RUTHVEN, IOWA – Rolling in to the parking lot on this early July morning, Elk Lake is barely recognizable from the brown, open water shallow lake that it was just two short years ago.
The 260-acre lake three miles south of Ruthven suffered from poor water quality caused by the excessive nutrients in the lake as well as a fish community dominated by common carp, and little to no aquatic vegetation.
“Other lakes with poor water quality will have good water quality at times, but not here,” said Rob Patterson, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Prairie Lakes Wildlife Unit. “You could come here any time during the year and see poor water quality and very few people using the lake.”
But a recent water level management project combined with a well-timed drought has reset the shallow lake.
The project began in fall of 2020 when the DNR installed a small in-lake channel to help with water level management actions that were planned for 2021.
In the spring of 2021 the DNR lowered water levels in the lake 3.5 feet using a portable pump, with the goal of improving the water quality by establishing emergent aquatic plants and renovating the fishery. During the summer of 2021 aquatic plants began to recolonize the near shore areas and by the winter the fishery was reset.
(The Iowa DNR removed non-target tree species and kept the oaks and other mast producers, like hackberries, that opened the shoreline for fishing access and visitor use. Goats are being used to keep the understory in check to allow the grasses and sedges to come in, which will help to prevent erosion and restore the natural transition of the area. Restoration projects were also completed on the upland and wetland sections of the area. Photo courtesy of the Iowa DNR.)
This summer the lake has been allowed to refill and restocking of fish has begun. The lake is in a healthy clear water condition and many wildlife species have started using the lake once again. Fish stocking will continue as water levels rise and will include a diversity of fish species that will likely include northern pike, yellow perch, largemouth bass and bluegills.
The lake has not yet reached crest but will be allowed to refill with any rain fall in the area.
While the in-lake renovation plan has recently been completed, improvements on the surrounding land been underway for a few years.
“The nicest part of Elk Lake is that most of the lakeshore is public,” said Lucas Straw, wildlife technician for the Iowa DNR.
Shoreline management has been mostly completed. The Iowa DNR removed ash trees and other non-target tree species and kept the oaks and other mast producers, like hackberries, that opened the shoreline for fishing access and visitor use.
On the east shore, goats are being used to keep the understory in check to allow the grasses and sedges to come in, which will help to prevent erosion and restore the natural transition of the area. Restoration projects were also completed on the upland and wetland sections of the area.
A 35-acre prairie was restored, a recent acquisition was transitioned from an alfalfa field to prairie. Straw said they have been working on a 15-acre hillside remnant prairie and are seeing native plants, like big bluestem, return, especially after prescribed fire was used.
The 40-acre Wapiti Marsh on the northeast side of the Elk Lake is a potential candidate for restoration, which would only improve its ability to filter nutrients and sediment.
Now that the renovation work is complete and the lake is nearly full, Elk Lake is attracting attention.
“We’ve heard from a lot people who are excited to recreate on Elk Lake once the lake is completely refilled,” Patterson said.
Given its location on the migration route, it will likely be a popular stop over for waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and fall.
“The whole suite of water birds, all of the ducks and shorebirds come through here,” Straw said. “Hopefully the sandhill cranes find Elk Lake. The same goes for trumpeter swans.”
Use by ducks and marsh birds has increased. There’s a bald eagle nest on the northeast side of the lake. Painted turtles are here plus a diverse amphibian community. Blandings turtles are two miles away and could take up residence after the restoration.
– National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided grants for seed, which supplemented the prairie seed to increase seed diversity and volume.
– Elk Lake Wildlife Area covers about 530 acres of upland and wetland habitats.
– The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering on wetland restorations in the area.