Pumping for ducksOur many lakes, especially our shallow lakes, attract waterfowl and other birds - especially diving ducks that rely exclusively on aquatic foods to survive. In turn, these same shallow lakes traditionally attract duck hunters to the area too. A display of antique duck hunting boats at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria speaks to that long, rich history.
Editor’s note: The following story was provided by Ducks Unlimited.
Douglas County is in the heart of Minnesota’s “waterfowl flyway” for the many ducks and geese that migrate through Minnesota spring and fall each year.
Our many lakes, especially our shallow lakes, attract waterfowl and other birds - especially diving ducks that rely exclusively on aquatic foods to survive. In turn, these same shallow lakes traditionally attract duck hunters to the area too. A display of antique duck hunting boats at the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum in Alexandria speaks to that long, rich history.
Unfortunately, many shallow lakes have become turbid due to years of high water and abundance of invasive fish such as carp, bullheads, and fathead minnows. High numbers of fish in shallow lakes and wetlands can significantly degrade the aquatic ecology of these basins without periodic fish winterkill events, and render them of little value to ducks – and duck hunters.
Such was the case with two lakes in Douglas County – 316-acre Jennie Lake, south of Brandon and 4,000-acre Lake Christina, north of Evansville. For centuries, both Jennie and Christina have been important duck lakes, but have been in poor shape the last few decades and needed remediation.
Jennie Lake is an important local waterfowl refuge (closed to hunting at hunters’ request), and Christina is an important duck staging lake used by many local and metro hunters in fall (eastern two-thirds of the lake is closed to motorized boat use to limit bird disturbance). In good years, Christina has held as many as 100,000 canvasback ducks and more than 1 million water birds at one time in fall.
Wildlife biologists with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Ducks Unlimited (DU) knew what to do, but lacked the financial resources. Then, with the passage of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment by voters in November 2008, that problem was solved.
The Legacy Amendment created the Minnesota “Outdoor Heritage Fund” (OHF) that annually provides $100 million for projects that “protect, restore, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and other habitats” in Minnesota. The “Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council” (LSOHC) recommends projects for funding from the OHF to the state Legislature, and is comprised of six legislators and six citizens.
State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen from Alexandria is one of 12 LSOHC members. Ingebrigtsen also serves as chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee that appropriates the funds recommended by the LSOHC.
“Working with DU and being part of funding projects like Jennie Lake and Lake Christina has been very rewarding,” said Ingebrigtsen. “These projects will help bring back the traditional fall duck hunting for West Central Minnesota. I feel very fortunate to be part of that.”
In 2009, DU received a $2.9 million OHF appropriation for eight shallow lake enhancement projects across the state and invested most of those grant funds into improvement of Lake Christina and Jennie Lake. For each lake, DU biologists recommended temporary water level draw-downs for 1-2 years to winterkill invasive fish and rejuvenate aquatic plants and invertebrates. In other words, biologists recommended a drought to help the ducks. Who would have thought?
“Just as prairie fire is essential to maintaining a healthy prairie ecosystem, so are periodic droughts in prairie wetlands and shallow lakes,” said Jon Schneider, manager of conservation programs for DU in Minnesota. “Stable, high water levels cause wetlands to stagnate, and greatly reduce their productivity for ducks and other wildlife.”
In 2009 and 2010, DU biologists and engineers worked with Minnesota DNR and local conservation clubs to design and install permanent electric pump stations on the outlets of both Lake Christina and Jennie Lake. Pumping was delayed in 2011 due to heavy summer rain events, but the Minnesota DNR was able to take advantage of a dry winter, early spring, and hot summer this year to run the pumps and make significant progress to lower both lakes.
The small pump installed on Jennie Lake has been running steadily since late last fall, and DNR has lowered the lake to about 30 percent of its former depth. The goal is to lower water levels in the lake as much as possible to freeze out all remaining fish so aquatic invertebrates and plants can flourish next year when water returns.
Private landowners Craig and Julie Haseman provided land on the outlet to DNR for the project, and several local sportsmen clubs helped DU and DNR pay for the work including Viking Sportsmen, Evansville Area Sportsmen, Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust, and the Chippewa River Watershed Project. DU and DNR also secured a small grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act of $75,000 for the project to match $75,000 applied from the OHF, and DNR contributed $50,000. Remaining expenses were paid by partners, with the total project exceeding $250,000.
“It’s great to see such an awesome project locally that will benefit the ducks we see in the Alexandria area,” stated Bill Januszewski, DU’s Alexandria chapter chair.
The Lake Christina project is a similar story, but on a much larger scale. Massive numbers of carp, bigmouth buffalo, black bullhead, and minnows shifted the lake into what scientists call the “turbid water state.”
Dams constructed on downstream lakes after the 1930s drought elevated and stabilized water levels in Christina by two feet, enough to prevent natural fish winterkill events from occurring. Consequently, populations of carp and other undesirable invasive fish exploded.
Past fish toxicant treatments were successful in switching the lake back to a clear water state, but only temporarily, and the lake returned to the turbid state when rough fish populations exploded in the lake again.
“Clearly, fish are driving the aquatic ecology of Lake Christina, and we needed a more sustainable means of managing them to improve and maintain water quality,” said Schneider.
To remedy, DU and DNR partnered with the Christina-Ina-Anka Lake Association to install a $2 million pumping system consisting of three large electric pumps capable of moving 72 cubic feet per second of water. Dam restrictions on downstream lakes and heavy spring rains delayed pumping until July 18 when permit conditions finally allowed DNR to run all three pumps. Since then, pumping has lowered the lake nearly two feet, with no more than three feet of water remaining in the most of the basin. Pumping will continue through fall with a goal of lowering the lake three to four feet before ice forms in November to induce a natural fish winterkill event in February. The lake will remain open for hunting this fall, however, access may be challenging due to low water levels.
Ducks Unlimited recently recognized Craig and Julie Haseman with a DU “Beyond the Call” Award for their extra effort to help implement the Jennie Lake project. The Christina-Ina-Anka Lake Association was recently recognized for their role in the project by Outdoor News with their first annual Outdoor Leaders Award presented at Game Fair in Anoka.
While pumping continues, birds are flocking and the fall waterfowl hunting season is upon us. The early resident Canada goose season opened September 1, Youth Waterfowl Day is September 8, and the regular duck and goose season opens September 22.