Protecting water amid rampant development in Douglas County

Douglas County Water Quality Legacy Fund showcases its first projects.

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Wildlife biologist Shawn Papon shows a wetland created with help from the relatively new Douglas County Water Quality Legacy Fund. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

As Shawn Papon led a small group toward a small pool near Smith Lake east of Alexandria, two mallards lifted off into the sky.

"These little seasonal wetlands are super important to ducks," said the wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as he watched the pair fly away. "If you have one 10-acre wetland, you have one nesting pair of ducks, but if you have 10 one-acre wetlands, you'll have 10 nesting pairs. They're super territorial."

Papon was showing off a project that got done with the help of a relatively new fund established locally in 2018 and which awarded its first grants in 2020.

Called the Douglas County Water Quality Legacy Fund, the fund is a collaboration of the Douglas County Lakes Association, the Douglas Soil and Water Conservation District, Douglas County, the City of Alexandria, the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, the Nature Conservancy and the Douglas County Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

One morning this week, board members toured four conservation projects made possible by the fund.


Papon said the fund helps him stretch his slender budget for setting up 10-year agreements with landowners who wish to take land out of production and create protection for ducks and other migratory birds. He has just $52,000 to spend on five counties, including Douglas. The wetland near Smith Lake was one of two restoration projects he was able to accomplish for about $15,000, including $7,500 from the county's Legacy Fund.

"If we don't have partnerships, we have nothing," he said. "This wetland wouldn't be here without a partnership."

On one of the properties, which is transitioning from cropland to native prairie, squeals went up when Papon said bobolinks and dickcissels have been spotted there, both species of birds that depend on grassland and whose numbers have been plummeting.

The Legacy Fund is intended to preserve water quality, not wildlife, but sometimes it accomplishes both, said Gene Rose, vice president of the lakes association. In this case, contractors plugged up a drainage ditch which allowed the water to pool. It recharges the groundwater — which is important, as groundwater levels are declining across the country, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It also reduces runoff and improves water quality, Rose said.

Two stops on the tour involved U.S. Fish and Wildlife sites where landowners wanted help restoring the land. Two of them were projects of the local soil and water agency.

On Lake Ida, a deep swale cuts through a slope planted with corn. That swale was put in after a landowner on the lake appealed for help from the soil and water agency, said Danielle Anderson, water planner and land use technician.

Water was washing out the road between the field and the lake, and also harming his land, she said. It was also washing sediment and excess nutrients into the lake.

The field's owner had inherited the land and doesn't live in the area, Anderson said. She wanted to protect the lake, but didn't want to spend money to do so. An engineer put together a plan for a swale that would collect water running off the hills and release it slowly through a pipe beneath the road and down into the lake.


That project cost $30,000, with 75% from her agency and 25% from the legacy fund, she said.

On Lake Burgen, homeowner Bob Gibson greeted the tour group.

When Gibson bought his home two years ago, he immediately noticed the eroding shoreline. Waves from all sorts of activity — wakeboats, even a strong wind — would send water surging across the narrow lake, eating away at the shore. Gibson, a naturalist, contacted the soil and water district to see what could be done about it. His neighbor wanted in on it, too.

The result was a $23,700 project to install rocks the proper way, at a slope, and to plant native plants and seeds that will develop long roots to keep the shoreline from eroding. The legacy fund contributed $1,000 per lot toward the project. Anderson said she hopes the project will be educational for lakeshore owners as a good way to prevent shore erosion and to also use native plantings.

Legacy board member Dean Beck remembered how that shoreline used to be home to native bulrushes, which provided great fish habitat. Previous landowners removed them in favor of sandy lake bottoms.

Anderson credited the new owners with buying degraded properties with the intent to improve them.

The Lake Burgen area is one Douglas County location that is teeming with new development, all of which threatens water quality and habitat if not done properly. The Legacy Fund board members said their conservation projects can't keep pace with the development.

"It does pale compared to the tiling and draining that continues to occur," Beck said.


It's all about "baby steps," said farmer and board member John Ledermann, who has been recognized for conservation measures on his own farm.

The board said they would like to help fund more projects, and encourage people to apply or donate at .

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