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Environmental concerns delay lakes flood plan

A project that would provide a form of flood relief for homeowners on Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul (LMKP) lakes is facing a roadblock, at least for now.

The idea to allow the lakes to vent into the Ditch 25 drainage system wasn't an entirely popular one last summer among those living downstream. But the Otter Tail County Board consistently passed resolutions moving the process forward -- while keeping in mind the residents' concerns.

The project is by no means dead, but the county board did put a temporary halt on the process during its Feb. 22 board meeting. The board now has 30 days to decide if an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is needed, which will likely depend on any possible improvements or repairs to the ditch itself.

At this point, the board will evaluate and answer environmental questions forwarded to the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

The board is now in a position to determine if the ditch will be 'improved,' or 'repaired' -- terms that carry entirely different meanings in the world of ditch law. County Board Commissioner Doug Huebsch, who represents the Perham area, said "ditch law treats improvements differently than repairs."

When the board determines what needs to be done, it will then need to make the decision: Does the project need an EIS?

"The rule states that if there is significant environmental impact, an EIS may be needed," Huebsch said.

Resistance to the project

Opponents of the project living downstream argue that inclusion into Ditch 25 would require structures and culverts to be constructed. This process, they say, does not fall into the 'repair' category.

In written comments submitted to the county by the McDonald Lake Association, it is pointed out that Minnesota statutes define improvement to a drainage system as "including, adding, enlarging, extending, straightening or deepening of an established drainage system." Under state law, if any such improvements are made, at least 26 percent of affected property owners must approve the project through a signed petition. Those who would be included in the petition are those living downstream.

At meetings that packed Perham High School's auditorium late last summer, many residents downstream voiced concern over flooding, water quality, invasive species and potential flooding issues.

Initial plans for the project regulate when and during what levels LMKP lakes could vent into Ditch 25, ensuring that flooding issues wouldn't be transferred to downstream lake residents. While that put at ease some concerns among those opposed to the project, it still left some environmental issues up in the air.

Hydrologists speaking on behalf of LMKP residents showed data suggesting that water quality would not be compromised, but those downstream requested an independent report be produced.

Huebsch said he's confident that water in LMKP lakes is clean enough to eliminate that concern. He also points out that the plan in front of the county board would require testing and monitoring for invasive species before allowing the system to operate.

In terms of flooding, the venting proposal would only allow LMKP lakes to release water into the ditch when lakes downstream could handle it, as determined by set water level measurements.

But those living downstream are still concerned - so much so that the McDonald Lake Association is requesting a new EIS to review other alternatives, considering what they believe to be, "significant impacts to the human environment with this proposed project."

Huebsch points out that flooding on LMKP lakes has caused tremendous environmental impacts. High water on lakes has eroded shorelines and, last season, left many properties uninhabitable.

"This is a reoccurring problem that keeps resurfacing," he said. "The damage to public infrastructure, private property and the environment is significant."

Huebsch said the only way to deal with the situation is to move forward with solutions, such as the inclusion to Ditch 25.

Costs related to the inclusion of LMKP lakes to the Ditch 25 system would be paid for through the LMKP Lake Improvement District.

The county board will revisit the issue in March.