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Officials seek balance between great lakes and Little Sioux river

Committee of 12 emerge with consensus on how to improve flooding, lake levels

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An hourlong secret meeting at the Dickinson County Courthouse on Tuesday yielded a series of proposed improvements to the Little Sioux River and the Lower Gar outlet that’ll improve flooding along the Little Sioux and bring more control over the Iowa Great Lakes’ levels. 

A group of 11 elected officials and a fisheries biologist from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources emerged from a closed door meeting on the courthouse’s second floor with “a rough consensus” on how to improve flooding and gain better control over lake levels over the short term and long term, according to Dickinson County Engineer Cole Budach. 

The committee settled on the following over the short term:

• Explore emergency relief at the Iowa Great Lakes and determine feasibility of such relief.

• Gather more information before settling on long-term plans. 

Over the long term, the committee will be expected to develop “a common understanding of flooding problems across the different jurisdictional boundaries.” It’ll also explore forming a watershed management authority that’ll address “flood control in a unified manner. And it’ll work with the Iowa Flood Center to “identify locations to implement flood resiliency practices.”

Budach told the Storm Lake Times Pilot the meeting will be the first in a series among officials in Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, Dickinson and the DNR on flood improvements and lake levels. He said the committee’s goal is to balance the needs of the Great Lakes, which remain over two feet above their pre-flood levels, and the Little Sioux, which remains at major flood stage in Cherokee and Clay counties. 

The Dickinson County Board of Supervisors was considering releasing the Lower Gar Outlet, the conduit from the Great Lakes to the Little Sioux. The board referred the matter — and a host of other watershed improvements — to the multijurisdictional committee because it didn’t want to create the impression that it was releasing more water into inundated communities along the Little Sioux without their input. 

Budach said the committee shares the supervisors’ goal. 

“We’re not in a position to do anything right away,” Budach said after the meeting. “There’s nothing immediate happening in terms of modification.”

Buena Vista County Supervisor Kelly Snyder, one of the 12 members present for the meeting, believes the committee is poised to make demonstrable progress in the Little Sioux watershed. Snyder, a Sioux Rapids resident, left with the impression that Sioux Rapids’ concerns would be considered as the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors mulls what to do with the Lower Gar Outlet. The supervisors have jurisdiction over 230th Avenue, a county road that runs north and south over the outlet. It acts as a bottleneck for the lakes at the Lower Gar. The DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said they would offer an advisory role to the Dickinson County board, but have declined to specify what that means. 

Budach’s notes indicate that the DNR maintains a weir just downstream of 230th Avenue. He said the DNR is supposed to control the Great Lakes’ levels under normal circumstances. But the road, which was built by the county in 1984, acts as a makeshift control structure when lake levels reach their current height. 

“The road still controls during certain high water events,” Budach’s notes read.

Snyder said he appreciated Budach’s attention to nuance and detail throughout the meeting. 

“I don’t think we’re gonna get something rash,” Snyder said after the meeting. “I’m glad they’re listening to us.” 

When the committee was formed by the Dickinson County board, Buena Vista County wasn’t supposed to be on the committee. It was supposed to consist of 10 members, including the DNR, Clay County, Cherokee County and Dickinson County. Snyder said he was happy Buena Vista was invited to the closed meeting. 

 

Budach’s notes indicate that the board was studying flow rates of the Lower Gar and the Little Sioux near Spencer, Linn Grove and Cherokee. A burning question of the board of supervisors was whether releasing the Lower Gar would increase flow rates downstream along the Little Sioux River. A preliminary forecast by the Iowa Flood Center found that releasing the Lower Gar would’ve caused the Little Sioux near Spencer to rise four inches — a marginal increase compared to the river’s crest last Sunday. 

The flow rates suggest the Lower Gar discharges around 5% of the flow rate at Spencer, 1.5% of the flow rate at Linn Grove and less than a percent of the flows near Cherokee. 

Budach said the committee needs more information on the watershed sizes before extrapolating the impact downstream. He also said lake flows from the Great Lakes chain into the Little Sioux needs more study. The committee, he said, doesn’t have enough information to estimate downstream impact of releasing the Lower Gar or the impact of improving the Lower Gar so that the lakes can be drained more efficiently. 

“We know that lowering the lakes goes into the Little Sioux,” Budach said after the meeting. “But we can’t say anything with that much precision.”

He also noted that the watersheds draining into the three communities are much larger than just the Lower Gar northeast of Milford, which covers 138 square miles. Spencer’s watershed is 1,010 square miles, or eight times the size of the Lower Gar watershed. The Linn Grove watershed contains 1,570 square miles; Cherokee’s covers 2,200 miles. 

“From the above it can be seen that the approximate watershed at Lower Gar is much smaller than the downstream watersheds,” reads a draft report Budach prepared from the committee meeting. “The Lower Gar watershed is approximately 13%, 8.8% and 6.3% of the size of the watershed at Spencer, Linn Grove and Cherokee, respectively. However, given the nature of lakes, they do slow water down and contribute a lower percentage of total flows when comparing peak events.” 

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