Water, water, water.
Residents in Douglas and Otter Tail and counties recounted massive problems with water during a May 5 public hearing to hear what people thought about putting in a ditch to drain Nelson Lake, which is flooding the adjacent Otter Tail County Road 6.
Water is stealing their farmland and their driveways. They're having to haul in gravel to ensure access to their homes. This spring's torrential rains nibbled the edges of township roads. Flooding has made CR 6 hazardous. The county has added gravel to build it up, and a local woman slid into the lake there last month.
But should the county build a ditch to lower the level of Nelson Lake 3 feet?
At the hearing, which drew about 80 people, the sentiment leaned toward caution, especially after Parkers Prairie area residents learned about the risk that a ditch could pose to people downstream in Douglas County. Already, downstream areas are flooded, and one Leaf Valley Township resident said his house is in danger of flooding if any more water rushes through the the waterways. Lakeshore owners from Lake Ida and Lake Miltona showed up, saying they had only recently learned about the proposed ditch, and they were worried about flooding and pollution coming into Douglas County.
"If you lower the lake, it affects thousands of us," said one man, who said he lives on Dittberner Creek, which would carry extra water originating in Nelson Lake. "I don't know how Otter Tail can get rid of their water problem by sending it to another county."
Otter Tail County residents proved sympathetic to the concerns from the neighboring county.
"I had no idea that these kind of repercussions took place," said Katherine Ost, who owns land on Nelson Lake. "This should not be rushed into."
People at the hearing wanted to know where all the water is coming from. Minnesota is getting warmer and wetter, but is it all coming from rainfall? Is any of it coming from pumping water to irrigate farm fields? In a May 4 letter to the county, the DNR said a high water table to the west of Nelson Lake is pushing shallow ground water toward Nelson Lake and Parkers Prairie.
Engineer Jeff Langan told the crowd of roughly 80 that Nelson Lake is not the only land-locked lake that is flooding neighboring roads in the region. It's been happening since the 1990s.
"The groundwater has been coming up all over," he said.
Residents also voiced concern that lowering the level too much would ruin the fishing on Nelson Lake, which draws people from out of the area. Nelson is fairly shallow, and dropping it 3 feet below today's levels — which are more than a foot higher than they should be — would kill fish.
Because of the way the water flows, the ditch would carry water from Nelson Lake to nearby Fish Lake, and then through Dittberner Creek and into Lake Miltona, then Lake Ida, all part of the Long Prairie River Watershed. The problem is that Nelson Lake and Fish Lake are both so polluted that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has deemed them "not always suitable for swimming or wading," unlike Ida and Miltona, deemed to have "good clarity and low algae levels."
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which would need to sign off on parts of the project, said in a Nov. 17 letter to drainage inspector Kevin Fellbaum that the project would lead to less clarity in Nelson Lake and would likely send more pollution into Fish Lake.
"Long-term, it is likely the loading to Fish Lake will increase (permanently) due primarily to the reduced ability of Nelson Lake to sequester and settle sediments and nutrients because of the shallower depth in the completed project," wrote MPCA project manager Karen Kromar. "In addition, the increase in the resuspension of nutrients with the shallower depth will likely result in increased export to Fish Lake on an ongoing basis."
The effects on Lake Miltona, which is downstream, are unknown. Miltona is fine for both fishing and swimming, the agency says on its website, having "good clarity and low algae levels." However, Miltona is also much deeper than Nelson or Fish, and more than 10 times larger than either of them.
"This does not necessarily mean there would be a similar increase in phosphorus concentrations in Lake Miltona because conditions in the path the water would take to get to Miltona are much different than between Nelson Lake and Fish Lake," regional MPCA spokesman Dan Olson told the Echo Press. "However, we do not have any modeling data that might give a clearer picture of what impact this project might have on Lake Miltona so we can’t speculate."
The DNR would also need to approve the project.
If constructed, the ditch would be Otter Tail County's first new ditch in nearly 100 years.
Most people agreed that something has to be done with County Road 6, possibly building it high enough so that it won't be affected by rising lake levels.