APPLETON, Minn. — It’s been more than 20 years in the making, but Dave Trauba is finally getting the opportunity, as he puts it, to give Marsh Lake a “good kick in the backside.”
It’s not the most polite or scientific way to explain it, the regional wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources concedes, but this is what the ecological restoration of Marsh Lake is going to take. A draw down of the 5,100-acre sheet of water in western Minnesota is now underway, exposing mud flats and shoreline that have not been seen for two or more decades.
The draw down, which may continue into next winter, will make it possible for emergent and submergent aquatic vegetation to take hold again in this shallow water basin on the upper stretch of the Minnesota River. This will help improve water quality, and restore the habitat that once made this one of the most famous waterfowl hunting destinations in Minnesota.
It’s all part of a $13 million project that was substantially completed this spring by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Upper Minnesota River Watershed District. The Outdoor Heritage fund provided $4.63 million as part of the state’s share of costs. Congress approved $7.6 million as a federal contribution in 2014, with critical support from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, according to Trauba. She had championed the project “to put the marsh back in Marsh Lake.”
Construction work began in April 2017 by general contractor RTS Shearing of Jamestown, N.D. Three years of record precipitation slowed the project but all of its major pieces are now in place.
The fixed crest dam that had turned this alluvial floodplain along the Minnesota River into Marsh Lake in the 1930’s has been replaced by a control structure. It will allow periodic draw downs to mimic the natural variations in water levels that would occur in a riverine environment.
The project also includes the development of a fish passageway some 300 feet long and 120 feet wide with 13 arches of individually placed boulders. The boulders were hand placed according to a design developed by Luther Aadland, a river ecologist with the DNR. It makes it possible for everything from fry-sized fish to 150-pound lake sturgeon to navigate the passageway either up or downstream during all seasons of the year. “A fishway is supposed to move all species, all sizes, at all times,” explained Chris Domeier, fisheries supervisor with the DNR in Ortonville.
Fish migration in river systems is not just about reaching spawning grounds, he explained. Fish naturally migrate, often for reasons we don’t fully understand yet, he said.
As part of the project, the contractor also restored the Pomme de Terre River to its natural channel and outlet just downstream of the new control structure and former dam. The river had been diverted into Marsh Lake as part of the 1930s work.
By restoring the river to its natural channel, walleye and northern pike in Lac qui Parle Lake can once again reach the important, upstream spawning and feeding habitat the river offers. It also reconnects the river system to several lakes and smaller watersheds, said Domeier.
Trauba can trace the history of the project to 1985, when the first conversations began within the DNR on how to restore Marsh Lake. A draw down structure was initially proposed in hopes of returning the lake to its days as a waterfowl mecca.
Trauba said the project grew for the better as wildlife, fisheries and waters and ecological resource staff in the DNR worked with the U.S. Corps of Engineers and developed what’s become a full scale ecological restoration.
The fixed crest dam installed in the 1930s, a progressively wet climate, and changing land use practices in the watershed all contributed to the lake’s demise over the years. Trauba said that successive years of high water levels in the lake caused the loss of the aquatic vegetation that had made it so attractive to migrating waterfowl. He served previously as the wildlife manager at the Lac qui Parle refuge, and arrived when sago pondweed in the lake was thick enough to stop motorboats.
As the waters rose and vegetation disappeared, carp thrived. “What carp want is what Marsh Lake was. A stagnant bowl of dirty water,” said Trauba.
He and Domeier don’t expect carp to be eradicated due to the new improvements. But Domeier said the opportunity to restore connectivity in the river system, and the chance for emergent vegetation to reestablish along the lake perimeter, will give native species the opportunity to do well again. It gets them back on a level where they can compete with carp, he explained.
The changes should also benefit shorebirds and other wildlife, and increase the area’s attraction to birders. The U.S. Corps of Engineers maintains a day use area at the lake’s outlet. The abutments from the former fixed crest dam remain in place. There’s hope that eventually a small bridge can be placed on the abutments to span the water as part of a recreational trail connecting to the city of Appleton.
Islands on the lake’s north end are home to one of the Midwest’s largest pelican rookeries, and they remain protected. Water will continue to surround the islands during the warm season draw down, according to Trauba.
For now, local residents are watching the lake’s waters recede and its silt laden bottom emerge with a careful eye. Chuck Ellingson, 42, operates the Watson Hunting Camp and has hunted and fished on this lake since he was 10 years old. “I can drive in the dark without the lights on,” he laughed when speaking of his familiarity with these waters.
He has enjoyed good waterfowl hunting on the lake in recent years, but noted that hunting pressure on it has declined over the past several years. His hope is that the project can live up to its goals and restore the lake as a waterfowl hunting resource, while also improving its fishery.
Those are of course the goals, but Trauba cautions that some patience will be needed. “We have to be honest with people. Marsh Lake did not degrade overnight. It’s not going to heal overnight, either.”