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No decision yet on Ditch 25 drainage plan; county to get more input from lake residents

The Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners are holding off on approving a plan to drain excess water from Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes through other waterways downstream.

Some were anticipating that the board would make a final decision on the proposed drainage plan at its meeting Tuesday, but after more than 30 people showed up to share opinions and voice concerns, commissioners scheduled a public meeting to discuss the matter further.

That meeting will be held next Monday, July 16 at 7 p.m. Two representatives from each of the involved lake associations will have the opportunity to speak. The commissioners expect to make their final decision on the plan at their Tuesday, July 24 meeting.

The postponement came as a relief to many downstream property owners, who fear that the plan, as currently written, could negatively impact the quality of their lakes.

For members of the Lake Improvement District (LID) for Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul, however, it's another speedbump on a long road to finding a solution to their high water levels.

Roger Neitzke, president of the LID for the three lakes, said at the meeting, "We are pleased that a final decision will be made on July 24, because we, as an improvement district, want to see this get some movement."

Under the proposed plan, water will discharge from the LID lakes to Berger Lake, through McDonald, West McDonald, Round, Star, Dead, Walker and Otter Tail lakes, eventually flowing into the Otter Tail River. It would flow in a southwesterly direction, utilizing the Ditch 25 county drainage system.

Many downstream residents fear their lakes will suffer from unwanted sediment deposits, increased suspended solids, aquatic invasive species and/or higher phosphorous and chlorophyll levels, among other possible problems, from this plan. Phosphorous levels were of particular concern to those who spoke Tuesday.

"This has been a tough issue for all concerned," said county commissioner Doug Huebsch. "Issues need to be addressed, including the phosphorous levels in the lake. It is also time to move forward, for the relief of some of the lake property owners."

In an interview with a few downstream lake association representatives last week, they all said they recognized the need for flood relief on the land-locked Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes, and weren't unwilling to help. But they wanted to be certain about any environmental impacts of the project before it moves forward.

Mike Bergh, vice president of the McDonald Lake Improvement Association, along with Lisa Helbling, president of the McDonald Lake Association, Stephen Johnson, of the Berger Lake Association, and Arlette Preston, Star Lake Property Owners Association President, said the process of creating the drainage plan seemed rushed, and studies were not comprehensive or plentiful enough to accurately assess any potential environmental problems created by it.

"Without a doubt, Little McDonald has a difficult situation," said Bergh. "But any corrective action should not result in degradation of downstream lakes."

Bergh and the others interviewed believe the county's plan is "a good start," but that a vote on Tuesday would have been "premature." They said everyone involved needed more time for careful review and more collaborative work together to determine exactly what things would be monitored on the lakes, and where and when.

The county board, working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and an engineering firm representing the LID, decided in April that an Environmental Impact Statement was not needed for this project.

Board members said then that state and local regulations adequately and appropriately govern the activities of the project, limiting and controlling any adverse environmental impacts. They also agreed that the flow of water would be stopped if or when any issues arose, by closing gates and valves between the different lakes and channels.

Under the proposed plan, the county's Public Works department will operate all gates and valves, make water surface elevation measurements, and maintain all water surface measuring gages as well as records of outlet operations. The LID will monitor water quality, including aquatic invasive species.

Exactly who will pay for all this is yet to be seen. The county is still in the process of trying to determine which property owners will benefit from the drainage system; those who do will be responsible for funding.

This was a concern for Star Lake's Arlette Preston, who said she would like the language regarding financial responsibilities to be clearly laid out in the county's plan.

At the meeting Tuesday, another Star Lake resident, Rod Spidahl, expressed another common concern - that Ditch 25 may be incapable of carrying the additional water.

County Attorney, David Hauser, responded by saying that Ditch 25, "does have adequate capacity to carry water from Little McDonald, Paul and Kerbs lakes. However, it may be determined that improvements to the ditch may be needed in the next several months."