Madelia, the "Pheasant Capital of Minnesota," recently bagged several benefits for its community with a habitat project. By converting old sewage treatment ponds to hunting grounds, it saved more than $1 million than if doing the typical cleanup. It also landed the Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener for 2013. And it created access for non-traditional hunters such as those using wheelchairs.
“In our opinion it was the most cost-effective way to handle the situation. And it’s good wildlife habitat. It was a win-win we felt, for everybody, for the community, for the taxpayers, for the wildlife,” said Jim Pettersen, mayor of Madelia from 2003-2010.
Madelia lies along the Watonwan River in south-central Minnesota. In 1993, the town upgraded its wastewater treatment system to accommodate its growth. While this was good for the river and downstream waters, it left three ponds, covering more than 33 acres, in need of cleanup. This is where biosolids — fecal matter and other material — settled out of wastewater. Because of the potential to pollute streams and lakes, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requires the biosolids to be removed and disposed of appropriately.
The small town was facing a big price tag of $2-plus million to clean out the ponds the typical way, a process called “decommissioning.” That would have meant hiring a certified consultant to oversee removal and disposal of water and biosolids from the site.
Instead, Madelia pumped the water through its wastewater system for treatment. It hired a local firm to windrow the pond bottoms to allow the biosolids to dry. The firm also cut holes in the berms to allow water to flow from the higher pond to the lower two. Once dry, the biosolids were hauled out and applied to cropland according to agronomic recommendations and government rules. Last fall, Madelia seeded the ponds with habitat foliage that has grown extremely well. The net cost of the whole project was $850,000 and funded through city wastewater treatment fees.
“So in the process of decommissioning these ponds we wanted to find something that would be of use to the community. We wanted something to promote habitat, wildlife, provide a place for our community and our region to go to. And try to use an asset we had in more than in the typical way. We are the Pheasant Capital of Minnesota, so it was an easy fit for us,” said City Administrator, Dan Madsen. "About six months ago, we began working with Wounded Warriors, a nonprofit group that helps provide hunting and outdoor recreation for disabled veterans in our state. They really do amazing work."
This season, the town will really hit the target with hosting the Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. Non-traditional hunters from the Wounded Warriors program are going to be a part of the opener and will be hunting the repurposed ponds this year.
“It’s a safe place to learn to hunt because it’s a contained area with wide open viewing. And if somebody has a handicap or disability, it’s easy to navigate the terrain,” said Madsen, who is also an avid pheasant hunter.
Looking to the future
He credits the Madelia City Council for thinking long-term with this project.
“It was a challenge for myself and the council at the time to think of other ways to go through a process like this and to save money while doing it. Some of the obvious concerns were: What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t get them decommissioned in time? What type of sanctions or trouble could we be in if this new plan doesn’t turn out? But that council had a lot of foresight…and they figured hiring local and trying to save that type of money outweighed the concerns and unknowns,” Madsen said.
Advice for others
For other communities with ponds to clean up, Madelia recommends taking careful aim.
“My advice would be look at what needs and interests your city has. And see if there’s a way to leverage interest in your community with the land that’s available in a decommissioned pond, whether it’s a walking path or biking path. Or a recreation area or hunting land. It’s a special opportunity to work with land like this for the benefit of the community.” Madsen said.