THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Digging in heels on dredging

Thursday, March 8, 2001

Every junior engineer at the DNR knows it, every state legislator knows it, and every fisherman and lakefront stroller knows it. Storm Lake would best benefit from an ongoing effort to dredge the lake, prevent siltation and work on the environmental aspects of the watershed.

But the DNR is putting it in no uncertain terms. The lake will get its 80-acre area in the west bulb dredged, a small fraction of the lake area, and there's no sense in asking for more, because the agency is ready to move on.

It seems that any additional effort at this point would take a rare act of the legislature, an act of Congress, perhaps a thunderbolt from the heavens.

So, let's take a look back at the DNR's own feasibility study for the project, now almost seven years old.

According to the thick study, if something considerable is not done to improve Storm Lake, it will continue to suffer from turbidity (the stirring of sediment from the bottom that makes the lake so cloudy), it will be at "a great risk" of losing its fish population, and recreational activity such as swimming will be hampered.

The DNR noted that Iowa lakes with a mean depth of at least four meters have the highest water quality levels. If Storm Lake were dredged to that depth overall, it might match West Okoboji in clarity, the study said. That would take 25 times the dredging we are currently slated for, and would require spoil soil to be processed and trucked away since there is no site locally that would hold it. Cost was figured at $53 million in 1994 dollars.

A more limited dredging, not unlike what is planned now, was also studied. Removing a million cubic yards of spoil from a small area of the lake, at a cost of a few million, would in the DNR's own words, "not be significant enough to exhibit expected water quality changes that are usually associated with lake dredging."

Such a limited project will not reduce turbidity, in-lake nutrient-cycling, dilution of incoming pollutants, or increased oxygen-holding. "Also, the results of a dredging project of this magnitude would be only short term," the report says. In the 155-acre dredging done in the 1960s, areas had filled back in by up to 77 percent within 21 years. It took over 30 years for Storm Lake to work its way back to the top of the DNR priority list for dredging.

A total of eight alternatives were looked at in that original 1994 study, and the truth is that the plan that has finally resulted was not formed because it is best for the lake's future, but because it is the best that can be done with the particular funds that were appropriated. If it seems like a backward way to plan, it is, but it's reality in a world of limited budgets.

What can we do? Not a lot, it seems. A DNR senior planner tells us that a local fund drive won't change the DNR's plan to leave the lake after the current dredging is done. Even locally obtaining another spoil site will not change the fact that Storm Lake isn't in the appropriation request for the next year, or the current future projects plan.

We can lobby legislators, but while the local lawmakers are supportive, it is unlikely that the full statehouse is going to vote to in essence take funds from other parts of the state to expand a dredging beyond what the DNR has asked for - even if it does make environmental sense, it wouldn't make political sense.

The city or county could obtain a dredge of their own to continue work, but technically the state "owns" the lake - as if you could own a natural lake any more than you can own the sky or the wind - and would have to approve all work through a maze of permits.

Our best bet - and it is perhaps our only bet at this point - would be to push the new administration and our congressmen to see that the Clean Water Act is finally funded as it is meant to be. If the feds meet their responsibility, it could be a new ball game for Storm Lake in the not-so-distant future. Bush claims to support Clean Lakes funding, and we will see.

While we speak of building destination parks, sports arenas and convention centers using tax dollars to boost Iowa tourism, we could mention that the DNR's own studies show that Storm Lake draws over 168,000 visits per year from anglers, swimmers, boaters, hunters, picnickers, campers, skaters, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and so on - and the total is growing. That's tourism, and it was built by a much greater Architect than anything else the state's proposed attractions propose to do. If it is properly cared for, it will serve us well.

It is up to us locally to show an interest in our own natural resource. Not necessarily a tax, but to raise some cash for continuing work to stop silt and pollutants from flowing in, and to make a good watershed and wetlands region even healthier.

And then, we will have a case to take to the legislature and the feds.