Canoeists on the Minnesota River (copy)

Mankato is $1.3 million closer to its goal of creating a large wetland that aims, in part, to improve water quality in the Minnesota River.

MANKATO — An ambitious plan to restore nearly 100 acres of drained wetland and plowed-under prairie on Mankato’s southeast side has received a $1.3 million boost from the state of Minnesota.

The Southeast Water Quality Project aims to recreate that pre-settlement landscape to slow down and filter water that drains from surrounding farmland, runs through city ravines and, ultimately, empties into the Minnesota River.

The grant from the Lessard-Sams Commission will allow the city to purchase farmland this year for conversion, starting as soon as next year, to marsh and prairie upland. The commission helps distribute a portion of statewide sales tax proceeds dedicated toward projects aimed at cleaning up lakes and rivers, creating wildlife habitat and providing more resources for outdoor recreation.

The targeted wetland restoration is currently just outside Mankato’s southern city limits between Monks Avenue and Pohl Road.

The entire project is expected to cost nearly $7 million, but the $1.3 million from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment fund is a good start, said Deputy City Manager Alison Zelms. The city will apply for more money from the fund in the upcoming round of grants and is still hoping a state bonding bill will make a substantial contribution if legislation is passed during an expected special session of the Minnesota Legislature this summer.

“You kind of phase your way through getting to your final goal for your project,” Zelms saidy.

If dollars continue to flow and the project is fully implemented, it will be a substantial addition to the cache of local natural resources — approaching the size of the entire Sibley Park complex. The wetland and surrounding prairie won’t have park amenities, but it will be open to the public for hunting, birding and nature walks.

“It’s pretty basic,” Zelms said of any planned improvements. “It would be more unimproved access where you could experience that wildlife.”

While public access to nature and creation of wildlife habitat are attractive features for the Lessard-Sams Commission, the city’s interest is focused on water quality. Drainage from wide swaths of land outside city limits brings torrents of water into city ravines during the spring snowmelt and after heavy rains.

That exacerbates erosion in the ravines, has caused occasional flooding in neighborhoods, carries sediment and accompanying pollutants to Indian Creek on Mankato’s southwest side near Mount Kato, and eventually adds contaminants to the already polluted Minnesota River.

Restoration of the wetland will store water, allow silt to filter out, slow the water flowing through ravines and result in less nitrogen and other pollutants in the river. City Manager Pat Hentges said the wetland might even attract some of the geese that currently congregate in the city.

“It would be an area where you could have a sanctuary for geese and ducks and relieve the city area,” Hentges said.

Hentges is hopeful that two of the larger landowners in the area will be interested in a sale, possibly involving a land swap that would allow them to gain access to other nearby land. The project would be the largest wetland creation effort in the area since Blue Earth County restored Indian Lake, a marshy body of water near Mount Kato that had been drained and farmed since the 1920s. The marsh, which came back into existence in 1997, is 50 acres, and is surrounded by 70 acres of mostly forested upland.

The city’s proposed wetland will be nearly as large at 42 acres, and the application to the Lessard-Sams Commission suggests that at least 100 acres of wetland and prairie upland is planned. Hentges said the initial land purchase will likely total 70 to 80 acres.

The project was discussed Thursday during a Mankato-Blue Earth County Intergovernmental Committee meeting, partly because the project impacts county drainage ditches and partly because a portion of the proposed land is under early consideration as the location of a new county highway/public works center.

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