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Watershed aims ‘To not be so impaired’: Focus group develops timeline for possible Lake Ocheda drawdown

WORTHINGTON -- A team composed of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish and wildlife divisions, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited met Tu...

2424482+Ocheda_Bathmetry Map 1.jpg
Submitted photo Shown is a contour map of Lake Ocheda.

WORTHINGTON - A team composed of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish and wildlife divisions, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited met Tuesday to identify a timeline as the group proceeds with developing a management plan for Lake Ocheda.
The current draft plan for the lake, which includes temporary drawdowns to rid the lake of its excessive population of rough fish - and to aid in establishment of vegetation - will be tweaked and reviewed in April, with an internal review by the DNR in April.
External reviews will be conducted in June and July, with an open house planned for late July or early August to gather public comment on the management plan.
Having the review process completed yet this year provides enough time for the watershed district to increase its levy and set aside funds to pay for the first phase of the work, said OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl. The first phase, estimated to cost $300,000, will include improvements to the existing dam on the south end of the west basin of Lake Ocheda, as well as installation of a new and improved fish barrier on the structure.

Livdahl said the watershed district may find grant sources to help pay for the first phase of the work. It’s possible Nobles County’s Aquatic Invasives Species grant funding could also be directed to the project.
With the OOWD leveraging funds for the first phase, the hope is it could be awarded state grant funding from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to help pay for the second, more expensive, phase of the project. That phase includes purchase and installation of a pumping system to help with a lake drawdown. The pumping system is estimated to cost $500,000, with the actual pumping of the lake estimated to cost $3,000 to $5,000 per month.
Josh Kavanagh, Minnesota DNR Wildlife Lake Specialist, said if grant dollars are received, there will also be expectations the lake will ultimately show improvement.
“They’re going to want to see improvement in the next few years,” he said, saying improved water quality and enhanced habitat are key goals of the project.
Conducting a drawdown on Lake Ocheda still wouldn’t happen until September 2018, a couple of months after the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is anticipated to connect to the city of Worthington’s water supply.
Dam evaluated, private well study needed
Kavanagh said the existing dam on the south end of Lake Ocheda is in good condition. With a few tweaks, such as widening the catwalk and replacing the existing homemade fish barrier with a professionally-designed barrier, the structure could last another 30 to 50 years, he estimated.
The alternative option would have been to replace the concrete structure and build a new metal structure closer to the immediate outlet, which would require less maintenance of the channel. The lifespan of a metal structure would not be as long as a concrete structure.
“The DNR is leaning toward modifying the existing structure,” Kavanagh said. “It will cost money to renovate it, but it will also cost money to replace it.”
During a recent meeting with the riparian landowners on Lake Ocheda, a concern was raised about the impact a whole lake drawdown will have on private wells. On Tuesday, DNR Area Hydrologist Brian Nyborg displayed a county well index, which included all wells identified by the state (several are missing around Lake Ocheda’s three basins). The shallowest of the wells on the map were slightly more than 30 feet deep.
Kavanagh suggested the watershed district seek out a consultant who specializes in wells and modeling to determine what, if any, impact there would be to private water supplies during a drawdown.
‘Anything we do is going to be better’
The impaired waters of Lake Ocheda have been talked about for years, and the lake is now at the point where it is providing very little habitat for fish, wildlife or anything, said Kavanagh.
“It’s perfect for common carp,” he said. “They like that dirty, turbid warm water. Nothing else will be successful out there, unfortunately.”
Nothing, at least, until something is done to address the carp population and encourage vegetative growth.
“In order to fix the lake, we’re going to have to get rid of the carp problem,” Kavanagh said.
OOWD Board Member Jay Milbrandt recapped the discussions from the meeting with riparian landowners earlier this month, and said taking incremental steps to address the lake’s health may be more palatable.
For instance, the group could try a winter drawdown first, and if that doesn’t improve water clarity and quality, they could then try the year-long drawdown.
Kavanagh said the winter drawdown would be the most achievable. Spring thaw and summer rains would make it nearly impossible to keep the drawdown through the summer months.
“Anything we do is going to be better than the current condition,” he added.
Water quality is top priority
Members of the OOWD board said Tuesday that water quality is still their primary goal in doing anything on Lake Ocheda.
“We would like, as a watershed goal, to not be so impaired,” said Rolf Mahlberg, watershed board member and a resident on the west basin of Lake Ocheda. “Our goal, our strategy, is to come off the impaired waters list.
“You can hear a lot of discussions about what people won’t like, but at the end of the day … that’s our goal,” he added.
“Some people are going to be disappointed because they can’t boat there, but the majority of people are willing to go along (with the watershed’s goals),” said Livdahl.
Kavanagh said the OOWD has two options to get Lake Ocheda removed from the impaired waters list - promote Best Management Practices and conduct temporary drawdowns.
“If we pursue a drawdown on Lake Ocheda and conditions improve, we don’t know if that will be for three years, five years, 10 years. It all depends on that fish community and how well balanced it is,” he said.
Plans are, after the drawdown, to stock Lake Ocheda with predator fish including northern pike and yellow perch.

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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