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City of Mitchell mulls selling public land along Lake Mitchell to fund $17 million dredging project

For the city to sell some of the land along the lake, it would require a public vote per state law. The city currently owns 75% of land along the lake.

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Mitchell City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein speaks about the funding options for a future Lake Mitchell dredging project during a Wednesday, July 27, 2022 public meeting at the Lake Mitchell Day Camp
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — What is the publicly owned land around Lake Mitchell worth? And is the city of Mitchell willing to sell the land to pay to clean up the lake?

City leaders say they are considering selling some of the lakefront property on Lake Mitchell to fund efforts to fight algae, something that community members got a clearer picture of on Wednesday, as Mitchell looks for solutions on the $17 million project.

While it’s yet to be determined how the city would fund the project, city leaders pitched some potential options they are mulling over during Wednesday’s public meeting that drew a big crowd of Mitchell residents.

Selling city-owned land along the lake is one potential avenue the city is exploring to help fund a future dredging project, which was suggested during a 2020 community survey.

For the city to sell some of the land along the lake, it would require a public vote per state law. The city owns 75% of land along the lake.

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City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein broke down how the revenue made from lake land sales could be used to help fund dredging, if voters approved it.

“In the event that did happen, we would have the opportunity to capture that new property tax value and the cost of the sale that the council could dedicate back to the lake,” Ellwein said.

An aerial photo of Lake Mitchell from 2009. (Republic file photo)
An aerial photo of Lake Mitchell.
REpublic

Regardless of whether the lake land sale move materializes, Ellwein said the city could utilize State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) loans to assist in funding the project.

“Typically, the State Revolving Loan Funds (SRF) loan money is used for infrastructure projects, but the state has tentatively given us approval that we can use the Lake Mitchell dredge as part of that,” Ellwein said, noting the SRF loans allow a 30-year financing window. “The current interest rate is 2.125%. If we financed a $10 million SRF loan, that annual debt service would be about $500,000 per year.”

To help fund a potential $500,000 annual debt service, the city is looking at using revenue made from rentals at the future lake boat dock that recently received a $1 million grant and revenue from the Lake Mitchell Campground.

Friends of Firesteel, a local organization made up of Mitchell residents, is also pushing to raise $3 million for lake restoration work.

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Public Works Director Joe Schroeder breaks down the dredging design at Wednesday's Lake Mitchell meeting.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Scott Houwman, a Lake Mitchell resident who indicated he supported the idea of selling lake lots, pitched a suggestion to charge a $5 lake use fee as an avenue to help generate revenue for a future dredging project.

“If you want to use this lake once it’s nice and clean, would the GF&P allow us to have a lake license that makes it where you have to pay $5 a year to access this lake if you don’t live here,” Houwman said. “Have we thought about electric boats and keeping gas and stuff out of the lake?”

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Another idea for funding that was brought up by a Mitchell resident was implementing an increase in sales tax to be allocated for dredging. However, Ellwein said state law prohibits such a move.

“We looked at that, but the legislature said no,” Ellwein said.

City’s wetland hits snag, project delayed one year

Mayor Bob Everson opened Wednesday’s meeting with an update on the city’s wetland project that’s set to take place about 2 miles west of the lake along Firesteel Creek. The roughly $1 million wetland project aims to reduce the phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake from Firesteel Creek. It is a separate project from what the city is considering with lake dredging.

While the 37-acre wetland was initially planned to begin construction later this summer and into the fall, Everson said the project will be pushed back a year to 2023 due to a recent snag the city ran into during the permitting process.

“We thought we had it all permitted, but the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers told us we need another permit. Hopefully, we can get going right away in 2023,” Everson said of the wetland that will be filled with cattails and include three sediment ponds.

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Public Works Director Joe Schroeder points to area along Firesteel Creek where the city's wetland project is set to be built.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

In addition to the new permit needed, Everson said the state Historic Preservation Office requested to study the land where the wetland is slated to be built before the project ensues. With the delay in the wetland project pushing it out to 2023, it brings the estimated start date of the project within a similar timeline as the lake dredging project.

According to the city’s estimated dredging timeline provided at the lake meeting, crews could begin work as early as 2023, pending the Mitchell City Council’s approval. The project is anticipated to take up to two to three years once it begins.

Some Mitchell City Council members have indicated they do not support dredging the lake bottom prior to the wetland being built, including Dan Allen and Kevin McCardle. Considering past studies on the lake have indicated roughly 53% of the phosphorus and sediment known for causing algal blooms flows into the lake through Firesteel Creek and 47% of it is in the lake itself, McCardle said “it would make zero sense” to dredge before the wetland is in place reducing the phosphorus loads working their way downstream.

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McCardle also pointed to the findings of Paula Mazzer, a biochemistry professor at Dakota Wesleyan University, and a group of her students, who previously engaged in a study on the lake that they collectively said showed dredging the lake without the creation of wetlands upstream “would be pointless” as another reason he is committed to getting the wetland project going before dredging.

Despite the uncertainty of timelines between the wetland and a future dredging project, Public Works Director Joe Schroeder emphasized the man-made lake has “reached its life cycle” and is in need of both dredging and wetland work upstream to improve it for years to come.

Breakdown of dredging design

Schroeder provided a look at the dredging designs that an engineering firm is in the midst of completing, which will serve as a blueprint for the project. To lower the lake water for crews to dredge, a significant drawdown of the water will be needed.

“The drawdown is important because it allows us to control the lake levels. When we’re done, a structure that’s under design would allow us to lower the water to help maintain our wetland, make improvements to our lakeshore and keep the water in the lake fresher,” Schroeder said.

The designs have suggested dredging roughly half of the lake bottom’s 2 million cubic yards of phosphorus-rich sediment through a mechanical dredging method, which would be done with machinery removing sediment to a collection site at Firesteel Park west of the lake.

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An algae warning sign is posted along Lake Mitchell in the summer of 2019.
Republic

Several questions from the public arose at Wednesday’s meeting asking whether mechanical or hydraulic dredging is more effective. Everson said the mechanical dredging process has been deemed the “most effective” method due it ensuring the sediment is removed, whereas hydraulic dredging — which is done through a pipe siphoning sediment — doesn’t provide as much certainty in sediment removal.

A South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks official was on hand during the lake meeting and fielded questions about the impact the dredging would have on the fish. Dave Lucchesi, a GF&P fisheries biologist based in Sioux Falls, said the “bad news” that comes with dredging lakes is that the fish kill results in a “decline in fish abundance and variety.”

“When you refill a lake, you get this great boost in productivity. The fishing won’t be as good as it is now for a while,” he said.

However, Lucchesi said he anticipates the lake will ultimately see a “better fish population” down the road post-dredging. Lucchesi cleared up uncertainty of whether the GF&P would restock the lake with fish after dredging concludes, saying the state wildlife agency is prepared to restock it.

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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