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Ditch 25 plan enters permitting process

A decision by the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners to not proceed with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will result in the permitting process getting underway to provide an outlet for Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes, west of Perham.

In their April 24 decision, county board members stipulated that state and local regulations adequately and appropriately govern the activities of the project, limiting and controlling any adverse environmental effects. Previously, there was a 30-day public comment period as part of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet.

"In discussion with downstream interests and through compromise, an operating plan has been developed that mitigates environmental concerns and still creates a solution to the flooding situation," said Commissioner Doug Huebsch, who represents the Perham area on the five-member county board. "Ignoring the problem and allowing flooding to continue is not an option."

The outlet route west of Perham, making use of Ditch 25, extends in a southwesterly direction. Water will discharge from Little McDonald Lake to Berger Lake, in turn flowing through McDonald, Round, Star, Dead, Walker and Otter Tail lakes. Then the water will flow into the Otter Tail River.

The county board agreed to stop the flow of water if phosphorus levels and/or other impacts need to be addressed. Board members concurred that the operational plan needs to be fine-tuned.

McDonald Lake resident Diane Alm raised concerns at the April 24 county board meeting. Those concerns, if the outlet plan takes effect, are water quality deterioration, an increase in sediments and excessive nutrients.

"To me, the cart was put before the horse in this process," said Alm, who lives at McDonald Lake and near Berger Lake with her husband, Kent. "As a public project, I don't feel that certain Minnesota statutory drainage laws and procedures were followed."

Huebsch believes that water coming from Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes will be clean and will have a positive cumulative effect on water quality.

"The quantity of water won't create issues for downstream lakes, because the valves will be closed seasonally," said Huebsch. "They won't be opened until downstream lakes are well under their ordinary high water level. The operation plan will require that, if aquatic invasive species are detected, the outlet will be closed."

County Attorney David Hauser said the operational plan allows for water to more likely be released during the late summer and into the fall, when minimal plant growth is occurring and aging is starting to occur.

Huebsch said that aquatic invasive species will be monitored, using a testing regiment prescribed by the DNR.

County board members agreed that an EIS process would not add significant data.

"This project offers relief to those who are suffering," said Huebsch. "It ensures public safety and protects downstream interests in an economical manner. In prior years we as a county have developed many different types of water projects that have solved specific water challenges, such as Orwell Dam, the ditch system and pumping projects."

Hauser noted that the plan to alleviate high water problems west of Perham will be operated by Otter Tail County.

"Water will only be released downstream when it does not cause any damage to downstream property," said Hauser. "Ditch 25 is a drainage system designed to transmit excess water. Levels downstream will not rise and cause any additional failing septic systems."