Well over 200 people gathered amid a festive flood of blue and white balloons in June to launch the Lake Preservation Association's "Save the Lake" campaign.
Above the tabletops, there was enthusiastic applause for a string of speakers from local officials to Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Vonk, and pens scratching out some $15,000 in new pledges to help expand dredging of the lake.
Below the tables, it was typical Storm Lake evening wear - a sea of sandals and topsider shoes, most looking like they've seen some water and some sand.
In fact, it is impossible to separate the people from their natural resource, Storm Lake Mayor Jon Kruse told the standing-room-only crowd at the renovated Storm Lake Golf Clubhouse, framed by a view of the white cap-foamed lake through the picture windows.
"When we talk about Storm Lake, it is a lake, it is a community. It is a way of life and a quality of life."
The LPA's task has become clear, its officials said. It must raise $3.5 million total - starting with a goal of $1.875 million this year. Those funds will allow dredging to continue as a local project for at least five years, in hopes of dredging at least half the lake area to an average depth of 13 feet.
In its formative stages, the campaign already has a head of steam. With some $300,000 in local pledges in hand, and $600,000 commitments from the City of Storm Lake and Buena Vista County, the campaign has also received $30,000 plus ongoing sales tax revenues from the City of Lakeside, and a wave of new LPA memberships from the public piling up to the $6,000 mark in recent days alone.
"You are the model," DNR Director Jeff Vonk told the crowd, which included several state and regional environmental officials, four members of the Iowa Legislature and a Who's Who of community leaders.
He said that Storm Lake's ability to form a cooperative bond among local governments and to obtain its own volunteerism and funding mean that the future dredging of Storm Lake will be a people's project, not a DNR project.
"The state's responsibility is not to do for you, but to help you to do for yourself," he said.
Having seen the Storm Lake enthusiasm, he now holds that up as an example in all other communities he visits interested in major environmental projects, Vonk said. In the future, communities will be expected to play their own leadership roles to get such projects started, he said, adding that if other towns become active partners in lake restoration to the level Storm Lake has done, the state could get 12-15 major projects done a year, as opposed to few or none.
Vonk jokingly recalled his first visit to the city as DNR director last year, and a boat ride he was offered by lake preservation supporters. "It was real friendly until we got out to the middle of the lake. I had to be encouraging about the project. If I wasn't, I didn't think I was going to get back."
He noted that, when contacted by Storm Lakers in the months to follow, he had to admit that with the state budget in trouble, there was little money available, and a lot of other towns standing in line for it.
But the reaction was not typical, he added. The Storm Lake representatives didn't get frustrated or angry at the budget situation, but adopted a "What can we do?" attitude. They also went to work to get legislators on their side.
"I see Storm Lake needs about a $350,000 commitment from the state for the next year to continue this project. Lo and behold, there suddenly was $350,000 that appeared in the budget for the state lake restoration fund when there had been zero a week before... there were also four conditions put on the use of the money," Vonk said. "While they didn't mention Storm Lake by name, it would be pretty hard for me to spend that money anywhere else given the conditions.
"What a difference a year makes... You have a precious resource and you've really taken some bold steps to protect it," Vonk said.
The political efforts will continue. Gary Lalone of the LPA fundraising committee said that the group has retained a lobbyist in Des Moines, and plans to make targeted political campaign donations. "I'm not saying that's how to get the money, but it isn't going to hurt," he said.
The evening started with a surprise honor for Dr. T.E. Shea of Storm Lake, a plaque recognizing him as one of the founders of the Lake Preservation movement in Storm Lake more than a decade ago.
LPA Chairman Steve Roth said that the efforts have come a long way over the years, especially picking up momentum in the last couple of months as the city and the county have joined in the plan to continue dredging on a local basis in 2003 and beyond.
"The sky, or in our case, the bottom of the lake, is the limit," he smiled.
Roth noted that volunteers are needed to step forward and serve on the LPA board, its various committees and as fundraisers. "All aboard," he said.
LPA fundraiser Phil Redenbaugh said that his committee has already been "beating the bushes" and distributing the message that the lake is a countywide treasure. Plans are to inform and hope to involve cities such as Alta, Newell and Albert City in the process.
Storm Lake Mayor Kruse said that he was pleased with the turnout that packed the clubhouse building. He noted that the lake has been a key element of the community since long before anyone in the room was born, and that it will be long after they all are gone. "But if we don't take care of it, the quality of life impact will not be as strong," he warned.
He commended the LPA for taking the leadership role in preserving the lake, and thanked all those who are playing any part in the process. "There are a lot of little pieces in the puzzle," he said.
The city has purchased an optional dredge spoil site and pledged funds to the project, with the challenge that Buena Vista County agree to buy a dredge for local use. The county quickly agreed to the investment.
Buena Vista County Supervisor Jim Gustafson said the partnership is one appreciated by both sides. In fact, he noted that he and Kruse serve together on the Trumpeter Swan Restoration committee, for which the lake plays a critical future role.
"I want to thank the mayor and the city council for taking the initiative... we also need to thank the people down in the trenches who do the work. If the people out in the neighborhoods care, it will get done," Gustafson said.
He recalled his own grandfather, an early road builder in Buena Vista County, who would take him fishing on the lake as a child. Everyone in the county benefits from the lake, and there is no Storm Lake/rural split on the issue, he claimed.
Gustafson brought a massive mounted catfish to the event, the old fish showing scars from many battles. The fish was caught by a colorful Storm Lake character known as "Catfish Charlie" (Chuck Underberg) in 1978, after a previous round of dredging. Weighing in at nearly 20 pounds, it caught plenty of attention in the room. The fish took 20 minutes to land, and broke the net Underberg and Gustafson were using that day. Catfish Charlie kept him in his bathtub for a while.
"There are things in your life that effect you, things you remember. It is the lake's turn," Gustafson said.
The LPA is thinking in the long term, Lalone added.
Following direction from Vonk a year ago, the group has formed a plan that not only addresses dredging, but the future of the watershed, the islands, trails for the lake area and the Little Storm Lake wetland area.
"People will want to come to work here, to play here, to go to school here and to come back and visit here" as the project is completed, he said.
He recalled vacationing in St. Thomas, and finding himself chatting with a man who had visited Storm Lake. The man praised the lake not only for its beauty, but for the fact that it is unparalleled for its public access, ringed with parkland that allows open views and recreational access to all.
In fact, more than 30 percent of the lakeshore is public land, which helps to inspire more than 170,000 recreational uses of the lake area per year.
While the LPA faces a challenge to raise about $100,000 per year for the next five years, the early momentum of the project has already basically ensured that the program can move forward for next year, Lalone announced, to a strong round of applause.
The pubic can view the entire plan at the LPA's website, stormlake.org/savethelake.