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Residents of flooded lakes near Perham search for solution: County holding public meeting on Ditch 25 system

This map, based on information provided in a report by Houston Engineering Corp. out of Maple Grove, Minn., shows how Little McDonald, Paul and Berger lakes would be added to the Ditch 25 system. Illustration by Sara Leitheiser/FOCUS

Residents of Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes have had enough.

This summer's fun has been replaced with efforts to keep rising water at bay. Many of the lakes' shoreline homes and cabins have been seriously damaged, leaving areas uninhabitable.

This is the worst flooding recorded, and land owners are joining together to make sure it doesn't ruin another summer.

Their solution? A petition to use Drainage System 25 (Ditch 25) as an outlet for the lakes, as the bodies of water are currently landlocked. The request has been filed with the Otter Tail County Drainage Authority, which will hold a public hearing to discuss the issue at 7 p.m. Monday Aug. 22 in the Perham High School Auditorium.

Not everyone is keen on the Ditch 25 proposal. Residents living downstream on lakes already hooked into the ditch system fear that adding more lakes and more water would hand the flooding problem down to other lakes.

The Lakes Improvement District (LID), which represents Little McDonald, Paul and Kerbs lakes, has put a tentative price tag of $1.5 million on the project, with taxes assessed on lake homes over a 10-year period. The cost for each property would range from $4,000 to $7,000, depending on the value of the home, said Ardell Wiegandt, LID chairperson. All costs would be assessed to the properties' taxes.

County Auditor Wayne Stein said the county has not set tax rates for the project and that it would not be done until the project is approved and evaluations are complete.

Wiegandt said the proposed project would not cause flooding downstream - a claim backed up in an engineer's report on the project.

The petition to add the three lakes to the Ditch 25 system would only allow water to be sent downstream if other lakes had the capacity to hold the water. Some of the lakes already included in the ditch system are Berger, Big McDonald and Star lakes.

"If these individual lakes are above their ordinary high, then we would not be able to vent," Wiegandt said.

A benchmark for each lake downstream would be monitored to ensure that, when water is released from McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes, the lakes downstream could handle it.

Water levels have been higher than normal this season. Wiegant said levels on McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes are about 4.5 feet over the ordinary high.

Wiegandt understands lakes in his district will not be able to vent water whenever it's convenient.

"We can manage it then over a period of time, relieving the water here on our lakes and get it down where it's manageable," he said.

Engineer's study

A report put together by Houston Engineering Corp. out of Maple Grove, Minn. concludes that the three lakes could be added to the ditch system if monitoring is continuous and some modifications are made.

The report was paid for by the LID.

The report backs up Wiegandt's claim that it is possible that, during some points in the season, water could be released into Ditch 25 without causing flooding in lakes already in the system.

The proposed ditch route would run from Little McDonald Lake to Berg Lake, which would flow on through Big McDonald, Round, Star, Dead and Walkers Lakes, according to the report. Water would also flow on into the Otter Tail River and Otter Tail Lake.

The study used hydrological data to measure approximate fluctuations of water levels for lakes already included in Ditch 25, which showed that peak release seasons could come in the fall and early spring.

The report does include a few added suggestions for the project, if it comes to fruition.

Houston Engineering recommends the ditch be repaired to remove sediment and debris, along with vegetation and brush currently in the system, as it obstructs the flow and takes up space.

The report also suggests that a beaver dam in the ditch system be removed, citing that it restricts flow. A recommendation to install additional culverts and change culvert shapes and elevations at areas where the ditch system meets a roadway is included in the report, as well. Three crossings are identified in the recommendation.

Invasive species?

With three new lakes added to Ditch 25, lake home owners downstream are concerned that invasive species could become a problem.

Wiegandt said the lakes within his district have been tested the past two years, and no invasive species have been found.

He also recognized that he could not say that invasive species would enter other lakes through the drainage system.

"No lake can guarantee that," he said.

Wiegandt said water quality in his district lakes has been measured in the top 5 percent of the state.

"It is exceptional," he said.

Where to go from here

The first step for the LID was to petition to the Drainage Authority, which has already been done. After the hearing on Aug. 22, a decision by the Drainage Authority will be made, at which time the county board can set terms and conditions on the operating plan. Ditch viewers will then analyze properties affected by the project before putting an official price tag on it.

At that point, the LID would hold a hearing for residents affected by the project. A vote would follow that meeting, as mandated by state law.

If all goes through, the LID would be responsible for maintenance costs associated with the ditch system.

Wiegandt said that cost has already been worked into the group's budget.

Construction of the ditch project could be wrapped up by November if the project is approved and doesn't run into roadblocks.

If the county board does approve the project, an appeal could be filed in the next 30 days. A vote on the project is expected on Aug. 23, but is subject to change.