By John Myers
Bakers Lake in southwestern McLeod County has a carry-in public access and an adjacent 294-acre wildlife management area open to public hunting. The 469-acre lake is designated a migratory waterfowl feeding and resting area, which means outboard motors are prohibited during waterfowl season.
The shallow lake once was a prime waterfowl nesting area and migratory resting and feeding stop. But fluctuating water levels and years of sedimentation have limited the lake's value to waterfowl. DNR area wildlife manager Stein Innvaer says management of Bakers Lake has been in limbo for decades. In 1962 the Brownton Rod and Gun Club built a dam at the lake's outlet to replace one that had washed out. That dam began failing by the 1970s; however, and the lake's water level dropped too low for optimum for waterfowl habitat.
DNR wildlife managers have supported building a new dam to restore water levels to the old mark. Some landowners near the lake have fought the effort, citing fears of flooded cropland. To move forward, the state may need flowage easements from affected farmers, according to Innvaer. Those efforts have stalled.
Rob Collett, DNR area hydrologist, says troubles at Bakers Lake go beyond the outlet structure. He notes roughly 95 percent of the original wetlands near Bakers Lake have been destroyed, and the lake's watershed is huge—100 square miles. Many fields are tiled to shed rain as fast as possible. That means water runs off cropland, through ditches, and into Bakers Lake. Wetlands could moderate the amount of runoff. Peak flows erode stream banks but also bounce lake and wetland levels harming nesting waterfowl.
Collett says reestablishing wetlands can be as easy as plugging drian tiles so former sloughs could hold water again. Wetlands would help slow runoff in the watershed and improve water quality in Bakers Lake, allowing more duck-attracting aquatic plants to flourish. He said advances in satellite-assisted GIS mapping technology could help pinpoint the best upstream areas to return to natural wetlands and buffer areas, but only if landowners agree to the conservation efforts. Technology and new funding could come together to make strides in southern Minnesota watersheds.