Clarify the lake, now

By ART CULLEN

Storm Lake’s turbid water could be clarified and its biodiversity greatly enhanced by a plan from qualified lake engineers to add aluminum sulfate to drop out sedimentation and a breakwater to allow healthy lakebed vegetation to establish itself. It will lead to better fishing, more recreation and greater sustained economic activity in the community. Please allow us a full-throated endorsement of a proposal by Fyra Engineering of Omaha for the Iowa Department of Resources to build a breakwater off the nose of the Chautauqua Park jetty with a limited application of aluminum sulfate as a controlled experimental phase of what should work out to be a whole-lake clarification project.

The earliest surveyors in the 1850s found Storm Lake to be crystal clear, its lake lined by boulders and its watershed pocked with sloughs that filtered and stored water for the lake. Our ancestors came in and broke the prairie, drained the wetlands and set about creating the best farmland in the world. But the lake paid the price with torrents of soil erosion brought by intensive row-crop production. We changed the lake forever, into its current state of muddiness.

Storm Lake Watershed farmers, landowners and businesses have worked together to protect the lake with bioswales, rain gardens, minimum tillage, grass strips and cover crops over the past quarter-century. No watershed in Iowa has received more scrutiny. No community has worked harder at bringing agriculture and the environment together by improving conservation in the watershed and dredging the lake to restore depth and promote clarity. The effort has been cited statewide as a bipartisan, intergovernmental, public and private partnership where everyone rows in the same direction.

The dredging, we believe, has clarified the water to a point. It has opened up springs and deepened the lake to promote fish health over winter. The results have improved Storm Lake’s economy. You can measure it in sales tax and hotel tax receipts, all up dramatically since 1990 and documented in Iowa State University analysis.

Dredging has begun to deliver diminishing returns from its earlier days. At certain times it actually promotes turbidity by constantly resuspending sediment in the water column. And, we are about out of spoil site capacity as fallow land near the lake comes at a premium. Dredging has also become much more expensive since the City of Storm Lake relinquished staffing and management of the operation. IDNR Director Chuck Gipp told us years ago that he would support dredging so long as we got bang for our buck. The bang is turning into a pop.

It’s time to take the next step without delay.

Fyra has been studying how to deliver better water quality in the wake of dredging. It is considered one of the top aquatic engineering firms in the nation, selected to restore Ohio’s biggest recreational lake. Geologists, biologists, chemists and engineers have presented their theories and preliminary findings at previous meetings of the Lake Preservation Association. Firm representatives answered every question hurled at them in these meetings that went on for hours. They answered every single one of our questions satisfactorily.

Naturally, skeptics remain — and that is to be treasured. We will attempt to answer some of their criticisms.

• Increased lakebed vegetation — there is almost none now — will destroy boating, a la Black Hawk Lake where water was clarified. Initially, at Lake View, vegetation flourished because of all the nutrients in the lake bed delivered there by the watershed — Iowa’s top corn land grows water vegetation well, too. IDNR has been able to mechanically harvest the vegetation in and around boat launch points to manage the problem. Storm Lake is not Black Hawk Lake. Storm Lake gets its name from the gale-force winds that buffet our city every day out of the west — and have prevented much vegetation from getting established. We are convinced that Storm Lake is in absolutely no danger of getting clogged by weeds because of that wind. (We would note that our fishing buddies who have worked Black Hawk in the past couple weeks have been catching bigger and fatter walleyes than they get in Storm Lake because of more feeding diversity.)

Fyra proposes a breakwater off the nose of the Chautauqua Park jetty that will extend east and protect the bay from the worst of the west wind. Aluminum sulfate will be added in the bay area in small doses. Scientists will monitor the lake’s reaction and take the next steps based on what happens. The hope is that vegetation will be able to survive and then hold the sediment in place, perhaps without the need for further chemical treatment.

• Aluminum sulfate is not safe. Repeated studies, cited previously here, from Wisconsin to Minnesota, show consistently that the chemical commonly used in drinking water systems will not harm lake ecology. In fact, it improves it by promoting clarity and a natural biological cycle. Storm Lake is unnaturally muddy. It should not be.

Estimated cost is about $1 million, mainly to build the breakwater. We need to spend money to rebuild Chautauqua Park jetty in the first place — wave action driven by wind batters it year after year.

If push comes to shove, we would rather see dredging deferred and use the funds to get lake clarification started. Fyra has recommended using its techniques in conjunction with dredging for optimal effect. We are concerned that increased dredging costs could defer the Fyra project for too long. The jetty needs to be rebuilt now. We need biodiversity now, to increase perch, crappie and bass populations to support the lake’s function as a walleye broodery.

We anticipate more funding for water quality to come out of the next legislative session. Funding should be available to set Storm Lake on the path to health with an integrated lake management plan — based on sound science, not hunch — for the first time in its history.

Full steam ahead!