Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

WMA lake drained; future uncertain

By Tim
Spielman
t
Associate Editor

Hugo, Minn. — Duck hunters who set up on Rice Lake in the
360-acre Paul Hugo Farms Wildlife Management Area in the north
metro may want to make alternative plans for this season’s
hunt.

Rice Lake is a virtual mud flat, the water from the 200-acre
lake having left via a ditch that underwent a maintenance project
by the Rice Creek Watershed District this spring. Normally, the
water in the lake reaches, at most, about 3 feet in depth.

How did it happen? There are different theories being espoused
by various parties.

“What we’re saying is, we’re not exactly sure what caused the
lake to go down the way it did,” said Steve Hobbs, district
administrator for the RCWD. He said it could’ve been the ditch
maintenance, or perhaps work the DNR has done on lake bogs in the
recent past. Or it could be both. “We’re eager to work with the DNR
to fix it,” he added.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy contends
procedures regarding ditch maintenance weren’t followed by the
watershed district, and likely resulted in the plug being pulled on
Rice Lake. The organization says both ditch laws and state
environmental laws were violated.

“They wouldn’t have made this mistake if they’d followed proper
procedures,” said Janette Brimmer, legal director for the MCEA.

Hobbs disagreed, and said two top legal firms aided in project
planning. “I’m quite confident we went through the process exactly
as we should have,” he said.

Either way, the issue is far from resolution, according to Brad
Moore, assistant commissioner for the DNR. He said the department
had scheduled internal meetings for this week. Then, department
heads would meet with members of the watershed district.

“Obviously, we have to get this problem fixed and get the lake
back up to desired water levels,” he said.

The dredging occurred outside the WMA, on the outlet of Rice
Lake, a waterfowl lake in Washington County, said Tim Bremicker,
acting regional director for the DNR in St. Paul. The intent was to
dig the ditch to the original construction line. “The whole point
was to increase the flow,” he said.

DNR correspondence states the watershed district had been
forewarned of possible negative impacts to Rice Lake.

“Field staff and photographs indicate large expanses of mud
flats in the Rice Lake basin resulting from the lower runout
(survey crews found a lower runout level than that prior to
dredging),” a Bremicker letter to Hobbs states. “We have great
concern that the long-term health of Rice Lake is in jeopardy. The
DNR feels it is crucial to repair the runout and return Rice Lake
to its previous condition.”

However, Hobbs said the dredging project stopped “500 to 700
feet from the end of the lake.” In that area between the lake and
where the lake began, “nobody did anything,” he said.

Moore said periodic flooding had prompted landowners along the
ditch to petition for its dredging.

However, the MCEA’s Brimmer said, there was little indication
the ditch maintenance would alleviate any flooding issues.

“The ditch was in this condition for so long that the current
flooding was as much the result of weather changing (as a blocked
ditch). Likely the drainage never worked here anyway,” she
said.

Brimmer also expressed concern that the drainage would have
negative implications for other parts of the wetland, including a
potential impact on Hardwood Creek Wildlife Management Area.

“The ditch goes through a vast wetland complex,” she said. “No
one know the total impact of the damage.”

Watershed districts are local units of government that by
definition are in existence solve and prevent water-related
problems. There currently are 47 in the state, covering about
one-third of the state’s lands. When it comes to ditch laws and the
Wetland Conservation Act, a number of agencies are involved,
including the DNR and the Board of Water and Soil Resources.
Sometimes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is an active permitting
agency.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources is responsible for
administering the Wetland Conservation Act, and its director, Ron
Harnack, said the board is “actively involved” in the Rice Lake
situation.

“My understanding was that it (the ditch project) was supposed
to be a clean-out,” Harnack said. “It seems to have gone well
beyond that.”

He said the Rice Creek Watershed District has made questionable
calls in the past regarding wetland management. A wetland plan
agreed to more than a year ago hasn’t been “followed to the degree
it should have been” by the district’s board of managers, he said.
“(The watershed district) probably hasn’t been as judicious as it
could have been in decision-making.”

The rapidly developing Hugo suburb is like many metro areas,
where a balancing act between development and wetlands maintenance
is hard to retain.

“People see the big dollar signs when it comes to development,”
Harnack said.

The MCEA has suggested the watershed district should have its
authority revoked, though it hasn’t formally requested such action
by the BWSR, which has statutory authority to do so.

Harnack said watershed district status hasn’t previously been
revoked in the state. “A couple counties were notified of the
potential (revocation), but they were able to get their act
together,” he said.

Harnack said the department would rather districts operate
within given guidelines. Dissolution likely would add to BWSR’s
workload, he said.

Travis Germundson, area hydrologist for the DNR, said the Corps
of Engineers was looking into whether it should’ve been consulted
in the case of Rice Lake. The scope of the project would determine
whether or not there should have been Corps involvement.

In a letter to Bremicker, Hobbs said this might be an
opportunity to promote regrowth of plants on the mud flats that now
cover Rice Lake.

“As we have discussed with the DNR and others in the past,
temporary drawdowns are likely to be a beneficial element of Rice
Lake management strategy,” Hobbs wrote. “What is important is to
ensure that the drawdown does not continue beyond the time that its
effects become adverse.”

Hobbs said if desirable a temporary plug could be placed in the
lake’s outlet, if the DNR wishes to attempt to immediately return
water to Rice Lake.

A long-term solution, a permanent water-control structure, could
be a bit trickier. The outlet of the lake is on private
property.

“We’d discussed this with the private landowner (in the past),”
Hobbs said. “The discussions seemed to be going well, so we will
continue them.”

A permanent structure is likely to cost several thousand
dollars, and who will pay for it is far from determined. Brimmer
said the MCEA’s legal committee is determining if the situation
warrants a lawsuit, based on Minnesota wetland and ditch laws.

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