Could Lake Mitchell dredging be dead in the water? City council divided on project

“Until we know we’re getting better quality of water coming in through Firesteel Creek, I think this would be useless. When we do vote on it, I will be voting no,” Councilman Dan Allen said.

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Water flows over the spillway dam on Lake Mitchell.
Republic file photo
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MITCHELL — The Lake Mitchell dredging project appears to be on the ropes.

For the first time since dredging talks heated up over the past few years, some Mitchell City Council members indicated on Monday they were not in favor of moving forward with the multi-million-dollar project.

During the council’s budget work session on Monday night, council members Dan Allen and Dan Sabers revealed they were opposed to the project that’s estimated to cost between $15 million to $20 million for different reasons. The opposition to the project ignited a fiery discussion and revealed council members who are strong proponents of dredging the lake as a method to reduce the algae woes hampering the body of water.

“Until we know we’re getting better quality of water coming in through Firesteel Creek, I think this would be useless. When we do vote on it, I will be voting no,” Allen said of the dredging project.

Council member Marty Barington pointed to the amount of time city officials have spent into exploring dredging to end up seeing the project get killed would leave him “disappointed.”


“We’ve put so much time into this. I’ve always sat here as a community thinking we are going to move forward on this project. If the votes aren’t there, I’d be pretty disappointed. If we do back it up a year, I’m really concerned we might lose it completely,” Barington said.

Council member Susan Tjarks characterized a vote to deny the dredging project as a “huge mistake.”

“I think there is nothing that’s more disheartening than asking the community what are your priorities, and then turning your back on them. I feel the community has spoken on this lake being a priority,” Tjarks said, citing past community surveys.

Council member Jeff Smith echoed his support for the project and said the finish line is near.

"We've been slowly moving forward, and the council made a commitment years ago to clean up Lake Mitchell, and I would hate to see us fault now that we have a little bit of a finish line in place," Smith said.

Allen pointed to the Firesteel watershed — the 350,000-acre watershed that drains into Lake Mitchell — as the area the city should be focused on and not an in-lake solution like dredging. Allen said there needs to be “way more” wetland projects upstream Firesteel Creek for him to begin considering dredging the body of water.

Getting the Firesteel watershed off the impaired watershed list is something Allen emphasized needs to be a focus more so than dredging.

Sabers said it’s a timing issue. While Sabers indicated he wants to see the lake’s water quality improve, he said dredging before substantial wetland work upstream begins is a “premature” move.


Some of Sabers' concerns centered around funding and how the drawdown of the lake would impact the irrigation source for the Lake View Golf Course, which utilizes the lake for its irrigation. Selling some of the city's lakefront property as a way to help fund the dredging project is something Sabers said needs to be in place before supporting dredging, which would require a public vote for the city to sell its lakefront property.

“I would like to see it come to a vote and we sell properties to pay for the lake project before I can support it. To me, I think we need to work upstream first,” Sabers said. “We don’t even have our first one done yet.”

Council member John Doescher pressed city officials on whether the 30-acre wetland project that’s roughly over a year out, pending the results of an archaeology survey on the land along Firesteel Creek, and a potential new wetland that could be on the horizon are adequate to reduce the runoff coming into the lake via Firesteel watershed.

“We had one study done that said we need over 1,000 acres of wetlands upstream, and I’m wondering if the Kelley wetland and the other potential wetland is going to be adequate to take care of the water source causing issues in the lake,” Doescher asked.

Public Works Director Joe Schroeder said dredging the lake while simultaneously working on wetland projects upstream will help prolong the lake, but he didn’t definitively say whether the proposed wetland work will adequately address the phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake.

“We are working upstream to help eliminate sediment from entering the lake. We can’t 100% alleviate that, but the drawdown structure of the lake would help us more easily remove sediment from the upstream portion. I think it is a good way to prolong the life of the lake,” Schroeder said.

According to Schroeder, the jetty project that recently gained a $1 million federal grant could be much more challenging to complete without the drawdown of the lake water.

As of now, the proposed 2023 budget includes a roughly $600,000 final dredging design and construction of the multi-million-dollar drawdown of the lake water to prepare for dredging the sediment along the lake bottom.


Schroeder also noted a denial to move forward with any of the preliminary work associated with the project could increase the costs and further delay it.

To help the city budget for the future, City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein has called on the council to make a final decision on the dredging project. Leading up to now, the council has approved a pair of dredging designs that sought to drum up potential methods of dredging the sediment.

For the project to advance, the council needs to approve with a simple majority. Judging by the discussions on Monday, it’s unclear whether the council has enough votes to approve the project.

There was indication that the council will vote on whether to move forward with dredging at its next meeting on Monday, which would set the stage for whether the dredging project advances.

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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