Islands mask the issue

Dr. Clayton Williams of Iowa State University provided a fascinating report Tuesday on how adding one or more islands to Storm Lake could reduce wind roiling the bottom sediment and improve water clarity. Adding three islands about the size of the Big Island would dramatically improve water quality and reduce turbidity (suspended sediment in the water) to meet federal clean water goals.

The two-year study used mathematic constructions to predict how islands could block the tremendous winds that buffet Storm Lake — the least protected major lake in Iowa.

This prompted the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to conclude that restoring and shoring up two of the three islands (Shorty’s Island near the Lakeside Marina and the Big Island) in the lake is an urgent need. IDNR Lake Coordinator Mike McGhee acknowledged to the Lake Preservation Association that the state has not done a good job of maintaining those islands over the past 40 to 70 years. (Icehouse Island off Scout Park is a natural creation that is not slated for any work. It is not sloughing in like the other two man-made islands are.)

Iowans should be delighted that IDNR wants to firm up those islands and, presumably, maintain them regularly.

Until that proof is provided, we should warily approach adding more islands.

We do not believe man can engineer an island to withstand the wind, water and ice that nature shoves at it.  The record shows that Iowa has not supported environmental funding necessary to keep these islands solid. Yes, it is terribly expensive to build and maintain artificial islands.

Second, even if the islands were nature-proof and water clarity improved, we could delude ourselves into thinking that we have a clean lake. In fact, most of the lake has at least seven feet of Iowa farmland sitting at its bottom. Islands may maintain clarity but hide the pollution that resides below and makes the islands necessary.

The real problem with Storm Lake is mud. Wind is merely a lever. Remove the mud and wind is not a problem, making artificial islands unnecessary.

We have been told, time and again, that dredging is too expensive. It certainly is, compared to conserving soil in the first place. It was not too expensive to let the mud flow in, but it is too expensive to pump it out. Iowa is willing to live with the idea that we have polluted lakes and rivers, among the worst in America.

Storm Lake was crystal clear when the surveyors showed up in the 1850s. It was surrounded by tallgrass prairie and a complex of marshes. We broke the prairie and drained the marshes and allowed the lake to fill in. No cost was associated with that.

It would take at least another decade and some $10 million or more to dredge Storm Lake adequately. Under Iowa’s skimpy environmental funding scheme, that is impossible. We understand.

An old Iowa value prescribes that you take care of what you have before you go onto something new. Another adage is that once you start a job you finish it.

It is not the fault of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or Iowa State University that we Iowans ignore our own myths. Twelve years ago the entire budget for Iowa lakes was $300,000. Because of Storm Lake’s relentless lobbying, the amount is $9.6 million for next year. It should be $20 million. Sen. Daryl Beall of Fort Dodge argued for $13 million and people thought he was cracked. Meantime, Gov. Branstad just whacked an increase in the key environmental funding account, REAP, which has never been fully funded in nearly 30 years.

Storm Lake is fortunate to have the state’s attention. Lesser lakes like Lizard, Pickerel, Rush and Virgin are not so fortunate. They have been dead from siltation for so long that they have lost all constituency. So they are left to be converted to marshes, these places that God created as lakes.

We appreciate the efforts of environmental officials to save Storm Lake as best they can.

But, under the current political attitude of “Who cares?” it would be irresponsible to put in more islands that would be left to dissolve for lack of future funding. Removing the mud is the answer. If land can sell for more than $10,000 per acre, then this state can afford to clean up its top natural resources completely. The question is why Iowa can live with the idea that over 100 state-owned water bodies are considered impaired and imperiled.

Once they are gone, these lakes will not come back.

We should finish the job of dredging. Somehow. Some way.