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Letter: County should take more time to figure out Ditch 25 plan

The purpose of this letter is to provide Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners, acting as Drainage Authority for Otter Tail County Ditch 25, an understanding of the concerns McDonald Lake property owners have regarding the Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul Lake Improvement District Petition for an Outlet for Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul Lakes, Pursuant to Minnesota Statues 103E.401.

The petition proposes creating an outlet benefiting Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul Lake Improvement District (LID) to relieve those lakes from water levels in excess of the ordinary high water levels (OHW) without causing harm to others downstream.

The LID engaged Houston Engineering to conduct a study to determine the viability of the outlet. The study recommends connecting the LID to Ditch 25 through Berger, McDonald then Big McDonald Lakes and making certain repairs and maintenance to Ditch 25.

We strongly believe 10 days (6 1/2 business days) is insufficient time for impacted downstream property owners to study and address the Hydraulic Report on the Potential outlet of Little McDonald Lake VIA Otter Tail County Ditch 25 (Study). The Study was posted on the County's website, approximately noon on Friday, Aug. 12. The commission will hold a hearing on Aug. 22 and vote on Aug. 23.

During 2011, North Dakota and Minnesota newspapers reported the high water problems of the LID. McDonald Lake Association invited Commissioner Doug Huebsch to the annual meeting on June 25, 2011 to inform property owners about the process the LID would follow to access Ditch 25 to relieve high water and the process McDonald Lake should follow to respond to any petition filed by the LID to protect our properties. The commissioner had been communicating with the LID; there was no decision on how the LID would propose accessing Ditch 25 whether through Berger Lake or through the shorter route directly into Ditch 25 North of Big McDonald Lake.

He stated Little McDonald property owners would not benefit at the harm to others downstream. Meeting attendees understood the process could take two years, not 10 days.

McDonald Lake Association Board was invited to a meeting on Aug. 13, held by the LID, to review the Study. We also received a 15 page Environmental Assessment Worksheet. These documents are technical and components of the Study (e.g. connecting to Ditch 25, Ditch repairs, and operating plan) are still changing.

Approving and implementing this project in 2011 is unreasonable. This short timeframe does not provide time for technical review or communication to impacted property owners and commissioner Doug Huebsch communicated to our association this process could take two years not two months.

Jeff Volk, LID board member said, "in 2011 Little McDonald would only be relieved of a few inches of water, since Star Lake is still above its OHW." While any relief is important to the LID, we believe the county should provide downstream impacted lakes the opportunity to read, understand and provide feedback to the final plan rather than a moving target. Then the County will receive appropriate feedback and if appropriate construction could begin spring 2012.

Our goal is to resolve concerns, make certain controls and a process is in place to correct problems resulting from implementation of a plan based on a Study using assumptions and short-term data. The LID should be responsible tor all costs related to receipt of the benefit of lower water levels, including maintaining downstream lake water levels and quality.

The LID property values will increase or maintain while McDonald risks lower property values due to declining water quality and higher water levels.

McDonald Lake Association has not had the opportunity to solicit the opinion of experts, so the following concerns were gathered and summarized from property owners.

McDonald Lake concerns:

Ditch 25:

We believe significantly fewer lakes* and property owners are impacted by the LID if North Ditch 25 is used rather than Berger Lake. The LID stated it is more costly to use direct access through North Ditch 25.

They also said the DNR prevented the LID from using the North access to Ditch 25 due to lack of repairs and maintenance to the Ditch during the last 25 years, resulting in wet land restoration expense.

Using North Ditch 25 eliminates concerns from Berger and McDonald lakes and reduces the number of gates necessary for control of water. Big McDonald Lake Association Board stated they did not want less quality water entering Big McDonald from North Ditch 25. The representatives for the LID and Big McDonald Lake are executives and partners in Moore Engineering, creating a perception of a conflict of interest.

Accordingly, we request an independent response from the DNR and/or Drainage Authority to two questions: Why is access to Ditch 25 through Berger Lake the right decision for McDonald and Berger lakes rather than the more direct access through North Ditch 25?

What justifies McDonald Lake property owners receiving increased phosphorus, water temperatures, sediment and vegetation leading to possible reduction in water quality and property values for the benefit of Little McDonald?

*Berger, McDonald, Reames, Tenter

Water Quality:

Maintaining high water quality is a top priority for our lake association. McDonald monitors the water quality and educates property owners about water quality. Berger Lake's water quality is significantly less than McDonald's quality. It is a shallow weed filled lake, with high phosphorus due to farm runoff.

Currently there is a small opening between Berger and McDonald. In the past, no water flowed between the lakes. Currently high water allows water to pass from Berger to McDonald through the small channel.

The environmental study shows the volume of water flowing from Little McDonald's good quality water into Berger will dramatically improve Berger's water quality. Berger's less quality water, sediment and vegetation will flow through a 48" culvert into McDonald Lake decreasing McDonald Lake water quality, possibly raising our water temperature and creating undesirable conditions in McDonald Lake water.

The environmental study shows an increased total phosphorus level for both 90 and 120 days discharge. We have not had the opportunity to obtain an expert's opinion on the assumptions in the study or explain the significance of the increased phosphorus to our lake.

