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Friends of Firesteel: new organization focused on improving Lake Mitchell

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In this file photo, water flows out of the spillway at Lake Mitchell on Aug. 27, 2020. (Matt Gade / Republic)

A nonprofit organization backed with a mission to improve Lake Mitchell is beginning to take shape after the Lake Advisory Committee was recently disbanded.

The nonprofit organization known as Friends of Firesteel is made up of longtime community members who have extensive experience in suggesting improvements for Lake Mitchell. After all, the nine-person group consists of the previous members who served on the Lake Advisory Committee before it was eliminated by the City Council in August.

“Our purpose is to improve the quality of Lake Mitchell, along with creating greater opportunities on the lake for the general public,” said Friends of Firesteel President Joe Kippes in an interview with The Daily Republic. “We will also look to raise funds for programs designed for water quality improvement.”

Looking toward the immediate future, Kippes said the group will focus its efforts on raising funds and securing grants that would be earmarked toward dredging the lake, should the Mitchell City Council pursue that option in the future.

Dredging the lake watershed has been a hot topic of discussion among city officials for the past several years. Throughout the City Council exploring dredging opportunities, Nebraska’s Fyra Engineering pitched a couple of dredging options that had estimated costs of roughly $10 to $17 million.

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According to previous studies conducted on Lake Mitchell, 53 percent of the phosphorus that flows into the lake comes from Firesteel Creek, while 47 percent is in the lake itself. Considering that data, Friends of Firesteel Vice President Mike Vehle said dredging the lake and removing the existing phosphorus and sediment would be an ideal option to pursue.

“We’ve figured out what the big problem at the lake was, and targeting to control the blue-green algae can only be done through focusing on reducing the phosphorus from the lake. As a committee, we’re still very focused on that,” Kippes said of dredging Lake Mitchell. “The algae derives from the phosphorus, so we feel that dredging is very necessary for improving the lake.”

Kippes emphasized the importance of dredging the lake, but he said securing grant money to do so has been met with challenges.

“We’ve found out that getting grant money for dredging comes with more challenges than, say, what a project along the creek does,” Kippes said.

While the group can make recommendations for improving the lake and Firesteel Creek, the City Council will have the final say in whether to pursue the recommendations made by Friends of Firesteel.

“We have the authority to raise funds for projects such as dredging, but the lake is owned by the city so the council will still be in charge of all the decisions moving forward,” Kippes said. “We’re looking forward to continue working with the city to better the lake.”

As a longtime past Lake Advisory Committee member, Kippes is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the newly formed group.

“There’s no fairy dust we can sprinkle on the lake to resolve the problems, and it’s going to be a timely process that requires a lot of work and money,” Kippes said.

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Vehle also served on the Lake Advisory Committee for the past several years and has expressed his support for dredging the lake. Vehle said the City Council’s decision to purchase the wetland roughly 2.5 miles west of the lake was a step in the right direction. He said the combination of the low-lying wetland — which will be used as a natural filtration system for the water flowing into the lake watershed — and dredging would provide a tremendous breakthrough for improving the lake.

“We are eager to continue working on providing as much improvement for the lake as possible,” Vehle said. “The lake is a great asset for the community, and we’re committed to making strides in the right direction.”

As for the timeline of the fundraising process, Kippes said the group will continue seeking to raise funds for dredging over the next few years. In addition, Kippes said the group will focus on improving the water quality around Firesteel Creek.

With the City Council’s recent decision to eliminate a handful of committees, including the Lake Advisory Committee, Friends of Firesteel will be able to hold private meetings. However, Kippes said the group will periodically release information that was discussed at past meetings to provide transparency.

“Over the next couple of years we will hold some public information meetings and do our best to communicate with the public that way,” Kippes said. “But our regular scheduled meetings will be private due to not being a committee within the city.”

The members — Justin Luther, John McLeod, Mike Kuchera, Todd Boyd and Kevin Erdmann — all previously served on the Lake Advisory Committee. In addition, Mark Puetz will serve as the secretary and Brian Temple will serve as the treasurer.

Moving forward, Kippes said the wealth of experience that the group members have accumulated over the past several years will provide an asset to making critical improvements for the lake.

City Council President Kevin McCardle said he’s eager to explore the suggestions that the nonprofit lake organization will bring forward to the City Council.

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While McCardle is supportive of the group’s mission, he said he would like to see more community member representation within the group.

“Since the lake is owned by the city and people in town and on the outskirts utilize the lake, I think it would be a good idea to have more members in the group consists of people who don’t live on the lake,” McCardle said, noting a majority of the members live or own property along the lake. “But I look forward to seeing the ideas and suggestions from the group.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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