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Twelfth-grader DJ Lambert (left), eighth-grader Austin Henning and eighth-grader Jaden Hennings push the island out to its destination on Sunset Bay. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / Daily Globe)

4-H’ers build, install man-made islands

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, most people were comfortably tucked in their homes. Going outside was not a popular suggestion.

But there was work to be done, rain or shine — 15 Nobles County 4-H members spent the dreadful morning installing BioHaven floating islands in Worthington’s Sunset Bay, in a collaboration with the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District (OOWD).

The islands are meant to improve water quality, as plants filter out excess nutrients in the water and  — at the same time  — benefit the ecosystem by providing a rich food source for fish.

Before putting islands on the water, the volunteers, grades six and up, had to put the structures together first. That meant planting the plants into the foam-like plastic structure, which is made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate from soda and water bottles

The 4-H’ers also installed fencing to help keep animals such as geese off of the islands, which have been known to wreak havoc on the man-made wetlands.

Once the first island was finished, it was time to put it in the water. OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl commanded the crew as they readied the island for its maiden voyage.

Livdahl yelled out directions, slightly muted by rain, in a scene that looked right out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“Start hooking up the anchor on the dock itself — don’t drop my tools in the water, because if you lose them we’re out of luck!” said Livdahl.

The islands needed to be hooked up to anchors, which in this case were buckets full of cement. Once they were anchored, the crew would have to physically push the more than 400 pounds of island from the dock to the designated area in the bay.

“The water’s warm!” said a visibly chilly 12th-grader DJ Lambert. “Just kidding, it definitely isn’t.”

Lambert led the three-man crew of eighth-graders Jaden Hennings and Austin Henning as they shoved the island toward the destination, wading waist-high into the near-freezing water.

The island was afloat and in the right position. The mission was complete. Seventh-grader Riley Widboom sat down on an Olson Campground bench to empty out his rain boots, which were completely filled with water.

All was well. Except, there were still two more islands to go.

“We gotta do it again,” said seventh-grader Tanner Hennings.

Nonetheless, the three islands were installed, making it a total of 15 in Sunset Bay. The newly installed islands might not look like much now, but as the plants grow, they will start to resemble natural wetland islands.

The plants will feed on excess nutrients in the water such as nitrogen and phosphorus, thus improving water quality. As the plants grow roots and start to absorb the nutrients, they will develop a bacterial biofilm, which fish can then feed off of.

Studies show the islands can remove as much as 87 percent of nitrogen and 91 percent of phosphorus, depending on the conditions. They also work to get rid of total suspended solids, as well as minerals such as zinc and copper.

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