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A Lake Town Once Again?
By Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
January 8, 2002
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City leaders in the small western Minnesota town of Bird Island want to resurrect a lake that was drained 100 years ago. They say restoring Pelican Lake will help the environment, attract wildlife, tourists and economic development to their community. But some landowners are fighting the idea. They say they won't get lakefront property, but the view of a swamp. They're afraid the shallow lake will breed mosquitoes, flood basements and lower property values.

Lake Pelican sits on the edge of town in this 1888 map of Bird Island. Some city officials want to bring back the lake drained 100 years ago. See a larger image.
(MPR Photo / Tim Post)

You won't find a lake within 30 miles of Bird Island, but it wasn't always that way. At the end of the 1800s, Renville County was covered with wetlands. In fact, Bird Island got its name from a lump of land surrounded by wetlands, where birds would gather. Then efforts were made to drain every lake and wetland possible. The bottomland gave farmers a layer of rich soil to till.

Pelican Lake was one those drained at turn of the century. The 160-acre lake was transformed into very productive farmland. But city officials think it's time to stop draining the land, and let it become a lake once again.

Mark Gleesner, the head of the Pelican Lake Task Force, says a restored lake would be the community's jewel. It would attract wildlife, tourists, and help the environment. And the lake would act as a wetland.

By law, Renville County needs more wetlands after a recent project to expand a drainage ditch. Gleesner says the lake would also attract developers. He says a new housing development could bring new residents and much needed tax dollars to the city. Like many rural Minnesota towns, the failing agricultural economy is killing Bird Island. Over the last decade, Bird Island lost about 10 percent of its population. Gleesner says this might be the town's last chance to preserve it's economic viability.

Mark Gleesner says restoring Pelican Lake is Bird Island's last chance to remain economically viable.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

"It's creeping from the southwest corner of the state. Towns are folding and they will continue to fold unless people take an active interest and do something to address the issues," Gleesner says.

Gleesner says the newly restored lake would be a bargain. Conservation grants would buy the land. Other grants would pay for work to restore the lake and build a trail around it. The city's only cost would come if they decide to build a nature center on the lake.

Lake promoters say they want the town of Bird Island to have a lake view. But some living along the old Pelican Lake bed like their view of an open farm field just as it is.

John Desotel and his family have lived in a ranch style home in Bird Island for about a decade. Their home is on what could be a future lake shore. But Desotel says Pelican Lake will only be 4 feet deep. And to him and his neighbors, that's not a lake, it's a swamp that could smell bad, produce mosquitoes and flood basements.

John Desotel and some of his neighbors who live along old Pelican Lake, say a new lake would be more of a swamp, and might lower property values.
(MPR Photo/Photographer)

"They know what they have right now. They know they can look out here and they a corn field, they've got bean field," he says. "When they bought the property, they knew what they were going to get. And now someone is asking them to make all these changes, and there is a potential because it has not been guaranteed that everything will be wonderful, they are taking the risk."

Despite those fears, city officials say the project will be a safe one. But landowners opposed to the lake say if it fails, they'll have to deal with the aftermath, not the city or the county.

Bird Island residents will hear a final pitch for restoration of Pelican Lake soon. Then they'll be able to voice their opinion in a public survey. The Bird Island City Council will have the final say on the project. The council will use the survey as a guide, and even though it's not binding, the survey is essentially a vote. People on both sides of the issue expect it will be close.