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Legislators propose bills for $7.5M in funding to complete dredging

Two Minnesota legislators representing the area have introduced companion bills to fund the final phase of Albert Lea’s Fountain Lake dredging project.

House File 384 and Senate File 447 were introduced last week by Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, and Sen. Gene Dornink, R-Hayfield. Both were assigned to the Capital Investment committees.

“I definitely support this project, and it’s a good project that’s making a difference,” Bennett said. “It’s good stewardship of our funding, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Peggy Bennett

Bennett and Dornink are waiting for hearings to be scheduled before the respective committees. From there, they hope it is included in a trimmed bonding bill that isn’t a given in a non-bonding bill year for the Legislature.

Infrastructure needs are expected to be major discussion points as the group addresses the pandemic’s impact. Where those priorities end remains to be seen.

“We just don’t know yet,” Bennett said.

The final phase includes high-traffic parts of the lake in the heart of downtown: the east basin of Main Bay, Bancroft Channel and parts of Bancroft Bay.

The bills request $7.5 million.

Shell Rock River Watershed District Administrator Andy Henschel said more than 300,000 cubic yards of sediment remains in the second phase.

The dredger remained in the lake over winters. If it has to be removed before the final phase is funded, the cost likely increases, according to Bennett.

Gene Dornink

The final phase of funding was not included in the 2020 bonding bill, but Henschel is hopeful the continued work at the lake and the need for infrastructure funding post-pandemic help pass the bills.

“We were disappointed with the results of 2020 and even though this is not the traditional year for a large bonding bill, we know the Legislature will be considering important bonding projects for a bill this year,” he said. “You always have to be optimistic, and we have good legislative support.”

Dredging of phase two is scheduled to resume in the spring. Through October, J.F. Brennan Co. had removed about 293,000 cubic yards of sediment in 2020 in Main Bay and Dane Bay.

The lake has been a target of environmental work since 2008 when it was listed among Minnesota’s impaired waters.

The lake has noticeably improved. In prior years, “no swimming” notices were issued at times.

“Now, it’s a whole different thing,” Bennett said. “Before, I wouldn’t even let my dog jump in that lake. But it’s clean, the fish are thriving. It’s definitely been a good improvement, for sure.”

Active dredging began in 2018. Phase one and two  were funded by an initial $7.5 million in bonding appropriation and $9.5 million in local option sales tax funds.

The Shell Rock River Watershed District next meets Feb. 9. Information on the virtual meeting can be found at shellrock.org.