We are not opposed to helping Little McDonald, however, an environmental solution, at LID expense should be incorporated into the plan to prevent poor water quality, vegetation and sediment flowing from Berger to McDonald to hold true the principle that Little McDonald will not benefit at the harm of others downstream.

If the actual water quality numbers are worse than projected in the environmental study, or sediment and vegetation at the Berger Culvert are noticeably worse, the gate must be closed until a solution is implemented.

Invasive Species:

Whether invasive weeds, zebra mussels or any future type of invasive specifies, safeguards should be included in the plan to prevent spreading of harmful species to our lakes. Little McDonald has more lake access activity than McDonald Lake increasing the risk of invasive species.

The LID should be required to monitoring their public access and lake for invasive species and perform independent testing annually for invasive species. The results of the independent test must be provided to each downstream lake.

If invasive species are identified the gates must be closed until all downstream lakes have an infestation of similar species.

Operations Plan:

The operating plan is not final. The LID Board stated the LID would operate the gates. Commissioner Huebsch stated to the McDonald Lake annual meeting attendees that the Drainage Authority, an independent authority, would run the gates. The LID Board stated a qualified surveying contractor would install and maintain markers and gages along the system for visual inspection by downstream property owners.

In addition, each lake association will be provided written notice, a certain number of days before opening gates, to allow visual inspection of the water level. The LID Board mentioned they were considering a suggestion made by a downstream lake to include a penalty, if release levels are violated.

We also believe it is prudent to have some type of penalty if gates are opened without notice or above the allowed level. We realize a penalty may be difficult to administer, but a consequence if the plan is violated, is a good deterrence.

One form of penalty could be suspension of right to release water into Ditch 25 until a County hearing determines remediation of the control failure; another option could be significant financial penalty levied against the LID.

We need safeguards and penalties to ensure water is only released when allowed by the plan.

Use of Ditch 25:

The Ditch 25 system is old and has served our lake well for many years. Volk warned us since Ditch 25 has not been maintained in 25 years; the DNR could impose expensive wetland replacement requirements on those benefiting from Ditch 25.

He said the DNR prevented the LID from using the North access to Ditch 25 due to this issue resulting in use of Berger Lake to access Ditch 25. He also stated it is our responsibility to ask for repairs and maintenance, we have been negligent and this could result in high costs to Ditch 25 beneficiaries due to DNR wetland rules.

These warnings concern McDonald. Three years ago. Big McDonald raised concerns about Ditch 25 efficiency due to beaver dams and suggested possibly moving the culvert. Lisa Helbling met with Terry Fletcher, retired Hydrologist of the DNR, to gain an understanding of Ditch 25 and its maintenance and gave a report to McDonald Lake Association with this information, including the ditch was working and did not require moving the culvert.

Ditch 25 is integral to the LID plan. Volk stated the LID plan budget includes initial expense for ditch maintenance and repairs to culverts, as noted in the recommendations section of the Study. He said, while their plan includes for the LID to incur these costs, the County Board decides whether the LID should pay for these repairs and maintenance or if alt the benefited property owners should be responsible for the expense.

The Ditch, in its current state, is satisfactory in serving our lakes drainage. We understand it is prudent to make repairs and maintenance regularly, but especially important due to the increased volume resulting from the LID proposal.

The LID should pay for the repairs and maintenance included in the recommendation section of the Study due to the increased volume of water the LID will be pushing through the system. The repairs and maintenance should be completed before LID releases any water.

We support the upcoming Ditch 25 Beneficiaries Determination study to include the LID and all other beneficiaries to determine who will pay for repairs and maintenance expense in the future (i.e. subsequent to the recommendations made in the engineering study).

Big McDonald raised the idea of consolidating the existing Big McDonald Lake culvert with the proposed LID culvert and making applicable size adjustments. We support repairs and maintenance to the culvert to provide for drainage of existing volumes plus additional volume due to LID.

If the Board approves consolidating the two culverts. Big McDonald Lakes should have control over the gate, so we can move water when we are above the OHW, as we do today.

Ordinary High Water:

McDonald Lake high water is also a concern. There must be safeguards to prevent release of water from the LID when downstream lakes have high water or rivers such as the Otter Tail and Red Rivers are flooding.

The plan must prevent release of water from the LID when any lake connected to Ditch 25 is above its OHW. The plan should also prevent water release, when there are flood conditions downstream on the Otter Tail and Red River.

We were assured the volume of water flowing into McDonald through Berger Lake would flow out through Ditch 25 with no impact to our water level, except the possibility of a 3" bounce when the gates are first opened. The engineering study includes assumptions.

If there is more than a 3" change in the water level when the gates are open, the gates should be closed immediately, the LID should incur the expense to complete an engineering study to re- determine the amount of flow being released through the gates to keep the bounce at or below 3" prior to reopening the gates.

We respectfully ask the Drainage Authority to postpone acting on the LID Petition until a Final Engineering Study/Proposal is provided to the County and downstream lakes, allowing sufficient time for downstream lakes to review and provide the Drainage Authority with comments. If you decide to vote on the Petition, we ask you to consider our concerns and incorporate our requests into the approved plan.

Respectfully submitted, August 15, 2011,

Lisa Helbling

Chris Kroseman

Jim Paul

Patti Paul

Rosie Fritz

McDonald Lake Association