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Lake Ocheda Management Plan nears completion

WORTHINGTON -- With its top priority to improve water quality and clarity, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited and the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District gathered Thursday to discuss the latest draft...

WORTHINGTON -- With its top priority to improve water quality and clarity, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited and the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District gathered Thursday to discuss the latest draft of a management plan for Lake Ocheda.

The plan should be available to the public before the end of the month.

Josh Kavanagh, wildlife lake specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Shallow Lakes Program, said a temporary drawdown of the 1,700-acre, three-basin lake in southern Nobles County will begin in September 2018.

A 2-foot drawdown of the lake, done in combination with a stocking of predator fish, is hoped to cause a reduction of the high levels of carp that exist in Lake Ocheda’s waters. Meanwhile, a reduction in carp would also allow for the reestablishment of submergent vegetation -- something that has been missing from the shallow prairie lake for more than 20 years.

Kavanagh said the timeline for the drawdown is dependent on the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System expansion to Worthington. That project was held up after state legislators failed to approve a bonding bill earlier this year.

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Despite the possible delay, Kavanagh wants to keep moving forward with the plan. That means watershed district managers should host open houses this fall and winter in advance of a public hearing in September 2017. Comments gathered during the public hearing and the 30-day public comment period that follows the hearing will then be turned over to the DNR commissioner, who will decide whether to accept or reject the management plan. Comments will be accepted from everyone, not just riparian landowners on Lake Ocheda.

If everything remains on schedule, the DNR would apply for permits from the DNR’s Division of Waters and the Army Corps of Engineers in January 2018 and put the project out for bids in June or July 2018.

“We’ve got a little bit of time, but we really don’t want to take our foot off the pedal either,” Kavanagh said.

The proposed timeline gives the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District time to generate the anticipated $300,000 it needs to repair the existing dam on the west basin of Lake Ocheda and finance a new fish barrier. The fish barrier will prevent rough fish such as carp from re-entering the lake.

‘Exceptionally poor’ condition Lake Ocheda’s west basin was added to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Impaired Waters List in 2010 due to high levels of nutrients impacting aquatic recreation. Current secchi disk readings on the lake show water clarity at less than 6 inches. Kavanagh said his goal is to reach a 1-foot secchi disk reading, while also reducing levels of chlorophyll-A and phosphorus.

The average water depth of Lake Ocheda is three feet, with a maximum water depth of just 4.5 feet.

“The current condition out there is exceptionally poor and it is not providing the habitat you’d want,” Kavanagh said. “Unless we do something to try to correct it, we’re just in this vicious turbid water cycle, and it’s difficult to break out of that unless we go into a drastic drought or do something massive.”

In order to improve water quality -- and improve the lake from a wildlife and fisheries standpoint -- Kavanagh said aquatic plants are needed.

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“We really can’t make it any worse than it is right now,” Kavanagh said. “All we can do is improve it.”

Ryan Doorenbos, DNR Fisheries Area Supervisor, envisions Lake Ocheda as a northern pike and perch fishery in the future -- much as it was before carp took over the lake.

“Pike … do well when you have good water clarity,” Doorenbos said. “You also see fast-growing perch populations.”

Fish stocking will provide another recreational opportunity on the lake, and it’s one thing the public has asked for.

Objectives outlined The objectives in the Lake Ocheda Management Plan include improved water quality and clarity, a reduction in undesirable fish populations, reestablishment of submersed aquatic vegetation, improvement in fish and wildlife habitat and maintenance of the habitat and water quality improvements.

Ultimately, desired outcomes of temporary drawdowns include average summer secchi disk readings greater than 2.3 feet, average summer total phosphorus levels less than 90 micrograms per liter, average summer chlorophyll-A levels less than 30 micrograms per liter and submerged aquatic plant coverage of at least 65 percent lake-wide.

Additional water level management will be considered when at least two of the following criteria are met: secchi disk readings of less than one foot, average summer phosphorus levels exceed 900 micrograms per liter, average summer chlorophyll-A levels exceed 30 micrograms per liter or submersed aquatic plants cover less than 35 percent lake-wide.

DNR Area Wildlife Manager Bill Schuna said most management plans require a minimum 50 percent lake-wide presence of submersed aquatic plants.

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Continued lake monitoring will be an important gauge of how successful the drawdowns are at impacting water quality and increasing vegetation in the lake. Of course, the success will hinge on Mother Nature.

Taking comments Once the Lake Ocheda Management Plan is available to the public (it will be posted on the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District website, okabenaochedawd.org, by the end of this month), people are welcome to comment on the plan in writing.

“We want constructive comments,” Kavanagh said. “The only alternative to this plan is to do nothing.”

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl.

The plan will remain in draft form until the public hearing is completed.

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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