussed increasing the per diem rate paid to board managers for attendance of watershed-related meetings and activities. The per diem has been at $50 for at least 30 years. Last session, the Minnesota Legislature increased the maximum per diem rate from $75 to $125. Livdahl said the $75 rate had been in effect for a decade, and most watershed districts in the state paid that rate. He anticipates most will move to $125, and said that is not unreasonable.

Manager Jay Milbrandt said he didn’t know what the per diem rate should be, but worries that not increasing the amount will force future board managers to make an “enormous change.”
Mahlberg, who has consistently voted against per diem increases, said he’s done so because he serves for a purpose, not a per diem.

“But I think we need to be respectful for future board leaders,” he said.

Nobles County Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. said $75 seems to be the new norm for per diem rates in the county.

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No decision was made Tuesday, although plans are to have it on the Oct. 1 board agenda.

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