Agencies approve plug plan for dry Rice Lake

By Tim

Associate Editor

St. Paul – A lake in a state wildlife management area –
accidentally drained following ditch maintenance by the Rice Creek
Watershed District – will be plugged with an earthen structure that
could perhaps make the lake a viable option for duck hunting this

According to a press release from the DNR, which manages state
wildlife management areas, “Rice Lake, a 270-acre shallow basin in
(360-acre) Paul Hugo WMA, began drying up early this spring
following ditch maintenance undertaken by the (watershed district)
on Hardwood Creek. The creek is also a judicial ditch, beginning at
Rice Lake in (the city of) Hugo.”

Brad Moore, DNR assistant commissioner, said the watershed
district had agreed to pay $5,000 for installation of the earthen
dam on Rice Lake’s outlet.

“We hope to have something in place soon,” he said. “Our focus
is to get the lake back to appropriate levels.”

Moore said the drainage project could potentially affect other
wetlands along its path in the northeastern Metro area. State
officials expect the lake to refill in “50 to 90 days, depending on

A meeting between the DNR and the Rice Creek Watershed District,
which manages watershed issues in the area (watershed districts are
special-purpose units of local government whose boundaries follow
natural watershed divides), was well attended by conservation and
environmental groups and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil
Resources, which provides oversight for watershed districts.

Steve Woods, assistant director for the BWSR, said the agency
was happy the DNR and the watershed district worked to reach at
least a temporary solution.

“It’s an area (where that watershed district operates) that’s
been subject to litigation and battles for decades,” he said.

Woods said some biologists believe the draining of the lake will
give them an opportunity to see if the lake responds to periodic
drawdowns, a procedure sometimes used to promote vegetation growth
in areas normally covered by water. However, the DNR also wanted to
return water to the basin to discourage the development of exotic
species, as well.

Woods called the earthen dam solution a “temporary measure.”

“It’s like putting a cork back in a bottle, so to speak,” he

Harlan Hiemstra, DNR public affairs officer, said the agency and
watershed district are now in “joint, ongoing negotiations” for a
long-term solution.

“This is just one step. We want to make sure a structure is in
place and get more water in there for this fall,” he said.

Mark Ten Eyck, advocacy director for the Minnesota Center for
Environmental Advocacy, said the decision was a “step in the right

He said it remained to be seen if other wetlands were damaged by
the ditch maintenance work. “We want to make sure the watershed
district takes good steps with these wetlands as well,” he

In the recent past, the MCEA has suggested BWSR consider pulling
the watershed district’s authority. Woods said the agency hadn’t
formally been requested to do so.

“Nobody’s requested it (revoking the authority), and our
response (to the MCEA) has been, ‘Let’s get the facts first,’ ”
Woods said.

Watershed districts make a lot of decisions at the local level,
which would overwhelm state government, he said.

“Historically, Rice Creek has made a lot of wetland decisions,
and sometimes we’ve appealed them,” Woods said. “But this area has
a lot of ditches and wetlands Š By and large, they’ve done pretty
well as a WCA (Wetland Conservation Act) implementer. They’re a
local government making decisions.”

According to a news release, RCWD managers also were pleased by
the quick resolution of the problem, and they re-affirmed their
commitment to restoring the ecological functions of Rice Lake. The
district’s board of managers passed a resolution last week agreeing
to proceed with and fund the restoration plan.

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