by Kurt Nesbitt

Contributing Writer

Elk River officials want the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to grant permission for work that will ultimately restore Lake Orono.

They are trying to secure permission to start the drawdown — a reduction in the water level — using two methods. They first want to get permission directly from Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen, and if that doesn’t work, they’re going to try an “opt-out” mass mailing where residents “opt out” by returning a card they receive in the mail.

The Elk River City Council approved a resolution asking for those options Monday night. The vote came after discussion about how the city should ask for the permit.

The drawdown permit would allow dredging of Lake Orono to start. City staff said it is the next big step in the project, the design of which is 50% complete as of Monday. They also said an open house is planned for March, by which time the designs for the construction will be 90% complete.

Dredging is a key part of the restoration of Lake Orono, which officials say is impaired by sediment and invasive plants. Brandon Wisner, city stormwater coordinator, said the city has held “lots of discussion” with other government entities and residents and has hired designers and met with an advisory panel to discuss comments.

Most of what Wisner shared is in the upper part of Lake Orono and deals with sediment, just like the 1998 effort did. He said that area would be dredged out regularly, instead of every 20 years, which would save costs. There is a channel in front of the Guardian Angels home, and because of direct comment from the DNR, there could also be a habitat implemented up there. The north area near Concord and Islandview would be blanket-dredged because it is very shallow and not navigable. At Simonet Point, there is some erosion there, and the owner has shown interest in the project, so the city could partner with them. At Highway 10 and Simonet, there will be a similar bay, but the water is shallow, so there will be habitat improvements and dredging. Wisner said city staff thinks the city should do habitat improvements somewhere public instead of with private property. He said the upper lake is where most dredging would be, because that is where the sediment comes into the lake.

Mayor John Dietz asked about what the next steps in project will be, and Wisner said that’s “not 100 percent clear.” He said the city wants to apply for the drawdown soon, but the process will  take six months and Wisner said he knows there will be changes since he’s worked with the DNR before. Dietz asked if the city has been working with the Lake Orono residents’ groups. Wisner said two of the technical advisory committee members are lake residents, who have brought comments back to city staff, who sift through them.

Amanda Erickson, Elk River’s environmental coordinator, said staff received no response to the letter they sent Strommen in August. She said a local DNR representative told her 75% of lake resident signatures might be required for the permit. She said the Lake Orono groups want direct approval from Strommen because of the scope of the project, but have suggested the “opt-out” option rather than obtaining signatures. She said they were confident they could get the required number of signatures needed. She also said critics of the Lake Orono efforts have never mentioned the drawdown as a concern. Work would have to start in August to finish by September.

Mayor John Dietz was surprised at what Erickson said, saying many city officials know Strommen. Erickson answered that there has been no response and that a resolution and a letter from the council would help the effort.

Council member Jennifer Wagner said she had some concerns with the “opt-out” because she felt a mailing might not have enough information for residents to make a decision, which could wreck the project.

“Is there a Plan Z?” she wondered.

Other council members mentioned that the Lake Orono groups can get signatures going door to door. They agreed that asking Strommen directly, then using the “opt-out” mailing, then going to door to door for signatures is the best plan. Council member Garrett Christianson asked Patrick Plant, chair of the Lake Orono Improvement District board of directors, if he was confident he could get 75% of the residents to sign. Plant said he’s confident, adding that the DNR has used the same method for its own projects.

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