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District 518 school board weighs pond project, cooperation with Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District

If built, the pond could divert 300 pounds of phosphorus and 120 tons of sediment before it reaches Lake Okabena.

The sun sets over Worthington's Lake Okabena in this November 2021 file photo.
Tim Middagh / The Globe

WORTHINGTON — A proposed pond on school property that would keep 300 pounds of phosphorus and 120 tons of sediment out of Lake Okabena annually remains on the table — along with questions from the District 518 Board of Education.

During a work session Thursday, board members mulled the project initially advanced by the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed Board of Managers, and while they did not agree on every aspect of the proposed pond, a consensus was reached to ask the watershed board whether a 20- or 30-acre pond would be enough.

“I think we need to try to do the conservation part as good as we can,” said school board member Joel Lorenz. “... and I think that’s going to get a lot of support from the environmentalists around. There are people who care about the runoff.”

Tentative drawings show the pond with a 42-acre footprint that encompasses an existing wetlands area as well as additional land around it, much within the flood plain.

The initial suggestion from the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District (OOWD) was that the land would still be owned by District 518 and the watershed district would be responsible for maintaining the pond. The costs for building it could be paid with a grant from the state of Minnesota, if the OOWD was successful with a grant request.

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In addition to preliminary drawings provided by the OOWD, District 518 also had architects create a schematic of where the school’s future baseball, softball and soccer fields could potentially go, as well as a parking area. The artwork includes three baseball or softball fields as well as eight soccer fields, which could be built in the future.

In order to put sports fields on the property, the ground would have to be leveled out, at least some of which could be done using the dirt from excavating the pond, rather than bringing in fill from another site at the school’s expense — potentially $1.5 million.

“If you were not going to do anything with the watershed, we would have to do the dirtwork (for any fields built),” said Superintendent John Landgaard.

School board member Steve Schnieder, who is an engineer, reminded the board that the pond could have less area if it was deeper, depending on its design, and pointed out that the school could not build any structures on the flood plain anyway.

School board member Adam Blume said he had concerns about how the watershed district has taken care of its other property.

“I feel if we just go work with this watershed and tell them to go ahead, it’s just giving them an unsigned check blank and they can do whatever they want here,” said Tom Prins, board member. “... I have a hard time giving 40 acres away.”

Landgaard said the school district can establish boundaries for the pond and requirements and expectations for maintenance.

Prins also expressed concerns about the possibility that all the dirt excavated would simply go to a berm for the pond rather than being used to level the ground for future ball fields, and added that he wanted to see more definite plans for the project from the watershed.

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Schnieder pointed out that watershed representatives had already indicated that they didn’t want to spend the money on more detailed plans until they knew whether the school was interested in pursuing the project.

He also said he felt the project offered good benefits to the school district.

“So, you feel perfectly comfortable taxing people in (District) 518 and buying the land and then giving it away? You really feel comfortable with that?” Prins asked. “We tax people for education, not water quality in Lake Okabena.”

Blume said he felt something had to be done, but asked if they could use less land to accomplish the project. He also suggested using some of the land there for agricultural education, given the district’s strong ag program.

Board member Mike Harberts questioned the wisdom of maintaining ownership in someone else’s finished project, and Prins asked if a third party owning the land would limit liability for the district.

That would mean turning the land over to a third party, potentially with a sale, rather than keeping the land and giving the watershed district an easement to use it.

“I think it’s still hard to decide what to give them or what to do without an actual plan of what they’re going to do,” Prins said, later adding, “I just hope we don’t give them too much area and say, in 10 years ‘Oh I wish we had that back.’”

Harberts said he was open to showing the watershed district the schematics with the fields laid out and asking what could be done with 20 to 30 acres rather than 42, and the board seemed to reach a consensus to do just that.

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A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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