Finally, a plan to turn our lake water clear

Vegetation could take root, leading to much greater fish diversity

And that break wall connecting the jetties could be killer cool


Our family took a vacation to a rented cabin in Minnesota on Woman’s Lake many loons ago. I could watch tadpoles and minnows tickle my toes in the shallows. Then I asked Dad why I could not see my feet in Storm Lake.

He would go off on a lecture about how we ripped out all the rocks stabilizing the shore and how we plowed up land indiscriminately and farmed it with no regard for the long-term consequences. Okay, Dad, I thought as I watched the tadpoles.

Somehow his lecture stuck with me, and the question remains: Why do we accept muddy water when it should be clear?

It was once. Before we civilized the place. Back when the boulders went undisturbed. When the lake was surrounded by a giant sponge of marshes that held water and filtered contaminants. The early surveyors made mention of a blue-clay bottom on a sparkling lake. They did not give much discussion to in-lake vegetation, or “weeds.”

Last Thursday doctored biologists and a geologist told the Lake Preservation Association Annual Picnic that Storm Lake can be made clear again.

The idea is awe-inspiring to me:

Build a breakwater of at least 1,000 feet extending east from the Chautauqua Park jetty. Between the shore and the wall three cells will be created to apply varying amounts of aluminum sulfide to clarify the water. Scientists from Fyra Aquatic Engineering of Omaha, along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, will study how each of those cell areas reacts to clarity.

What sorts of plants and plankton show up, and to what degree depending on water clarity?

Aluminum sulfate acts to bind itself to suspended sediment in a water column — called flocculation, something of a dirty word — and the added weight sinks the soil particle to the lake bed where it will remain. Alum, as it is abbreviated, long has been routinely used in treating drinking water supplies and is perfectly safe to humans. It also has been a proven safe chemical in lakes to aquatic life. If it is good enough for Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, it darn well should be good enough for Storm Lake.

Clear water will allow vegetation to get sunlight, which it cannot in the current turbid state of affairs.

Vegetation holds sediment in place, maintaining water clarity. It also is necessary to sustain perch and sunfish populations, and the invisible plankton on which they and snails and other aquatic life depend. Storm Lake cannot support much of a perch, crappie or blue gill population now. Walleyes cannot naturally reproduce in Storm Lake. Catfish like it whether it is clear or muddy. Carp like muddy.

If we could get a “weed bed” going in Chautauqua Park Bay it could become one of the top fishing spots in the Upper Midwest.

When Iowans see a weed they want to pull it or spray it.

Pleasure boaters are mortified at the idea of props in green bondage.

They say that Lake View is choked with weeds because of water clarity. IDNR Regional Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace said that yes, there was a weed problem the first year after Black Hawk Lake was clarified by the elimination of rough fish like carp, shad and buffalo. Vegetation was controlled by mowing it in the water, a slow but effective process. This year, vegetation is not as thick but water clarity — still at about 40 inches — is not as good as it was. Also, vegetation doesn’t survive much beyond seven feet of depth. The center of Black Hawk Lake was not and is not prone to over-vegetation. Fishing has been tremendous the past two years.

And, Storm Lake is not Black Hawk Lake, protected from incessant west winds by a treed state park and lovely treed Lake View on the west side blocking those winds. Storm Lake has almost no protection from constant winds that invite Warren Buffett to plant windmills in the largest complex in North America. The lake did not get its name by accident.

High winds and roiling waves do not make for a good vegetative base. That’s one important reason Storm Lake has but a few sprigs of grass just north of Frank Starr Park.

The scientists posit that they can find the right level of clarity/turbidity that will allow vegetation to establish while not entirely clogging the shallow areas of the lake to boating.

Most of the resuspension of sediment comes from wave action in shallow areas. Deeper than seven feet, the fetch of the waves does not disturb the lake bottom sediment much. Fyra also reports that about 40% of the phosphorous in the water column — suspended phosphorous can lead to toxic blue-green algae — comes from the lake bottom. The rest comes from the watershed. Black Hawk Lake’s phosphorous load comes about 90% from the watershed and 10% from the lake bed. Storm Lake has had a longer and more aggressive watershed management program.

Aluminum sulfate holds that phosphorous in the lake bed sediment where it is not available to algae.

