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Lake level volunteers provide valuable data for DNR, lake users
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As soon as the water melts, Jim Becker will have a simple task to do each Thursday. It’s one that helps the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Rice County Water Patrol and the environment.

Being a Lake Level Minnesota volunteer, Becker who lives on Shields Lake in Rice County, takes measurements of the water levels right in front of his property. Shields Lake is one of over 1,000 lakes in Minnesota where DNR Waters maintains gages.

Shields Lake is one of over 1,000 lakes in the Minnesota DNR Lake Level program, which tracks the lake levels on a weekly basis. (Photo courtesy of Jim Becker)

While the process doesn’t take long for volunteers like Becker, the weekly recording provides valuable data to shore owners and lake users and helps prepare for possible floods and droughts.

As treasurer of the Shields Lake Association, Becker began volunteering for Lake Level Minnesota last May. The previous volunteer for Shields Lake had moved away, so Becker stepped in just before DNR Waters set up the monitoring sticks.

DNR Waters didn’t install the lake gages until late May last year, because the pandemic delayed the process. This year, Becker expects to see the gage outside his property sticking out above the water much sooner after the ice completely melts.

“The marker at the [DNR] landing is based on the feet above sea level,” Becker said. “The gage I have is just in feet, so they take the measurements I give them and translate it to how many feet above sea level they have.”

When he began recording the water levels of Shields Lake, Jim Becker received this record documenting levels dating back to 1937, when the project began on Shields Lake. (Image courtesy of Jim Becker)

Becker did his lake level readings in the morning, when the lake was the calmest. He recorded the levels every Thursday until Nov. 5, when the levels were 1,069 feet above sea level.

Reasons for measuring the lake levels are threefold, according to Becker. The Rice County Water Patrol uses the data to decide when to put up the “No Wake Zone” signs. Becker explained that Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn knows the appropriate level for installing the signs, which tell boaters they’re restricted from running on full power.

Measuring lake levels also helps assess if a dam might be blocked.

On Shields Lake in particular, Becker noted a big problem with bogs — wetlands that have accumulated plant debris. Before he became a Lake Level volunteer, he recalls a 3-acre bog that broke into smaller pieces and blocked the dam outlet to the Cannon River watershed. Beginning in July 2019, Becker and other Shields Lake Association members got together to unblock the dam, as permitted by the DNR.

This drone shot captures Shields Lake Association members working to move a 3-acre bog a couple of years ago. (Photo courtesy of Jim Becker)

“Right now I’m pretty sure the bogs won’t be moving around as much this year,” Becker said. “Some of them do damage to the docks, and it can be extensive. The 3-acre one was unusual, but if you think about just 1 acre, that can do a lot of damage.”

A couple of years ago, Becker also recalls lake levels getting too high and killing trees along the shoreline. But by keeping an eye on the water levels, he said preventative measures can be taken to prevent erosion.

The DNR posts lake levels online, so residents can look up the data and use it to make decisions about boating.

Todd Piepho, hydrologist for Minnesota South Region 4, Sakatah East, said the DNR LakeFinder feature shows data for many decades, in some cases.

“What it really is nice for is looking at the historical observations of the lake,” Piepho said. “ … Some people might have questions as to why the water is so high, and the history might show we’re just on the uptick of the curve and we’ve been here before.”

Piepho pointed out that tracking lake levels shows how closely lakes tie into precipitation. For the most part, he said the water surface elevation corresponds with the rainfall and gives reasons for shore ordinances and other regulations.

For lakes that Piepho’s responsible for — those in Dodge, Mower, Rice and Steele counties — he said Lake Level volunteers are meeting the mark.

“As of now we’re looking pretty good [for volunteers],” he said. “The majority of the lakes are covered.”

Friends focused on accessibility as library plaza project delayed
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After years of anticipation, the Friends of the Buckham Memorial Library have finally achieved its long-held dream of being able to offer a welcoming and inviting community gathering space outside their front door.

Following a vision laid out by architects Perkins+Will, a planned gathering space will accentuate the building’s historic charm with shrubs and trees, offering a quiet space for reading, learning or catching up with old friends after the pandemic.

In the long term, the space could accommodate the growing number of Faribault residents expected to live downtown. The project is designed to fit hand in glove with the city’s Downtown Master Plan, formulated by same the architects.

