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Engineering firm promotes slow, steady plan to restore Lake Mitchell

The city of Mitchell continues to test the waters of a potential lake restoration project. Omaha-based Fyra Engineering returned to Mitchell to present its proposed solution to Lake Mitchell's longstanding algae concerns. Fyra's proposal preached...

Mike Sotak, of Fyra Engineering, answers questions from the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee on Thursday. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)
Mike Sotak, of Fyra Engineering, answers questions from the Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee on Thursday. (Evan Hendershot/Republic)

The city of Mitchell continues to test the waters of a potential lake restoration project.

Omaha-based Fyra Engineering returned to Mitchell to present its proposed solution to Lake Mitchell's longstanding algae concerns. Fyra's proposal preached a slow, steady seven-step plan.

After the engineering firm discussed its seven-step plan to reduce algae-causing phosphorus levels in the 670-acre lake, its initial proposal focused on the plan's first four steps.

"Do it slow and do it right, because there are consequences to not doing it that way," said Mike Sotak, of Fyra Engineering.

Sotak and John Holz, who represented Fyra, spent approximately two hours walking about a dozen Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee members and other city officials through the proposed plan.

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The proposal includes a $73,725 fee to fund about 6 to 12 months of data analysis and collection, data modelling, determine the source of the problem and establish a community-based planning committee. Holz said some of the data collection is already completed and there are early indications the issues at the lake are caused by extremely high phosphorus levels, an oversized watershed and heavy amount of a nuisance algae called aphanizomenon.

No action was taken by the committee to recommend the entire $73,725 project to the City Council, but the committee authorized recommendation of a $3,000 expense to allow Fyra to collect soil samples from the lake.

If the proposal is recommended to the council, Sotak said it would give Fyra a better understanding of how to attack the root of the lake's problems and reduce the financial risk of the city when establishing management plans. But the Fyra representatives and some committee members expressed confidence in the ability to provide value to the community from the potential first phase.

Holz emphasized the importance of community-based planning to empower citizens and let them collaborate to find a solution to the lake's phosphorus issues. Holz said getting the community involved helps build consensus and support for the project.

"Everyone has a brother-in-law who knows how to fix the lake," Holz said. "Everyone's got an opinion on this, and what really works in most of these bigger, more complex lake management projects is to bring in the human element."

The community-based planning sessions would include a watershed advisory council, which would include citizens and city officials, who would determine issues and identify benefits of the water quality improvement project and set restoration goals. The advisory council would be supplemented by a technical advisory team of local agencies and experts to provide technical and financial assistance, all with the support of Fyra.

Along with community involvement, Holz and Sotak cautioned the committee to consider the important components of moving forward with this project. The Fyra representatives said the lake restoration needs to focus on sustainability, results and expectations.

Sotak said Fyra's solutions, which would come after the initial stage of the proposed plan is approved and completed, would help the lake for decades when supported by regular monitoring. He also urged the committee to educate the public about realistic project expectations after he was asked when the city could see significant results in the short term.

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"Well, it's not happening at all right now, so we're starting from zero," Sotak said. "So anything you start doing is a step in a positive direction."

But Mayor Jerry Toomey then asked when the city could see real results, and Fyra was not ready to provide an answer.

Instead, Holz presented the benefits of collecting data and establishing local committees before prematurely moving on to planning stages.

"By building up to the solution, it makes funding the solution a lot easier a sell," Holz said.

With more data to understand the causes of the algal blooms at the lake, Holz said the city would have less trouble attracting outside funds from the Environmental Protection Agency that could pay for up to 60 percent of the management plan.

Sotak's suggestion to limit expectations had the support of the committee's Vice Chairman Chad Nemec.

"It's not like six months ago this lake was crystal clear and we woke up the next day and it was dirty," Nemec said. "It's been an ongoing issue for decades, and to expect that it's going to get cleaned up in a year or two, that's probably going to be an unreal expectation."

While some committee members shared their support of tempering expectations, the Fyra representatives were hesitant to offer project timelines or potential total costs until pressed by committee member Mark Puetz and Mayor Jerry Toomey.

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Puetz asked the representatives if it is reasonable to see the project completed in 3 to 5 years, to which Sotak agreed was a realistic timeline, but he said the project could be finished sooner if the city could raise the funds needed for the project.

After unsuccessful attempts at lake restoration through applications of aluminum sulfate and the use of an algae-reduction device, committee member Justin Luther emphasized the importance of considering Fyra's patient approach.

"Having a good plan, and educated plan, is a good way to go, and we didn't do that last time," Luther said.

An aerial view of Lake Mitchell last August. (Republic file photo)
An aerial view of Lake Mitchell last August. (Republic file photo)

Related Topics: LAKE MITCHELL
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