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Proposed watershed protection plan raises questions about Alexandria area development

The public may comment on the proposed plan through July 19

Aerial view of Lake Miltona
Lake Miltona is one of six top-priority lakes for water improvement projects in the proposed Long Prairie River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan. (Google images)
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DOUGLAS COUNTY — A proposed 10-year plan to protect Douglas County's main watershed contains a challenge for local elected officials, developers and lakeshore owners.

While noting that the county is projected to grow 12% over the next 30 years, the proposal also advises limiting building size and the amount of impervious surfaces in the watershed.

The report, put together with input from local elected officials, soil and water conservation specialists, lake advocates, development agencies and agriculture interests, starkly highlights the conflict between growth and development and protection of the resources that makes the area so popular.

"While developmental impacts to the environment can be substantial, this concentration of development, in turn, supports local tourism, service, and retail sectors, generating revenue for this portion of the watershed," says the report, called the Long Prairie River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan. The report is only in draft stage, and is open to public input through Tuesday, July 19.

Shoreline development around the Alexandria area lakes is worth more than $2.3 billion, the report says, citing a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report from 2017.

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The lakes attract common-interest communities crowded with travel trailers and mobile homes as well as 10,000-square foot, million dollar-plus properties with fertilized lawns that run to the lake edge.

"It is important to protect and improve the water quality in these lakes to maintain their recreational quality, fisheries and property values," the report notes.

Long Prairie Water Plan.jpg
A graphic from the Long Prairie River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan describes ways to keep lakes healthy.

Douglas County Commissioner Jerry Rapp, who helped write the report, blamed policies of the past that allowed easy development of farmland in the county.

“When we promote development over agriculture, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “If it were up to me, I’d like to rein it in a little bit. ... I have to say that if we had to do it over again there never would be 50-foot lots."

If the county actually does grow 12% in the next 30 years, that's a big deal, he said, adding, “Twelve percent growth puts stress on our lakes, especially if they’re building lake homes.”

He said he likes the idea of requiring lake lots to have a 15-foot buffer of plants that would help filter pollutants that come from fertilizing lawns, killing weeds, or spraying insects, and said he plans to bring it up at the next county commission meeting. He also said he would support extending the minimum lot width on certain lakes to 150 feet, but it would drive up the price of those lots and he doesn't know if he would have enough support on the commission.

“I think we can do something," he said. "I think we have to do something. I don’t think we should keep going the way we can.”

The report is part of the One Watershed, One Plan effort to focus on water resources at the watershed level instead of the local level. The watershed starts in the Alexandria lakes area, encompasses the City of Alexandria, and spans five counties before eventually emptying into the Mississippi River.

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The plan is significant because once it is approved by the state, it will open the door to reliable funding for water-quality projects. Until now, counties had to compete for state dollars.

It's also the first time the watershed gets its own plan. Starting in the 1980s, Minnesota counties wrote countywide water quality plans. That started to change about seven years ago, when the state recognized that water does not stop at the county line, and began encouraging counties to work together to protect entire watersheds.

“Because we’ve got good water quality in the lakes here, we want to protect what we’ve got so it doesn’t get any worse," said Jerry Haggenmiller, district coordinator for the Douglas County Soil and Water Conservation District, which played a key role in developing the plan.

Development can be a double-edged sword because large or crowded structures as well as blacktop or cement reduces the amount of open earth that can absorb rainfall. Instead of soaking into the ground, the rain runs into lakes and rivers, carrying with it pollutants that cause algae growth or rob oxygen from the waters. Often, lakeshore properties replace native, deep-rooted plants with shallow-rooted uniform grasses, which can lead to erosion.

Other recommendations in the draft plan include:

  • Picking up pet waste before it releases nutrients and pathogens into the waters.
  • Using cover crops between crops to prevent soil erosion.
  • Improving septic systems.
  • Protecting forested areas, as the watershed has lost more than a third of its trees since European settlement.
  • Protecting wetlands, most of which are still intact.

One startling detail in the plan is that based on current temperature and precipitation trends, the watershed's climate will be similar to southern Iowa by 2070; it advises the creation of water holding areas to cope with increased moisture.
Haggenmiller said the plan will benefit landowners who want to stop erosion on their lakeshore property or farmland, as the financial resources it will gain for the watershed will help pay for certain projects. Before now, the cost was mostly borne by the local landowner, Haggenmiller said. Funding should help the plan succeed by making water quality projects more affordable for landowners, as it relies on voluntary participation.

As the headwaters of the watershed, four Douglas County lakes are listed as top priorities for protection or restoration efforts. Lakes Miltona, Latoka, Ida, and Mary were listed as Tier 1 lakes because they are deemed to have outstanding biological significance, improvements there will likely give the most return on investment, they are the most sensitive to phosphorus, and are large, deep lakes with high levels of development.

Lake Winona, long troubled by pollution that fuels algae growth, is slated for restoration in the plan, and Haggenmiller said the inclusion should provide more state funding.

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Putting the plan into action will be up to a variety of federal, state and local agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations like The Nature Conservancy. Many efforts to protect or restore local waters are already underway. The City of Alexandria, for instance, is already dealing with storm water runoff, and separate endeavors are addressing aquatic invasive species.

Comments on the proposed Long Prairie River Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan are being accepted through Tuesday, July 19. Comments and questions can be submitted to adam.ossefoort@co.todd.mn.us. The plan can be found at https://www.co.todd.mn.us/documents/2022/05/60-day-review-lp-water-plan.pdf/.

Chris Pence, who oversees the One Watershed One Plan effort for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, says the Long Prairie River Watershed plan could win state approval as early as October.

It's too soon to say how much difference these projects have made with overall watershed health, he said. However, the Minnesota Control Agency should be able to compile data as it studies lakes on a 10-year rotation, he said.

"When you make a change in the landscape, it doesn't make a difference right away," he said. "It's a progressive change."

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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