The community will have to wait a little while longer to celebrate its new gathering space, however. Initially scheduled for May, the plaza’s grand opening has been pushed back to Aug. 22.

Key is the discussion as to whether the Friends would offer a simple celebration, perhaps with water and cookies, or go “all in” by organizing a big outdoor event with food and music, dancers and other entertainment that celebrates Faribault’s increasingly rich cultural diversity. The Friends appear strongly inclined to organize a large event to celebrate the long awaited achievement. But to ensure the event’s safety, Friends of the Library Chair Kathy Sandberg said it made sense to postpone it.

“I think it’s because for us it’s pretty obvious the ability to be together, even outside, is still in question,” she said. “The library is not open fully and so we saw it was prudent for us to put that off when more people will be vaccinated and things will in theory be safer. “

No fees

With an eye toward making increasing accessibility for all, the library is discussing dropping late fees on a permanent basis. When the change was first discussed in 2019, it might have seemed like a radical approach. However, the library temporarily adopted a no-fees approach abruptly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the board has continued to research and consider the possibility of adopting it on a permanent basis.

Library Director Delane James said that libraries which have embraced the no-fees approach haven’t seen significantly more users fail to return books. To ensure it doesn’t become a problem, the library would eventually charge users for the cost of their non-returned item.

“If people don’t bring the books back, they’re often embarrassed to come and use the library again,” she said.

Friends Vice Chair Jayne Spooner said that libraries in the Twin Cities have adopted the approach already. She described it as a “user friendly” approach that would encourage more residents, especially those from lower incomes, to use the library.

“I’m just as guilty of bringing stuff back, and while I don’t mind paying the fee, I can easily do it financially,” she said. “With the pandemic, a lot of people are facing financial constraints.”

The city of Northfield is considering a similar policy to do away with library late fees.

NRHEG school district hires new superintendent
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New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva students and staff will see a new school leader beginning this summer.

In January, current Superintendent Dale Carlson announced his resignation and the NRHEG School Board has been on the hunt to find someone to fill the soon-to-be-vacant role since then. The school board unanimously approved Monday a contract with Michael Meihak, the current principal at Faribault Middle School. Meihak will take over the role July 1 as Carlson exits at the end of June.

“We are excited to go forward with the district, along with Michael,” said NRHEG School Board Chair Rick Schultz.

Meihak said he is looking forward to getting to know the district, staff and students better. He is hoping to make an impact and be a visible leader within the community. For now he is staying in communication with the district and working with the administrative team, district office personnel and school board to make the transition.

“Obviously I still have my duties and responsibilities, first and foremost to Faribault Public Schools, but whenever possible and whenever needed I’ll partake and participate in a transition and the learning process with NRHEG district,” Meihak said.

The Faribault school district is currently accepting applications for the principal position Meihak will be vacating, with the hopes of filling the position sometime in April, according to Meihak.

This will be Meihak’s first time as a superintendent. He has 28 years of education experience, with 21 of those years as a school administrator. He spent 19 years at the Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton schools, with seven years as a classroom teacher and 12 in administration. He has been the Faribault Middle School principal for seven years. He also spent a year with the Hawaii Department of Education and two years as a secondary principal at Yellow Medicine East School District.

His experience as a lifelong educator is what drew the NRHEG School Board to select Meihak for the demanding role.

“We think some of that experience is going to play well with his time here at NRHEG,” Schultz said.

The board members see Meihak as an approachable, level-headed and team oriented individual, according to Schultz. Meihak clearly understands the responsibilities of being a superintendent, but also appreciates building up other leaders throughout the district in a team approach.

“Gathering people together along with students, staff and community, bringing them together really seemed to be an area that he will thrive in,” Schultz said.

Schultz says Meihak appears to be a calm leader willing to do the research necessary for the position and make the tough decisions that come along with the position.

The board worked with South Central Service Cooperative to facilitate the candidate search process. A stakeholder engagement survey was created on the district website asking community members, staff and students to participate to collect information for the selection process. Survey questions asked about the district’s strengths, challenges and ideal skills for a superintendent.

Next, a round of recommended candidates, approved by the school board, moved into the first interview phase. Candidates were interviewed by the board and the Community Committee, a group of teachers, principles and community members. Two finalists were selected and moved onto a second interview, followed by the board’s decision March 10, followed by contract negotiations.