Dredging done

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

We would wish for contentment in that 7 million cubic yards of silt have been removed from Storm Lake over the past 15 years. We never thought it would get this far, after all. Way back when, the state planned to dredge a small patch on the west side of the lake to make certain that walleyes didn’t suffocate from shallow water in the winter. The effort was enjoined by the citizens of this town from all walks of life, enlarged and sustained through a model partnership between the state and community.

We feel good about that. We should be satisfied that $15 million has been spent to partially remediate the damage done by more than a century of soil erosion since we broke the sod. The lake is clearer than ever. We see the beginnings of vegetation. Crappies are reappearing. It’s all good.

But it could have been better.

We have a couple years of spoil site capacity left east of the golf course. But that will cease taking water Sept. 1 when the Lake Improvement Commission exhausts the last $130,000 from the private Lake Preservation Association. The coffers should not be empty, were it not for mismanagement by staff and the dredge contractor. The dredge was run hard and was broken down more than it was pumping the past few years. We should have been pumping 700,000 cubic yards a year — as we were under former public works administration at half the unit cost or less — but we were told to be happy this year with 300,000 cubic yards. We never were happy about that. Neither was the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. When dredging costs hit $10,000 a day and you have little to show for it, then it became time to pull the plug.

So there it went.

But that dredge should have run another couple years.

It is not entirely the fault of former City Manager Jim Patrick. He had help in sinking the dredge operation from a staff that didn’t understand it. As the thinking so often goes these days, it was determined that a private outfit could do the job more efficiently than the Public Works Department could do it. Private business is always better than public employees, the logic goes. Throw that logic out the window. The city crew did a hands-down better job managed by Pat Kelly than the private contractor did. This dredge would not be shut down if we had not washed our hands of it and turned the keys over to a valet driver.

Well, it might have shut down regardless. That’s because the state wants to turn its functions over to a private contractor, whether for dredging or Medicaid, and all the booty goes to the contractor. Iowa devotes a pitiful $9 million per year to lakes. Often that fund is under direct attack, as the Branstad Administration continued its attack on the beast that is education, natural resources and justice.

More than 100 lakes are impaired. We agree that you cannot continue to pour $10,000 per day down a rathole while other polluted water bodies go wanting. It also ought to be agreed that about 15 feet of Iowa black gold lays on the bottom of the lake, and it ought not be there. We put it there, but we are too cheap to remove it and put it back from whence it came. Because IDNR had insufficient funds, Little Storm Lake was cordoned off and turned into a settling basin and cattail complex that indeed filters water for the big lake. Ducks Unlimited paid for it. Little Storm Lake was a lake when the glacier carved it. We turned it into a silted marsh and then turned it over to a private group to “restore” into a better filtering device for agricultural excess that better fosters waterfowl. It is a compromise we understand and appreciate, but we cannot escape the fact in our mind that Little Lake was a lake that you could fish for perch. It was. And we let it go because we could not afford the thought or money to preserve it as the Lord’s hand laid it down.

We know we should not think that way. Politics is the art of the possible. What we did here in Storm Lake bordered on the impossible. The man in charge of dredging at the time told us that IDNR was not interested in expanding its dredging of this lake. A new director came in, Jeff Vonk, and we caught his ear. He became Storm Lake’s champion in Des Moines. He told us to get the people on board and we would dredge this lake. Gary Lalone lobbied and cajoled and begged for decades. He worked the Republicans while Diane Hamilton worked the Democrats. Everybody got on board. Pat Kelly stepped up and offered the city crew to do the dredge work. City Administrator John Call agreed, and the council ordered them to set sail. Of all the things we have done, we are proudest of advocating for lake protection and restoration.

IDNR continues to be a bulwark of support so long as it knows that we care. And we certainly do. When that dredge shut down for a day the questions would arise from the truck driver to the lawyer. Everyone was vested in it. Everyone remains vested in it. The agency will rebuild the islands, deal with rough fish, rebuild the jetties and look at ways to make the lake ecosystem healthier. It is listening to the public that is skeptical of further clarifying the water through chemical means for fear of over-vegetation. We do not share that skepticism but it shows that IDNR does in fact listen in a way today that it might not have 20 years ago. That is a major accomplishment. The lake is better off today than it was before, no question about it. But it can be better yet. We are not quite there. We are out of money now, but eventually this lake will need to be dredged again. The job is done for everyone who worked so hard to launch and maintain the dredge. The generation before us dredged the lake. We did. The next generation will. We’re just taking a break.