Water Project Replaces Aging Water Infrastructure for Small Minnesota Town Known for Walleye and Musky Fishing

June 20, 2022

Walker, Minnesota – For the small town of Walker, Minnesota, located on Leech Lake, water quality is serious business. As one of Minnesota’s largest inland lakes, Leech Lake is a world-class fishing destination known for its incredible walleye population and monster muskies, so clean water is essential for Walker’s ability to attract hard-core anglers and tourists from across the Upper Midwest.

The Walker North Side Water Project came to life in 2017 when Kris Carlson, Ulteig Associate Director of Civil Services and Walker’s City Engineer, wrote a report in which he noted that much of downtown Walker’s water and sewage utilities were more than 50 years old.

“The wastewater collection system in this part of Walker was vitrified clay piping, which is an old, antiquated material. The water distribution system was built with four-inch cast iron mains, which no longer meet city code and don’t allow for strong enough water pressure to fight fires,” Carlson said. “The system posed a number of immediate problems for the city such as potential water leakage, safety and environmental concerns. All of it needed to be replaced.”

In designing the project, the Ulteig water team anticipated a two-year construction process to replace aging infrastructure in the city’s main business district. Based on Carlson’s report, the Ulteig water team, working with the City of Walker, began planning and design in 2017 with construction anticipated to begin during the summer construction season of 2020.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

Instead of shelving the project, the City of Walker took advantage of the situation – moving forward on the project and completing the entire project in just one year.

Phasing-in a City-Wide Construction Plan

“A significant portion of the sewer that was replaced included the city’s main trunk sewer line that conveys nearly all of the city’s wastewater and flows to the main lift station in the city park. It was a balance of correcting some of these old errors and outfitting the entire system with standardized piping,” Carlson said.

The Ulteig team and our city partners also faced a tedious construction planning process, as half of the project would be carried out in the city’s downtown area.

“Anyone who has been to Walker knows it is a huge tourist community,” Carlson said. “Phasing in different stages of construction to be minimally disruptive to the citizens, tourists and businesses of downtown – especially during the summertime — that was our most pressing challenge.”

In the summer months, the town of nearly 1,000 residents swells in size, with thousands of tourists and summer residents.

The project plan also affected residential water consumption and citizen safety.

“By replacing aging infrastructure, our intent was to improve the efficiency of the water flow throughout the town, which meant the city would lose less water and have fewer leakage issues. The project would also keep ground water filtration system sanitary because there’s no need to pump and treat any possible contamination,” Carlson said.

Building with an Eye Toward the Future

Replacing the town’s outdated water pipes was the primary focus of the project. But, with an eye on the future, the Ulteig team thought it would also be important to consider the growth of the town in the years to come. As such, the Ulteig water team took a comprehensive approach to the project. Other key elements of the project included:

  • Increasing Water Flow — Replacing existing four-inch pipes with eight-inch pipes to increase water flow.
  • Eliminating Lake Run-off — Renovating Walker’s two largest parking lots where runoff goes directly into Leech Lake. “If the lots were left as is, they would allow storm sewer water to discharge into the lake,” Carlson said. “We were already addressing local water treatment processes in Walker, and we partnered with the local Watershed District to add water quality structures to reduce runoff and improve the quality of stormwater discharge.”
  • Culvert Replacement — Constructing a 25-foot-deep culvert replacement in Lake May Creek. Lake May is a small lake located on the southwest side of Walker. “We replaced the old 48-inch circular pipe with a new 72-inch equivalent arch pipe with improved fish passage features, so white sucker, a popular bait fish, can migrate through the creek into Leech Lake,” Carlson said. “Those were a couple of ancillary benefits that we were able to provide outside of our standard rehabilitating the water sewer. These additions add to the quality of life of Walker and Leech Lake, which I think are important.”
The Importance of a Shovel-Ready Project

Asked about what other towns similar to Walker’s size could learn from this project, Carlson stressed the importance of planning ahead and building plans that are shovel ready.

In the case of the Walker water project, having a plan and funding in place allowed the town to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and complete the project in half the time it would normally take – with less disruption to residents and local businesses.

“When COVID-19 hit, we threw out our original phasing plan and ended up completely revising how we were going to approach the project to get it done,” Carlson said. “We tried to optimize the time that Minnesota’s governor initiated various emergency orders to stop the spread of the virus. When everybody had to shut down – including local businesses — we looked at that as an opportunity to get the bulk of our work done in what would normally be one of the busiest times of the year for Walker – as anglers started to come up to Leech Lake to fish.”

Ulteig and our project partners shifted their focus to the downtown area and received authorization to move forward with plans.

“We broke ground in June 2020 and while local businesses were not happy with the timing, the project was less impactful to them overall because of the pandemic,” said Carlson.

Summing up the project timeline in one word, Carlson says ‘agility’ is the best word to use, although he is equally proud that the Walker North Side Water Project came in well under its $4 million dollar budget.

“We took a two-year project that we had designed and were ready to implement and completed it in basically one year,” Carlson said. “We changed our approaches; heading back to the drawing board in a time of constant unknowns. That mindset helped us keep evolving our plans and be okay with finding new solutions.”

For Midwestern communities deciding whether they should replace or update their water systems, Carlson’s recommendation is: “Don’t wait anymore.”

“The longer you wait, the more expensive it gets and the more exposure you have to a failure, and you don’t want to pay for repair and rehab on top of the investment,” said Carlson, citing some water projects in other local communities.  “In a couple of the communities, we’ve had projects that could have been done for pennies on the dollar in the early 2000s compared to what they are today, and they kick themselves for those missed opportunities.”

In Minnesota’s lake communities that rely on tourism, fishing and lakefront property where water is the core of their identity, Carlson said water and sewage system investment is worth it to protect that natural resource.

“If you have a failing wastewater system and you’re that close to the lake, it’s getting into the lake. On the water treatment side, it’s being water efficient. There’s only so much water in the world. We reuse it and reuse it and reuse it. I think that’s the key – it’s to protect your assets by having functioning equipment,” Carlson said.

Carlson’s Childhood Connection to Leech Lake

The Walker North Side Water Project will remain at the forefront of Carlson’s memory for years to come, especially because Carlson grew up just east of Walker in Longville, Minnesota, and recalls spending much of his childhood on the water of Leech Lake.

“Leech Lake is the reason people come to Walker,” Carlson said. “This is the crown jewel of Cass County. My first job at 12 years old was at a resort on the lake.”

An avid fisherman, Carlson, who works from Ulteig’s Detroit Lakes office, still frequents Leech Lake in the summer and understands that water quality is key to its ecological health. In a separate project, Ulteig is looking to partner again with the local Watershed District and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to introduce stormwater treatment systems to mitigate stormwater run-off and reduce the amount of chemicals entering the lake.

“A project like this may not make the most impactful difference right away,” Carlson said. “But over time everything we do helps, especially when it comes to removing phosphorus, nitrogen and floatable solids such as pop bottles and other garbage from the water.”

Carlson’s Walker North Side Water Project Reflections

“The completion of the project resulted in the first assessment hearing I’ve gone to where people showed up to share compliments on the project,” Carlson said. “Cooperation between businesses and residents and our partners throughout this process was the only way we could make it work.”

Carlson credited working with a great team and the contractor as another reason the project exceeded expectations and lapped deadlines.

“Everyone on the job was focused on being efficient in our work and considerate of the stakeholders around us,” Carlson said. “Walker needed this infrastructure and I’m glad we could update it quickly, under budget and with the support of the community.”

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