Habitat Enhancement Under Way at Minnesota's Smith Lake

A new water-control outlet structure on Smith Lake in Wright County allowed Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managers to begin drawing down lake levels last December. This habitat-enhancement project is a partnership effort between Ducks Unlimited and the Minnesota DNR to improve water-level-management capabilities and habitat conditions for waterfowl and other wildlife.

"Smith Lake is a wonderful natural resource, and now with our ability to manage water levels, the reality of improved water quality and wildlife habitat is taking shape," said Fred Bengtson, DNR Sauk Rapids area wildlife manager. "This project would not have been possible without exceptional partners, lakeshore landowners, and public support."

Smith Lake, west of Howard Lake on Highway 12, is a 330-acre shallow lake managed by the DNR. DU engineered the project for the DNR in 2008 and hired Landwehr Construction to build it. Work began last November to clear the outlet channel and install nearly 1,000 feet of 24-inch pipe before winter conditions arrived. Work resumed this spring, and the project is expected to be completed this summer. 

Due to an abundance of invasive fish, Smith Lake has been in a turbid, degraded state for years and no longer supports migrating and brood-rearing waterfowl. To remedy the situation, Smith Lake was the 42nd of 44 shallow lakes legally designated for wildlife management.

This status allows for the installation of a water-control structure and management of water levels on the lake. The Smith Lake project was made possible by a strong partnership between DU, the DNR, local stakeholders, and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommended a state grant to DU from the Outdoor Heritage Fund in 2009 for this and seven other shallow-lake enhancement projects around the state.

"The council is glad to see progress to enhance shallow-lake habitat for migratory birds, and is pleased to see that public money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund is being spent on the ground," council Executive Director Bill Becker said.

Temporarily lowering water levels in Smith Lake will not only help clear the wetland of invasive fish through natural winterkill, but it will also promote the germination and growth of the aquatic plants and invertebrates favored by ducks and other wildlife. The removal of fish and return of aquatic plants and invertebrates to the basin will improve water quality as well, which will benefit downstream water resources.

The project is part of DU's Living Lakes Initiative and Minnesota DNR's Duck Recovery Plan—and advances the state's newly implemented Shallow Lakes 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.