Location: Onamia, MN
Client: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
After a long day of hunting without a single hit, a man returned to camp hungry and tired, only to find a simmering pot of water filled with the best soup he had ever tasted. This is the origin story told by Native Americans describing the first discovery of wild rice, or Manoomin, a thousand years ago. The grain has long been
revered by tribes for its cultural significance of community, ceremony, and nutrition. A lake brimming with this “food that grows in water” is thought to be fertile ground for game that are also drawn to the sustenance.
Near Onamia, MN, Lake Ogechie was once one of these lakes, where the dip of a canoe paddle and threshing using ricing sticks could unearth bountiful wild rice. As years went by, rice faded away as man-made elements appeared. Logging camps on the adjacent Rum River and a dam constructed in 1933 altered historic water levels and the lake’s production of wild rice. The original dam was built to restore wild rice and waterfowl, though anecdotal information suggests it did the opposite. As of nearly ten years ago, both wild rice and waterfowl were all but gone.
Around this time, HEI teamed with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (MLBO) to study the rice’s vanishing act. HEI strived to understand as much as possible about both the science and the history of the lake. This involved carefully studying the lake’s hydrology and listening to oral history from local observers. Through these efforts,
we were able to conclude that the downstream dam had indeed created lake levels that essentially flooded the possibility for wild rice growth.
Because the structure responsible for altering Lake Ogechie levels was also serving a purpose in maintaining levels of Mille Lacs Lake, restoring the historic levels and increasing plant life was no easy task. HEI and the MLBO worked collaboratively to get the project through the permitting process. This multiyear effort included a feasibility study, environmental assessment worksheet (EAW), permitting, workshops, stakeholder involvement, and a strong commitment to finishing the project.
In 2014, plans for a new dam and modifications to Buckmore Dam emerged, and restoration began to look like a reality. Modifying Buckmore Dam lowers water levels in Lake Ogechie, which will create the shallow levels needed for vigorous native, naturally reproducing wild rice. The new dam maintains water levels in Mille Lacs Lake and allows for fish passage. A traditional blessing from MLBO on a blustery morning in February signaled the beginning of the next chapter—real construction to bring back wild rice!
This restoration effort was only realized through the continued partnership of MLBO, HEI, and the Minnesota DNR. “From concept to completion, Houston Engineering has been with us all the way,” stated Perry Bunting, the Environmental Programs Manager for MLBO; “they have been a one-stop shop that has taken our vision and made it a reality. From project feasibility to the end of construction, Houston had the know-how to bring our project to fruition. This restoration effort has been a 10-plus year marathon with many different hurdles encountered along the way; most people probably can’t appreciate all the meetings, permits, and coordination efforts we’ve had to endure. Without Houston’s capabilities, expertise, and experience leading us along, I know we wouldn’t be where we are at today. The team of Mark Deutschman, Greg Bowles, and Dan Bogart have been such an integral part of this project’s overall success that I can’t thank them enough.”
Late in the summer of 2015, HEI’s original team visited the constructed dam, which revealed spawning suckers and clear shallow water. Evidence that, only months into the new dam’s life, wildlife is returning to the site and restoration is underway. In years to come, wild rice production is expected to grow and return as a bountiful resource for the Ojibwe of Minnesota.
"Without Houston’s capabilities, expertise, and experience leading us along, I know we wouldn’t be where we are at today."
Recreation on Lake Ogechie and its neighboring waters will continue to be savored. After observing the completed project, the same partners who began the project a decade ago happily walked away from the restored area as content as the man who surprisingly found his pot full of Manoomin.
Update - September 2016
Below are photos of wild rice growing in Lake Ogechie from August 2016. It's a powerful feeling seeing this project come full circle after 10 years in the making. Special thanks to Mille Lacs Band for the photos.