The topic was lake restoration, but in 2009, the small group of lake users living near Rice Lake wasn’t ready to discuss pulling the plug on the 1,000-acre shallow lake straddling the Worth-Winnebago county line.
Fishing was boom or bust (mostly bust), peaking in 2010 with good crappie, perch and walleye fishing. The lake was full. Residents were satisfied.
But an unbiased look at the lake showed little habitat, with turbid green water and less than a dozen people boating and duck hunting on it.
Rice Lake is a big state lake, with little public use. Then opportunity knocked.
The drought of 2012 took hold, dropping Rice Lake’s water level low enough that the citizenry didn’t think the fish would survive the approaching winter. Suddenly, renovation discussion was on the front burner.
In 2013, DNR fisheries biologist Scott Grummer and DNR wildlife biologist T.J. Herrick met with the public, hearing concerns about how long it would take for Rice Lake to refill and when fishing would return. They presented a vision of Rice Lake with clear water, a quality fishery that was attractive to wildlife.
The community was on board.
The fishery had a number of issues, one of which was a significant bullhead population that made establishing aquatic plants difficult. While the lake was dewatered, any remaining water ponds were chemically treated during the winter to make sure no fish remained.
The combination of drought and dewatering the lake allowed vegetation to take root and when Rice Lake began holding water again, the improvement in lake water quality was striking.
Before renovation, you could see down 8 inches in the water. After renovation, it was 5 feet.
Gone were the years of poor water quality and trash from the lake bottom along with it. While the water was low, local volunteers combed the shoreline to remove trash and debris from the exposed lake bed.
As the lake began to refill, fathead minnows returned and in huge numbers. Those minnows were greeted by hungry yellow perch, northern pike, walleye, and largemouth bass that were stocked in 2014. The perch have shown explosive growth reaching nearly seven inches in year one and Grummer expects them to hit 10 inches by fall 2015.
The response by wildlife has been just as impressive.
“We are seeing incredible use of Rice Lake, even by teal,” says Herrick. “Lots of ducks, swans, sandhill cranes, just about anything that uses water is there.”
In the past, there were only two places on the lake to duck hunt. Now, with better water quality and vegetation, “We could have a spot for every duck hunter in north Iowa,” says Rock Bridges of Lake Mills.
He expects to see muskrat huts, goose nesting sites and otters return.
The balancing act for lake managers is to handle interests from homeowners, boaters, anglers and hunters.
The lake has refilled to within 18 inches of crest and the results are impressive. The water changed from green to blue; submergent vegetation has knocked down wave action so much that it’s near impossible to get a white cap even on the windiest day. Waterfowl using the lake shifted from mergansers and shovelers to mallards and teal. Tiger salamanders and thousands of leopard frogs and dragonflies cover the shoreline -- all signs of good water quality.
The final piece of the puzzle is to install a new outlet to allow the DNR to manage the lake water level simulating Mother Nature’s cycles to keep the lake in this healthy state.
The 1,000 acre lake with its 1,000 acre watershed is set up to be a high-quality resource for years to come. “The lake is in its healthiest state right now with all the aquatic plants, invertebrates and the final result has not yet been realized,” Grummer says.
The Rice Lake story, as well as other success stories from 2014, are highlighted in “Working for Clean Water: 2014 Watershed Improvement Successes in Iowa,” a booklet available at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Environment/WaterQuality/WatershedImprovement/WatershedSuccesses.aspx.
For more information on the DNR’s watershed improvement efforts, contact Steve Hopkins at 515-725-8390 or at Stephen.Hopkins@dnr.iowa.gov or visit www.iowadnr.gov/watershed.