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Friday, Oct. 9, 2015

Worry rising as the lake level ebbs

Monday, August 6, 2012

Expanses of sand are emerging where the lake normally laps the shore.
A long, hot dry season has finally taken an inevitable toll on Storm Lake, with water level falling rapidly, while water temperature rises.

Veteran Iowa Department of Natural Resources local officer Julie Sievers says the lake is as low as she has ever seen it - so low, in fact, that the DNR's measurement device at the outlet has been rendered useless.

"We're getting reports of a number of people hitting obstructions while boating - rocks and things that would normally be under plenty of water," she said.

"We now have people having trouble just getting their boats off the lifts, and they are taking their boats off the lake for the season," she said.

Longtime lake watcher Mike Brecher measured a spot he studies off Sleepy Hollow Friday morning at 18 inches deep - a location that at normal is around 43 inches. Residents of the South Side of the lake feel the lake is even lower, as much as 33 inches off normal, which would rival the drought of 2000.

The spring-fed lake held up well for most of the season, but now expanses of sand are stretching out from spots along the shoreline. "Given how dry this summer has been, the level is actually much higher than I would have anticipated," Sievers said.

The DRN is worried about the falling oxygen level and rising water temperatures.

Brecher said his highest temperature measurement recently has been 82 degrees.

According to DNR fisheries expert Ben Wallace, some species of fish can begin to show severe stress at around mid-80s temperatures, especially is oxygen levels are also low. At 90, walleye may begin to die, and by 95 degrees, even warm water fish like channel catfish are in danger.

"We have not seen any fish kills on Storm yet, but as these conditions continue, we are becoming very concerned. We are starting to see fish kills in private ponds and in stretches of streams that have lost a large volume of water," Sievers said.

The dredging on Storm Lake has been a blessing, she adds, leaving deeper, slightly cooler pockets of water for fish this summer, and room to avoid a complete freeze in the winter - "thermal refuge" as the DNR terms it. Usually, Storm Lake is healthier than most in terms of oxygen levels, Wallace says.

The DNR is also worried about algae blooms - Storm Lake has been one of few Iowa lakes not to suffer a major bloom so far in this summer's conditions. Brecher theorizes that this may because the minimal rainfall has not caused a runoff of nutrients to feed algae growth.

On the plus side, a lack of rainfall generally means low bacteria levels.

Lake-watcher Brecher said he is growing more concerns as long-term forecasts call for dry weather to continue into fall and winter.

"What if this continues into next year? We could have a 1950s style drought on our hands."

He well remembers the seasons of 1958-59, when as a young man he said he could walk across the lake, standing in the middle with the water knee level or lower.

Again in 1976-77, a two-year drought cycle brought the lake down an estimated four feet.

In 2000, the year Little Storm Lake dried up completely, lake level dropped 33 inches, but was rapidly recharged when heavy rains fell in October into November.

"I'm not concerned so much with how low the lake is right now, but what it will be like if this situation continues. How low will we be at the end of August? How low could it be by October?" he said.

The DNR is warning boat operators to use extreme caution on Storm Lake due to underwater obstructions that may be exposed in the low water levels.

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