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Perham-area flood relief plan could move forward

Trisha Marczak/FOCUS The Perham High School Auditorium was packed on Monday night for a meeting regarding a proposed plan to alleviate area lake flooding.

A proposal to alleviate flooding for Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes by including it in the Ditch 25 drainage system still has life.

After a public hearing that packed the Perham High School Auditorium Monday evening, the Otter Tail County Board voted Tuesday morning to create a county-based group to re-evaluate concerns regarding the project. It will meet again in two weeks to discuss the project's findings.

The controversial issue that drew in around 300 lake residents Monday evening has two sides to it.

Faced with record high water levels and extreme flooding, the Lakes Improvement District (LID), which represents Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes owners, is petitioning to have its landlocked lake system included in the county's Ditch 25 drainage system.

Those already in the ditch system who live downstream from the flooded lakes worry that flooding issues will only be passed down to them. Lakes already in Ditch 25 have seen their fair share of high water levels, as well. Downstream residents are also concerned about water quality and invasive species entering lakes in the drainage system.

Water levels

Representatives from Houston Engineering, a firm hired by LID to investigate its proposal, presented to the public Monday a plan they said would work without putting additional high water stress or damaging water quality for those living downstream.

Brent Johnson of Houston Engineering explained the system that would be used to vent water. He assured that water would not be passed on when lakes downstream couldn't handle it. A valve would be used to control when water would be released.

While flooding has been high for the past two years on downstream lakes, including Big McDonald, Johnson said 50 percent of the time, excluding this past season, the lake has room to hold what LID would pass down.

"There certainly are times, often, when Big McDonald has the capacity to hold more water," Johnson said.

Johnson also recommended that, if the project does go through, culverts be added or expanded to allow a more thorough flow of water. Removing vegetation and sediments would also make room for more space, he said.

Johnson proposed fish screens be placed in areas where water would leave and enter lakes.

Concern for water quality

Houston Engineering Vice President Mark Deutschman explained to residents that water quality levels would not be substantially impacted. Berger Lake, which would be the first to receive water flow from Little McDonald Lake, would actually benefit from the lake's high water quality, he said.

"The water quality on Little McDonald is stunning," he said.

Water quality projections were based on a computer system, which Deutschman said used conservative figures to develop scenarios.

There were concerns about mercury, as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has included Little McDonald on its list of high mercury lakes. The DNR's classification serves as a warning to those eating fish from the lake and sets recommended fish consumption guidelines.

Deutschman argued that because the mercury test is only based on fish tissue, it's not a true reflection of water quality. He said atmospheric sources could increase or decrease the levels of mercury in fish.

"It's extremely unlikely that this outlet would increase the amount of mercury tissue in those (downstream) fish," he said.

The issue of invasive species was also a touchy subject. While regular tests on LID lakes have not found any invasives, residents downstream worried that larvae could go undetected and float downstream. County Commissioner Doug Huebsch recommended Tuesday that tests be done for larvae if the project goes through.

Jeff Volk, a resident of Little McDonald Lake and an LID representative, said that if invasives were found in LID lakes, no water would be released until all other lakes downstream were invaded, as well - a comment that drew a round of laughter from a portion of audience members.

A plea for more time

Tami Norgard, a lawyer hired to represent residents of Star Lake, located at the end of the downstream ditch chain, asked the county board to delay making a decision until a second opinion can be formed.

"We haven't had that much time to review and fully appreciate this," she said. "One thing I'd recommend is to have an engineer review (the plan)."

While Norgard said the 160 families she represents sympathize with the issues facing LID, they also don't want the problem to become theirs.

Norgard argued that it would be difficult to determine how much water Star Lake can handle, given only a few weeks notice before water was vented. With other factors that could increase water levels, including snowmelt, she urged the board to carefully evaluate the project.

"If you look around this room, you can tell this is not a non-controversial project - it impacts a lot of people and properties," she said.

In 2007, the board was faced with this same issue and shot it down.

"What difference has there been?" she asked.

Star Lake residents, who feared their lake wouldn't be able to handle the water, echoed Norgard's sentiments. George Wood explained that for the past two years, he's had sub pumps going in his basement.

"With this additional capacity, would I have to buy larger pumps?" he asked.

Others urged the board to look into issues surrounding Star Creek, an outlet for the lake not included in the ditch system. The board's stated intent Tuesday was to look into the creek system and determine if it could be included in another drainage ditch.

A cry for help

Still in the deep end of the flooding, residents on LID lakes reminded those living upstream on Monday that LID is trying to come up with a solution that has minimal impact on their downstream neighbors.

"We're trying to do everything we can to not inconvenience," said Little McDonald Lake homeowner Jeff Jones. "We're in a crisis situation, and we'd like some support, but we don't want to inconvenience you either."

Jones' comments drew a round of applause from the mostly silent LID lake homeowners present at the meeting.

All costs associated with LID entering the ditch system would be picked up by LID lake homeowners, who have put a price tag of $1.5 million on the table. Costs would be assessed to lake homeowners' properties. While the final vote has not gone through, support at LID's last meeting was overwhelmingly in favor of the project.

Moving forward

While county commissioners determined at their meeting Tuesday morning that concerns relating to Star Lake cannot be ignored, they said it's important to move ahead with the project regardless.

"We've got people pleading for help," said District 1 Commissioner Doug Huebsch. "I just can't turn a blind eye to that."

Huebsch also cited the dangerous conditions of the roads due to flooding, which could create emergency situations for years to come if not addressed now.

The first step is to form a county-based team, including the county engineer and board members Huebsch and Wayne Johnson, who represent both Star Lake and LID districts, to re-evaluate the project.

The board is proceeding with the re-evaluation with a list of 25 questions that could not be answered during Monday's public hearing.

Considering it could take years to fix the problems on Star Lake, Johnson recommended the board at least move forward with the project, which would alleviate LID flooding in a timely manner.

"I think we need to help as quickly as we can, because I think we can do that and protect downstream at the same time," he said. "To delay one more season I think is irresponsible of us."

The board plans to meet again at its meeting in two weeks to discuss what was discovered during the reevaluation process.

That decision was good enough for LID representatives.

"We're moving forward," Volk said.