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Ocheda options: Riparian landowners hear options for Lake Ocheda’s health

WORTHINGTON -- Less than a month after representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited presented ideas to address water quality improvements in Lake Ocheda, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Board member and...

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Lake Ocheda is shown looking east in this Wednesday afternoon photo. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)
(Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON - Less than a month after representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited presented ideas to address water quality improvements in Lake Ocheda, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Board member and east basin resident Jay Milbrandt hosted a public meeting for riparian landowners Tuesday evening in Worthington.
“Like all of you, we want to see improvements on the lake,” Milbrandt told the gathering of nearly 25 landowners.
Projects already accomplished on the lake include a shoreline stabilization and restoration project on the east basin, a fish barrier installation on the west basin’s dam and a shoreline erosion inventory on all three basins. In addition, Best Management Practices are in place and the OOWD has logged several years worth of monthly water quality testing results.
Last year, the watershed district invited the DNR and Ducks Unlimited to develop a plan for a temporary lake drawdown.
“We needed a group with more expertise in managing lakes and doing a drawdown,” Milbrandt said. “They were not brought in to create a duck lake. (Ducks Unlimited) had the engineers to do the project. It was a low-cost, affordable way to do the engineering.
“At this point, nothing has been decided or done,” he added.
The goal in conducting a drawdown on the nearly 1,700-acre lake is to get a major fish kill in the three basins, give aquatic vegetation a chance to get established and then let the water rise again while restocking the waters with predator fish, including northern pike and yellow perch.
The landowners had numerous questions for Milbrandt, including why anything had to be done on Lake Ocheda when Lake Okabena is at the top of the watershed.
“Why wouldn’t you start in Lake Okabena before you start on Ocheda?” asked Jim Schissel.
“You know the answer to that,” OOWD Manager Dan Livdahl replied. “The reason we don’t start (on Lake Okabena) is it will be politically impossible.”
While both Lake Ocheda and Lake Okabena are on the state’s list of impaired waters, Okabena doesn’t have the carp infestation that exists in Ocheda. Also, the Worthington lake is a major source of recreation with use by boaters, water skiers and personal watercraft. Those activities are not often seen on the shallow Lake Ocheda.
Lavonne Pfeil asked, “Why are they picking on us?,” to which Livdahl replied that phosphorus and sediment levels in Lake Ocheda are “incredible.”
“One of the reasons, we believe, is the incredible carp population in the lake,” he said. “(The DNR) thinks Lake Ocheda has up to 600 pounds of carp per acre. When you have that kind of load, they keep stirring up the sediment.”
The goal for Lake Ocheda is to bring it to a healthy state with improved water clarity, reduced nutrients and turbidity and increased vegetation.
Jonah Dagel, a DNR Fisheries specialist at the Windom office, said there isn’t any one individual to blame for the health of Lake Ocheda.
“We’ve all been a part of it,” he said. “There are a lot of wetlands that have been removed. A lot of wetlands are gone and those acted as filters, so a lot of the water that’s running off isn’t getting filtered.”
One landowner asked about seining rough fish from Lake Ocheda - an idea raised in the past. There is just one commercial fisherman for southwest Minnesota and Lake Ocheda has so much debris the fisherman doesn’t want to damage his nets by seining there, Livdahl said.
“Back in the ’40s and ’50s, the DNR was in the business of seining,” noted Dagel, adding that after 50 years and little impact on rough fish populations, there has been a change in way thinking - and lake management - by stocking predator fish to feast on the eggs laid by carp.

Managing with drawdowns
The plan presented by Ducks Unlimited last month outlined a process using gravity to draw the lake down two feet. To do so will require modifications to the existing dam, and the cost would range from $150,000 to $200,000.
“If there is a goal of doing a full freeze to the bottom of the lake, it’s probably not going to happen with just gravity drawing it down,” Milbrandt said. “Engineers also looked at drawing the lake below two feet, which is essentially emptying the lake. You will have to pump - that’s a $350,000 to $500,000 system.”
When a landowner asked who would pay for the drawdown and pump system, Livdahl said grant funding would likely be available. A possible funding source is the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. If funding could be obtained through Lessard-Sams, a local match of perhaps 5 to 10 percent may be required. Livdahl said those funds would come from the watershed district’s levy, which all residents of the district pay taxes toward.
At this point, an actual drawdown on Lake Ocheda is a few years away. Livdahl said nothing can be done to jeopardize water flow to Worthington’s well field at Lake Bella until the city has access to the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System. Lewis & Clark is estimated to be completed to Worthington by the summer of 2018, if the state legislature approves the necessary bonding money to complete the project.
“I would say 2019 would be the earliest something like this could happen,” Livdahl said, adding that the DNR will have public meetings before the drawdown is conducted. Those meetings will be open to everyone interested in the lake - not just the riparian landowners - because all waters in Minnesota are owned by the state’s residents.
Concerns raised
One concern raised by a riparian landowner Tuesday related to the individuals serving on the management group that will meet monthly about the lake. The group consists of representatives of the watershed district and its advisory council, individuals from Ducks Unlimited and representatives from DNR wildlife and fisheries.
After seeing images of a lake without aquatic vegetation next to one with vegetative cover, landowner Dave Vander Kooi asked how his grandchildren - for their enjoyment - would be able to operate a Jet-Ski on the lake with vegetation.
“That’s why you need to take in the consideration of the landowners instead of a one-sided O & O board,” Vander Kooi said. “You need to involve everybody on that management plan.”
Milbrandt replied that landowners will be kept informed as information is available.
“The DNR is writing the plan,” added Livdahl. “They want to make sure what they write has local support.”
Meanwhile, landowner Leo Stugelmeyer voiced concerns about his well.
“I’m just wondering if you drain that lake, what’s going to happen to the wells? Not everyone is on rural water,” he said.
Dagel said that will need to be taken into consideration with the plan. Previous discussions on the use of rotenone, a chemical to aid in achieving a fish kill, led to the conclusion it should not be used in the lake because the water feeds into the city’s wellfield and potentially the wells of riparian landowners.
Developing a fishery
Dagel said stocking fish in Lake Ocheda has been sporadic in recent years, primarily because of the poor water quality.
“Ocheda is not a lake that gets surveyed a lot,” he said. “With a potential drawdown, it would definitely move up on our priority list. (DNR) Fisheries thinks pike would be a great predator to have in Lake Ocheda if we can get the water to clear up with a drawdown.”
Dagel said yellow perch are also expected to do well if Ocheda reached a clear water state.
“If we’re committed to using drawdowns to improve water quality, we’re going to be committed to stocking the fishery,” he added.
“It kind of sounds like we’re going to go to a fish and duck lake, not a recreation lake,” said Vander Kooi.
“The state says we’re impaired for water quality,” replied Paul Langseth.
Landowner Craig Carlson said he wants clean water. He’d like to be able to fish on the lake, but is concerned the fishery might not improve after a drawdown.
That is a risk, but if the risk isn’t taken and nothing is done to improve the lake, it will continue to degrade.
The riparian landowners on Lake Ocheda have met sporadically over the past six years to discuss the health of the lake and opportunities to improve it.

Related Topics: WATERSHED
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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