Cleaning up a mess



All of us who love Storm Lake and have worked so hard to restore it should be grateful for the patience displayed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in hanging with the project — especially after the past couple years of confusion and inaction. The operation has been plagued with mechanical troubles for two years, and the dredge has been idle more often than not. Yet we apparently are short of funding for this dredge season. IDNR has pledged to get us through this season, essentially, and then take a deep breath to see where the entire restoration effort stands.

It’s been a long and tough slog for more than a decade. The state has put in more than $10 million trying to dredge the lake. Buena Vista County, Lakeside and Storm Lake also have contributed equipment and annual funding through sales taxes. It has been a state-local partnership hailed throughout Iowa in improving water quality. We’re relieved it still stands that way.

The last several weeks should sound an alarm, however. Lines of communication have become frayed, requiring IDNR Lakes Coordinator George Antoniou to rush up to Storm Lake to see if this dredge season was salvageable. Everyone put the best face on it. There have been misunderstandings, said City Manager Jim Patrick, who also serves as Lake Improvement Commission Administrator. Commission Chairman Gary Lalone, who trusted City Hall to manage the books, was surprised to learn over the last few months that more local funds might have to be raised because the dredge account was running dry.

Figures have flown around, ranging from we don’t have a problem to we might be $400,000 short. The conclusion was, that if we run out of funds we just shut the whole thing down early and hope for better next year.

That is not the view Antoniou holds, nor Lake Commission Chairman Gary Lalone. They want to arrange a plan where financing is identified, where local stakeholders participate, and where everyone sticks to the plan without undue surprises. That’s how we read it, at least.

A few things will have to be addressed before we can arrive at and execute a predictable business plan:

• Equipment keeps breaking down. Big equipment, like the booster pump. A heat exchanger has failed twice after long delays, and this week we hope it holds long enough to shout “Victory!” We are holding our breath. The pumping contractor, Dredge America, is supposed to be operating and maintaining the equipment. Something is not right. We hope that public officials are in the midst of discussions with Dredge America to make this project work. We believe that the contract has been nullified.

• We need to ask ourselves, and listen to the scientists, about how much more we actually must dredge. Are we driven by scientific goals or are we driven by a big spoil site that needs to be filled, and a contractor who gets paid by the cubic yard?

• The seeds of this fiscal crisis are sown in the fiscal crisis hanging over City Hall. Storm Lake agreed to contribute sales taxes and manpower to lake restoration. It appears to be backing away from that bargain because it cannot afford to contribute as much. This points to chronic city budget problems that must be addressed by the city council. The troubles of the Lake Improvement Commission should send a shot across the council’s bow. The numbers often don’t seem to add up. It seeds confusion and a lack of confidence in fiscal solutions going forward.

The rational path out of the muck is to sever ties with Dredge America, and move quickly to adapt recommendations from Fyra Engineering. The aquatics firm was commissioned by IDNR to develop sort of an exit strategy to dredging that can consolidate the gains made by adding windbreaks and using aluminum sulfate to manage water clarity.

If we must choose between dwindling public resources, we would choose the proposal to build a windbreak off the nose of Chautauqua Park jetty, and add aluminum sulfate to clarify Chautauqua Bay. The chemical is perfectly safe, commonly used in human drinking water treatment and in many lakes. This will allow a small vegetative bed to establish on the lake bottom to further consolidate settlement and promote aquatic diversity. It could restore perch and crappie populations. It can be managed to the satisfaction of recreational boaters. We doubt that wind-swept Storm Lake can ever be overtaken by in-lake “weeds.”

That assumes that the city could resume managing spot dredging that could complement the Fyra plan. As noted, that remains an open question. Or, we could find a firm that is interested in quality and consistency to operate spot dredging under the direct authority of Fyra managers and the Lake Improvement Commission.

We do not need to run the dredge as we are if it means just sending money up the smokestack. We could cancel that contract with Dredge America today without penalty. We are far more concerned with the compact that Storm Lake forged with IDNR 14 years ago that calls for saving the lake with all hands on deck. We have to get back to that notion, with clear communication, transparent financial reporting and consistent oversight by all local boards and commissions vested in the effort.