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Lake residents reach consensus; County approval expected next week on drainage plan

Tom Hintgen/FOCUS Steve Johnson, in the red T-shirt, of Berger Lake west of Perham, addressed a group of area lake residents on Monday evening, expressing concerns about whether a water level bounce on his lake would cause beds of cattails to become free-floating islands as a result of a proposed outlet at another lake upstream.

Residents of Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes met with downstream property owners Monday evening to come up with a consensus for a drainage outlet and Ditch 25 usage.

The group met at the county Government Services Center in Fergus Falls, with the overall plan expected to receive county board approval on Tuesday, July 24.

Board approval would only be one step in the process leading to establishment of an outlet and use of Ditch 25. Regulatory approvals will be needed over the next several months.

The proposed outlet route west of Perham would extend in a southwesterly direction. Water would discharge from Little McDonald Lake to Berger Lake, in turn flowing through Big McDonald, Round, Star, Dead, Walker and Otter Tail lakes, eventually into the Otter Tail River.

Initial costs for the project will be borne by the property owners of Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes.

During Monday's three-hour-long meeting, which was open to the general public, concerns of downstream residents were addressed and changes were made to the operations plan.

"Most people in attendance felt they had been heard and their concerns were addressed," said Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who chaired the gathering. "Downstream concerns were addressed in a satisfactory manner."

Commissioner Doug Huebsch, who represents the Perham area, said it was good to see that most people find the revised operations plan acceptable. He did add that any plan is not going to please everyone. However, he said the final plan is a good one, fair to all concerned.

"We're asking for objective measures, walking before you run," said Dead Lake resident Doug Martin when addressing water flow along the outlet. He urged a 'go-slow' approach.

Maximum flow will be 22 cubic feet per second. County Public Works Division Manager and county commissioners assured residents that operations will be temporarily halted when downstream adverse situations come into play. The county will work in coordination with the Minnesota DNR and other agencies.

"I'm concerned with phosphorous and want to know what's coming into my lake that will be here for a long time," said Star Lake resident Carolyn Herron.

As for invasive species flowing downstream via the outlet and Ditch 25, proponents of the plan admitted there is a negligible risk. However, they said that invasives are more likely to be spread via boat from one lake to another.

Lake study expertise is being provided by Houston Engineering. Included are readings of phosphorous and chlorophyll. Increased water activity in downstream areas such as Berger Lake are unlikely to produce floating cattails and other adverse effects, said lake analysts Monday evening.

Commissioners and other county officials reiterated on Tuesday morning, at the regular county board meeting, that the outlet will be closed if unforeseen consequences to downstream lakes occur. Many of these issues will be addressed during regulatory hearings in the next few months.

One public comment period, for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet regarding the use of Ditch 25 as an outlet, ended on Feb. 8. The county board later decided that an Environmental Impact Statement - a more comprehensive study than the worksheet - was not needed.

The water level on Little McDonald Lake has been steadily rising over the years, and high water has become a big problem for area lake residents. Talk of using Ditch 25 as a drainage system reached the county board more than a year ago, but uncertainty and delays have continuously pushed off any firm decisions.

The project, if it gains final approval, also would include control structures, channels and conduits.