Gushing at a rate of 5,000 gallons per minute, the huge artesian spring 2 miles west of Lanesboro is an ideal centerpiece for Minnesota’s flagship, coldwater fish hatchery.
Nestled in the heart of bluff country, the facility produces about 710,000 trout per year — rainbows and browns.
But the sparkling, natural flowage at Lanesboro State Fish Hatchery is one of the few things on the site that doesn’t need fixing. When the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) steps before the Legislature in the coming week to explain a sweeping “asset preservation’’ request for $130 million, the hatchery’s $4.5 million fix-it plan could be among the individual projects talked about.
An engineering review last year suggested a whole new hatchery, fish nursery, office, residence and other buildings. And at the Crystal Springs trout hatchery 30 miles to the north, near St. Charles, a similar rescue of DNR facilities is projected to cost $2 million.
“We’re relying on duct tape and baling wire to keep these things running,’’ DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira said.
In the agency’s new 10-year plan to preserve decaying assets of all sorts, hatcheries in Waterville and Park Rapids also are crying for help. The former needs electrical upgrades and the latter requires new plumbing.
Pereira said the disrepairs have grown from years of running on shoestring budgets. Over the past 15 years, DNR Fisheries Division has cut 80 of its once 350 full-time jobs. A lot of facilities upgrades and new programs were put on hold during that time too, he said.
The retrenchments included the shutdown last year of the French River Hatchery on the North Shore. The facility had high operating costs and needed $8 million in capital investment.
To take care of its remaining hatcheries (15 total) and two tree nurseries over the next 10 years, the agency needs $4.57 million per year in new funds.
“The hatchery program has been running with minimal funding,’’ Pereira said.
Pat Schmidt, the recently retired manager of the Lanesboro hatchery, said the I-beams holding up the fish nursery ceiling have rusted through. The facility has mold problems and also needs a proper ventilation tower to get rid of radon gas that arrives with intake water. The last major repairs to the facility — which provides trout for 67 streams and 101 lakes across the state — were made in 1977.
Schmidt said the hatchery is a popular tourist destination and Lanesboro residents are proud of it, but the lack of upgrades is probably related to the facility’s trout heritage.
“Trout kind of take the back seat. That’s been part of the reason,’’ Schmidt said. “You have to cater to walleyes first of all because that’s the most important fishery in the state.’’
Pereira said the DNR spends $7.3 million a year on fish stocking, with $3.7 million devoted to supplementing walleye populations. Besides nurturing trout, including brook trout and lake trout, the agency also rears muskies, catfish and other species.
Paula Phelps, the DNR’s acting coldwater fish production supervisor, said the agency is behind on its hatchery defenses against harmful bacteria. In 2015, for example, floodwaters infected the Crystal Springs hatchery with a pathogen that caused a shutdown and halted stocking. The proposed overhaul of the facility would give it protection against more flooding. The building also has an extremely leaky roof and a mouse infestation.
The Legislature last year approved fee increases sought by the DNR to boost its core Game and Fish Fund. So some legislators may question why the agency — backed by Gov. Mark Dayton — has come forward so soon with a big-ticket capital improvements plan.
But Pereira said the fee increases — including some that kick in this year — won’t overcome deficits created over many years when hunting and fishing licenses, along with state park permits and other fees, remained frozen.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and one of the agency’s budget officers, Kent Lokkesmoe, are prepared to discuss the overall $130 million request Tuesday in the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee headed by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.
Ingebrigtsen said it’s too early to say how the DNR will fare in the midst of $4 billion worth of other funding requests this year. “It’s pretty daunting,’’ he said.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, was quoted recently in the Rochester Post-Bulletin as saying he expects the Lanesboro hatchery proposal to get strong legislative support. He’s a pivotal player in the decisionmaking because it’s a bonding year and he heads the Senate Capital Investment Committee.
“I hope that Senjem will give whatever is needed to support the DNR’s fish hatcheries,’’ said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. “They support a recreational fishing industry by raising and stocking approximately 2.2 million fish and support over 43,000 fishing-related jobs.’’