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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.”


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City reapplies for grant to connect trails

Owatonna is once again throwing its hat in the ring to receive funding that will help connect two of the city’s most popular trails.

During the Owatonna City Council meeting Tuesday, Parks and Recreation Director Jenna Tuma informed the board that there’s an opportunity to apply for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Local Trail Connections Grant to assist in a potential 2022 project.

“This was applied for last [year] for the Kaplan’s Woods parkway trail connection to the 18th Street trail,” Tuma said. “It did not pass – not because of credibility or not scoring high, but because the grant ran out of funding.”

Tuma said they were feeling confident in reapplying for the grant and told the council the connection is needed for both public safety and to accomplish the city’s master plan for parks and trails. A previous user count done by the city shows that the two trails are heavily used and popular, averaging 12 to 17 users per hour. Additionally, there is an average of 725 cars daily traveling by the entrance of the park.

The connection, which would be a 0.16-mile paved trail crossing the railroad tracks and then traverse the edge of Kaplan’s Woods to connect with the 18th Street trail, would also favor requirements for regional designation by the Greater Minnesota Parks and Trails Commission. Tuma said it could also lead to the creation of additional cross-country ski trails in the area.

The new segment of trail will be called Kaplan’s Crossing.

The grant calls for a 25% match of the total project cost, which would total $33,217 from the city that can consist of contracted services. The total project cost is $132,867.

The council unanimously approved the application.

Also during the meeting, the council unanimously approved development agreements for three projects in the city. The agreements included the downtown hotel project, the Pearl Street apartments project and the new Owatonna High School project.


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NRHEG school district hires new superintendent
  • Updated

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.


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Owatonna man faces murder charge after Minneapolis shooting

An Owatonna man who turned himself in to police following a Monday shooting outside a small Minneapolis mall has been charged with murder, according to court documents.

Mubarak Osman Musse, 27, was formally charged Wednesday in Hennepin County court with second-degree murder with intent but not premeditated. The charge stems from a shooting that took place Monday outside the Village Market building in Minneapolis that left one person dead.

The name of the victim has not yet been released to the public.

According to the criminal complaint, Minneapolis police responded to a report of a shooting outside the shopping mall at 3:17 p.m. Monday. When officers arrived at the scene they found an adult male lying on the ground unresponsive with a total of 15 9mm discharged cartridge casings near him. Emergency medical personnel determined the victim was deceased.

In surveillance footage obtained by officers from both inside and outside the building, the victim is scene arguing with the suspect – later identified as Musse – inside the building. Musse can be seen leaving the mall and then coming back inside where he appears to speak to the victim. The men are then shown going outside where a brief physical fight occurs before Musse produces a handgun and shoots the victim several times. Musse continues to shoot the victim while the victim is on the ground and as Musse is walking away, according to the report. At one point, the video shows Musse stopping, walking back to the victim and firing again.

At approximately 4:56 p.m., Musse contacted police and indicated he was involved in the showing and wanted to turn himself in. Musse told police he was in a vehicle and had the gun used in the shooting with him. Officers located Musse, placed him under arrest without incident and located a black Glock 9mm semi-automatic handgun in the vehicle’s glove compartment.

According to court documents, Musse told officers in a Mirandized interview that he began arguing with the victim while waiting in line at a tea vendor inside the mall. Musse admitted during the interview that he shot the victim and identified himself in a still photograph of the shooter taken from surveillance footage of the incident. Musse told officers the handgun recovered from the vehicles he was found in was the gun he used to shoot the victim.

Musse is currently in custody at the Hennepin County Jail and bail without conditions has been set to $1 million. His initial court appearance took place Thursday afternoon and his next appearance has not been scheduled at this time.


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