A project dedicated to bringing back the thousands of ducks that used to frequent Lake Christina every spring and fall kicked off on a beautiful afternoon this past Saturday at the Lake Christina public access near Ashby.

Partners and supporters gathered at the access to mark the start of an enhancement project that has been six years in the making. Local advocates for the project discussed the history of the lake and expressed their passion for improving the water quality and seeing the ducks return to this once vibrant waterfowl migration habitat.

"We want to see Lake Christina in its former glory again," president of the Christina-Ina-Anka Lake Association John Lindquist said.

The 4,000-acre project was made possible by a grant to Ducks Unlimited (DU) from the first year of Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Upon the passing of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment in 2008, the legislature created the council. The group is charged with recommending projects and expenditures from the fund to the legislature that restore, enhance and protect Minnesota's wetlands, prairies, forests and other fish and wildlife habitat.

"Lake Christina is an example of what we want to do with the Outdoor Heritage Fund money," Jim Cox, vice-chair of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, said. "And when this project is done, people will have a tangible result for their investment."

Work to restore Lake Christina began when rotenone was applied to the lake in 1987 and 2003 in an attempt to reduce fish abundance in the lake. Both treatments improved water clarity and aquatic duck food production. In 1994, the lake hosted around 105,000 canvasbacks, similar to the number of birds it supported in the 1940s before the hydrology of the lake was altered by the construction of dams. An electric fish barrier was later installed to prevent invasive fish from entering the lake.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. Turbid conditions in the lake returned, causing plants and aquatic invertebrates that supported the high duck numbers to disappear. This prompted Lake Christina stakeholders to seek an alternative solution.

"With all the dramatic recovery efforts that have been conducted in the past, Lake Christina has caught the imagination of all Minnesotans," Cox said.

That led to the Lake Christina Enhancement Project. Construction began this week to install a pump and related infrastructure that will help lower the water levels and enhance the aquatic ecology that draws so many ducks and other migratory birds. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will start a drawdown in the fall of 2011. The permanent electric pump station will allow the DNR to periodically draw down water levels when needed.

The project is part of DU's Living Lakes Initiative and the Minnesota DNR's Duck Recovery Plan. These cooperative efforts call for the enhancement, restoration and protection of shallow lakes and large marshes for both waterfowl migration and brood-rearing habitat. Ducks Unlimited recently awarded a construction contract for the $1.5 million Lake Christina project.

Many of the partners and supporters of the project were recognized at last Saturday's kickoff celebration. The DNR, Christina-Ina-Anka Lake Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust, Pelican Lake Property Owners Association, Flint Hills Resources and the McKnight Foundation were all honored for their role in making the project a reality.

Many of the speakers recounted their personal histories associated with the lake. The overall sentiment was one of preserving the heritage of Lake Christina. It's a lake that was known for hosting tens of thousands of waterfowl as a stopover area for ducks on their way to breeding and wintering grounds. Someday soon, it may be again.