Hidden in the cattails at Bald Eagle Lake is a bubbling little problem that shows the often complicated nature of managing water in Washington County.

From an engineering standpoint, the deteriorating 129th Street North outlet in Hugo needs an overhaul but poses no danger of a collapse that would drain torrents of water from the sprawling lake into Clearwater Creek.

"If we're waiting until it's about to fall down or we have to close the road, then we're not doing our job," said Jay Kennedy, Hugo's city engineer.

And even though a state bridge inspection concluded the structure needs replacement, who pays the estimated $480,000 has more to do with governmental relations than engineering.

The outlet falls within Hugo's city boundary, but most of the lake it serves lies in Ramsey County, with portions reaching into Washington and Anoka counties. The lake also borders Lino Lakes and White Bear Township.

"This is much more complicated than water coming out of a pipe," said Becky Petryk, a Hugo City Council member determined to make sure residents don't bear the full cost of replacing it. "We are sitting here with an aging outlet and we want to be proactive in looking for funding sources. We really have to think of regional impacts every time we do one of these projects."

What's at issue is just who owns the outlet -- and who should share the cost of replacing it. Hugo owns the road that runs over it, but tracing original ownership of the outlet and who's responsible for maintaining it has been elusive.

"It's a very old project, probably dating back to the '30s," Petryk said. "The records are sketchy on this."

Hugo has appealed to the Rice Creek Watershed District, but managers want to see a "significant water-quality component" to the project before committing money, said district administrator Phil Belfiori. Although managers have decided their capital improvement projects for the next several years, they haven't ruled out helping Hugo at some point. "We view Hugo as a very important partner," Belfiori said.

In poor condition

On a recent afternoon, as a nearby water skier skipped across the wake of a fast-moving boat, Kennedy peered into one of five rusted culverts beneath the paved roadway. The outlet, which also serves as a bridge over the creek, funnels high water off the lake much as a spillway would function at a dam. Kennedy pointed to water leaking through rocks and concrete that hold the culverts in place as evidence of its poor condition.

"I believe this was always the outlet of the lake," Kennedy said. The outlet stands eight feet tall and spans 28 feet on a natural seam in the landscape that leads to the creek, and the 1963 construction was probably a newer version of an earlier outlet, he said.

Bald Eagle Lake seems to respond normally to cycles of rainfall and drought, said Petryk, who lives on the lake. Its level has remained stable compared with its bigger neighbor, White Bear Lake, which has been losing water.

At the picturesque and wooded Bald Eagle Lake -- reputedly a hideaway for Ma Barker and her gang during the Public Enemy bank robber era of the 1930s, by the way -- the original outlet might have been built to raise the lake level.

That seems to work, Petryk said, because water surges through the culverts only when the lake rises higher than its normal pool.

For Hugo, a city with numerous lakes and streams, solving problems like the Bald Eagle outlet means involving partners from other agencies that have a stake in water management, Petryk said.

"We are a very wet city," she said. "We have looked at many other areas where roads have been flooded, ditches have to be improved. We have a lot of water, a high water table, many streams and lakes. A lot of things done in the past are now aging."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037, Twitter: @stribgiles