Clear growth trend

We happened across a chart of decennial population counts by the US Census Bureau dating back to the late 1800s. Storm Lake has grown in population every decade but for the decade of 1980 to 1990, when The City Beautiful’s population dropped by half a percentage point to 8,769. Recall that this decade included the Farm Crisis and the reopening of the former Hygrade plant as IBP’s first pork processing facility. The 1980s were a time of major flux in Storm Lake, as it was in every place in Iowa.

The Buena Vista County seat grew rapidly from 1880 to 1950, when the population rose from 1,034 to 6,954. From 1940 to 1950 the city’s population grew by nearly a third as mechanization swept over farms, families moved to town and World War II veterans returned home to start families. After that each decade but one saw growth ranging from 5% to 15%.

The last two Census counts, in 2000 and 2010, were light. We believe that all immigrants, especially Latinos, were not counted for various reasons — language barriers, fear of deportation and distrust of government generally. With the help of city and state officials, we have estimated Storm Lake’s actual population to be closer to 12,000. The estimate was based on school enrollment and local employer surveys conducted by the Storm Lake Public Safety Department combined with census data. Count in Lakeside and the unincorporated areas along the lake and we might be closer to 13,000.

Just three years into the new decade, another population boomlet appears underway.

The Storm Lake School District reported unofficial head counts that were up appreciably over last year — 15% in the middle school, for example. More students are coming in as the district nears a September reporting deadline to the state.

We have more births than deaths, actual figures show. Sales taxes are increasing steadily. Employers are continually expanding operations and adding jobs for younger workers at child-rearing age. The city is short of housing by an estimated 500 units, even with two new townhouse complexes under construction.

In 1950 city planners must have thought that you could not top a 31% decennial growth. By 1960 Storm Lake had grown by another 11%. If the last decade grew population here by 5%, as the Census reported, the next decade could bring another growth spurt twice that big.

The long and short of it is that Storm Lake continues to emerge as a regional trade, manufacturing, education and recreation center.

But it is sucking vitality out of more rural places. Calhoun, Pocahontas and Sac counties all have experienced decade after decade of population loss. Buena Vista County had 20,693 people in 1970; by 2010 the Census reported that the population had dropped to 20,260. (Again, we believe that number was light by not fully counting Latinos in Storm Lake.) Suffice it to say that while Storm Lake has grown in leaps and bounds, the county’s population has remained static. Greater Storm Lake (Lakeside, South Shore, etc.) and Alta now make up well over half the county’s population. This was not true in 1950.

The trend since 1920 has been depopulation in rural areas and growing population in about the 20 largest cities in Iowa, Storm Lake among them. Nothing on the horizon suggests a change in that trendline. Farm operations continue to grow larger in acreage covered. Agribusiness is consolidating and retreating to trade centers for a critical mass of labor and infrastructure.

Of course we cannot know what future is in store. The laws of physics suggest that an object at rest stays at rest. That law can be applied to markets as well. Storm Lake will continue to grow.

Dredging pays off

Why is Storm Lake’s normally turbid late-summer water so clear these days? One of our expert fishing buddies has a pretty good theory: Drought over the past couple years took the lake level down to three feet below the dam at Lakeside. The dredge continued to pump mud and roil silt, which remained suspended in fewer cubic feet of water. The water quality was awful over last winter. All that silt stirred up settled over the winter into deep dredging troughs and away from the shallows.

Nearly a foot of rain in one event this spring brought the lake level back up without that silt suspended near the shore. The result was greater water clarity as silt sloughs into deeper pockets created by dredging.

Ten years of dredging is paying off. A new spoil site east of the municipal golf course should be completed by October and ready for action by next spring. It has about five years’ worth of dredging capacity. We need to dredge even more than that, considering the huge amount of mud hardened on the bottom of the lake. But there can be no doubt that dredging has radically improved water clarity in Storm Lake, a key indicator of the health of this precious ecosystem.