By Joe Albert
Hugo, Minn. – Rice Lake once again will be full of water. That’s
the good news. The bad: It might not be in time for Saturday’s
A judge in Washington County District Court last Thursday
ordered the Rice Creek Watershed District to install a dam by Oct.
1 that will catch water and help the lake refill. The lake, in the
Paul Hugo Farms WMA, was drained inadvertently after the watershed
district completed a ditching project in the area.
The district began putting a temporary dam in a day after the
judge’s order came down, and was nearly finished Tuesday afternoon,
District Administrator Steve Hobbs said. A permanent weir should be
in by the end of the week.
The ruling and subsequent work were in response to a DNR
lawsuit; another lawsuit brought by three environmental groups
hasn’t been decided yet.
“We’re disappointed we had to (file a lawsuit),” DNR Assistant
Commissioner Brad Moore said. “You don’t want to file a lawsuit
unless you have to.”
But officials felt they had no choice. The watershed district
said in July that it would restore the lake’s water level, but by
early September that still hadn’t happened and the DNR filed suit.
The DNR wanted it filled by the duck opener.
Hobbs said the district planned all along to put a dam in to
restore the lake, but was held up by a requirement by the city of
Hugo that the district obtain a permit before doing the work, and
by landowners who refused to grant access to their land.
“But for those two things we would have been done in July,”
Hobbs said. “As far as the court order goes, Rice Creek didn’t mind
getting the order because then we didn’t have to worry about going
through the process with the city of Hugo.”
The judge granted the DNR a “preliminary injunction,” which
means the dam must be put in by Oct. 1, but that either the city of
Hugo or the watershed district could pursue the matter to trial and
try to get the decision reversed, said Janette Brimmer, legal
director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Still, Brimmer was happy with the decision.
“It’s very good news,” she said. “I was really pleased with the
The lawsuit brought by MCEA, along with the Minnesota
Conservation Federation and Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance,
is still on the table and seeks broader repairs than the DNR’s,
While the DNR focused just on Rice Lake, MCEA’s suit seeks
penalties for environmental damage, and the restoration of any
other wetlands in the area damaged by the draining.
“We want them ultimately to repair all the damage,” Brimmer
There was concern that hybrid cattails – an invasive species
that is native to tidal saltwater marshes – could take root in the
lake if the water level isn’t restored, Brimmer said. The groups
also were concerned about plants like reed canary and purple
DNR officials will be meeting to decide what further action, if
any, to take, Moore said.
“Perhaps we can put this matter behind us,” he said.
That doesn’t help anyone who wants to hunt ducks on the lake.
The WMA will be open to hunting, but anyone at Rice Lake could have
a tough go, Moore said.
“A lot of water has to go back into the basin,” he said. “It’s
unlikely you are going to have quality duck hunting this
As of Tuesday afternoon, the lake had between three and four
inches of water on it, Hobbs said.