We have added many things to the lake over the years. City sewage was dumped into the lake until the 1920s. Overflows of blood and manure from meatpacking ran down Flindt Drive to the lake back in the day. We constructed a dam, filled in the west and east sides of the shoreline with dredge spoil, removed native plants near the shoreline, and have allowed street salt, oil and other debris to run into the lakes unabated for more than a century.

Adding a dose of aluminum sulfate hardly compares to the deliberate and negligent malpractice on the lake that we have seen previously.

Dredging helped improve water quality by deepening the lake and, I believe, opening up underground springs long capped by calcified mud. But as dredging continued, water clarity gains were not as great and appeared to go backwards. The dredge has loosened up the lake bad to allow sediment to slough and resuspend in the water.

Alum could end that problem by sinking it all to the bottom and keeping it there.

Once vegetation establishes, the water should remain relatively clear.

Storm Lake will always have wind. We also know that unfortunately the lake will continue to receive sediment from the watershed that will promote turbidity after the alum treatments.

Nobody can convince me that this lake will be overrun by vegetation.

Back to the awe of it:

I want to be there when they drop the stuff in Chautauqua Bay. They say the water will clear within 24 hours. It will be a sight to behold I have waited for my entire life.

To think that you could catch perch ice-fishing, just as you can at Spirit Lake. Twenty of them in an hour.

And about that wall.

They say they would like to build it from Chautauqua jetty to King’s Pointe jetty. They would leave gaps between the jetties and the breakwall for boat traffic. Pedestrian arch bridges could be built to connect the jetties to the breakwater, with the boats traversing beneath. How cool would that be? Again, we have built two islands in the lake and in-filled the shoreline. It is not as if a break wall would be an offense against God and Nature.

You could ride a bike onto the top of the wall, as you can around the Little Storm Lake basin. You could sit and fish along it, right into those forementioned weeds where the perch like to hang out. You could swim off it, walk on it, grill and have a picnic on it. It would be a tremendous tourist draw, as I am not aware of anything like it in Iowa.

They figure it would cost about $750,000 to build the wall. They will use stone, maybe dredge spoil and other materials to make it solid. It certainly will require regular maintenance, which the islands never enjoyed. (That is changing, as IDNR has finished engineering plans to refigure the existing islands into their original footprints and buttress them better, with regular maintenance contemplated.)

There is no reason for Storm Lake to be a turbid mudhole. It is not the way God designed it. We have screwed it up over the centuries to the point where common fish cannot even breed in it. By that standard, you could suggest that the lake is atrophied — dead but for the annual stocking.

We can do better.

But it won’t be easy. It will take three years of solid sales work by IDNR and the Lake Improvement Commission to see the plan take effect. My own focus group of several fishing buddies is about evenly divided on the topic. Even if you explain that vegetation is good for fish habitat, they still are skeptical because what they have heard from Lake View. Others may be skeptical of the break water wall, given the experience of eroding islands. The entire budget for the project is close to $4 million. IDNR would like a 25% local share. We can’t even fully fund the police department, so that could be a heavy lift for the city.

Locals who love the lake owe the idea of lake clarity and in-lake vegetation an open mind. There was room at the well-advertised picnic for more enquiring minds for more people to enjoy the delicious $7 pork supper served by Smokin’ Hereford chef Jesse Barnett. They would find that the folks from Fyra are serious scientists who want to apply rigorous tests to a hypothesis fully supported by their work elsewhere — including the largest lake in Ohio not named Erie.

Modern aquatic science can clean up the lake using a safe chemical. Vegetation will not impede boating. Biological diversity will appear and be sustained. We will have a fun tourist attraction to draw people to The City Beautiful. Our islands and jetties will be restored from erosion. And our dream of a clear-water lake will be realized in about six years — three years of preparation, two years of study and a final year of whole-lake alum application. I wish it were tomorrow. I probably will be dead within six years. IDNR Lakes Coordinator George Antoniou, a sincere and thoughtful man, assures me that I will be around to see it. I have faith in him.

The whole process — dredging followed by clarification — probably will have to occur in another 30 to 50 years. That has been the historical record. We will have done our part to bury the question posed to my dad 50 years ago.

This idea at least deserves a fair hearing before you make up your mind.