'If you wait, it's never going to happen,' mayor says of $25M Lake Mitchell dredging project as vote looms
The debate on whether it makes sense to dredge the lake before the city makes progress on reducing the phosphorus funneling into the lake via Firesteel Creek rages on among opponents, supporters.
MITCHELL — As the clock is ticking for the Mitchell City Council to vote on a multimillion-dollar Lake Mitchell dredging project, advocates are making their case to move forward with dredging.
During Tuesday’s Lake Mitchell information meeting, city officials and leaders of a local nonprofit organization who are collectively pushing for a proposed $25 million dredging project that aims to remove a little over half of the phosphorus-rich sediment on the lake bottom said the time to dredge is now.
“If you want to wait, it’s never going to happen,” Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said to a group of about 130 people who attended the lake meeting.
With no signs of inflation slowing down in the near future, construction costs for seemingly every city project are likely to increase with each passing day. And that could raise the estimated $25 million dredging price tag if the project is halted from moving forward in June when the Mitchell City Council is slated to vote on a 30-year loan application to help fund the project.
Rising construction costs aren’t the only potential negative implications to shelving a dredging project, according to Everson.
The city is eyeing a 30-year fixed rate loan through the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) to fund the majority of the proposed project. But due to rising interest rates – which are likely to continue climbing as the Federal Reserve looks to curb inflation – Everson said the city has lost out on a little over $300,000 in buying power due to the SRF loan rates going up.
For the project to advance, the council must approve the SRF loan application with a majority vote. That means five of the eight council members would have to approve the SRF loan application in mid-June.
Judging by recent dredging discussions between the council, it revealed there is mixed support for the proposed lake project.
Among the opponents is Council Vice President Dan Allen, who issued his stance against dredging in early September. For Allen, removing phosphorus-packed soft sediment from the lake bottom while over half of the phosphorus and nutrients causing the algae woes is still coming in from Firesteel Creek would render a dredging project at this time as “useless.”
“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 proposed dredging project at a September city budget work session.
Council member Dan Sabers shared similar concerns to Allen, as he said it was a timing issue that centered around the city’s wetland project along Firesteel Creek not being started. Council President Kevin McCardle has also voiced concerns of pursuing any in-lake solution plans before progress is made on the wetland in the Firesteel watershed.
On the other side of the spectrum, council members Jeff Smith, Marty Barington and Susan Tjarks have been the most vocal dredging supporters and see it as a clear, cost effective path forward to drastically improve the lake.
“Joe Schroeder (Public Works Director) made a comment that this lake is at the end of its life cycle. Not too far in the future, you’re looking at a dead lake,” Smith said during the early May council meeting following the engineer’s presentation of the lake dredging design.
Prioritizing in-lake solutions vs. upstream work
The debate on whether it makes sense for the city to begin removing sediment from the lake bottom before making progress on reducing the high amount of phosphorus and nutrients funneling into the lake through Firesteel Creek took center stage at Tuesday’s lake meeting.
Joe Kippes, president of Friends of Firesteel, a nonprofit that has pledged to raise money for future lake dredging, sought to poke holes in the argument that in-lake solutions cannot be done before more work is done upstream in the 350,000-acre Firesteel watershed that dumps roughly 53% of the phosphorus into Lake Mitchell.
“There’s some discussion that would maybe make you believe if we just take care of the (Firesteel) watershed, that will be enough. The fact is phosphorus is our problem, and 53% of our phosphorus load in the lake comes from the watershed and 47% comes from the soft sediment in the lake,” Kippes said. “If the idea is to wait to do the watershed before we dredge, most of our grandkids will have to tell us about that because we’ll be gone.”
Friends of Firesteel Vice President Mike Vehle underscored the challenges city officials are up against in working on watershed projects by explaining that it would require a lot of farmers who own ground in the watershed to agree to change farming practices. He pointed to the city’s wetland location, which is about 2 miles west of the lake along Firesteel Creek, as an ideal spot to minimize phosphorus loads flowing into the northwest side of the lake.
“The west end of the lake is where the most sediment is at. That’s why when they do the Kelley property (wetland) here, that sediment will drop into the sediment ponds. And those wetlands will soak up the phosphorus,” Vehle said.
As the leader of an engineering firm who spent the past two years investigating the lake’s sediment and other elements, Eric Lund and his team concluded that doing both, mechanically dredging the lake and making improvements to Firesteel watershed, will provide the best results for water quality targets to be “consistently achieved.”
While Lund recommended the dredging project that the city is pursuing, he pointed to the Firesteel watershed as “a problem,” regardless of dredging.
“Until the Firesteel Creek input is significantly reduced, we’re going to have a problem whether we 100% dredge it or 100% alum treat it. The Firesteel Creek itself – historical channel – has 1- to 4-plus feet of problematic soft sediment in it,” Lund said.
The issues in the watershed were on the city’s radar before talks of dredging reignited over the past few years. In 2019, the city secured roughly 370 acres of land along Firesteel Creek to build a 35-acre cattail-filled wetland with the goal of drastically filtering out phosphorus heading toward the lake. The wetland that will mark the first of what city officials hope to be more is inching closer to construction. Public Works Director Joe Schroeder said bids for the wetland will open this summer.
Everson is well aware of the lake’s issues caused by the watershed, which has areas surrounded by agriculture production that city officials have been attempting to reduce near the creek through a $1.1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant.
Improving the massive watershed that stretches north of Mitchell all the way to the Wessington Springs area will be a long-term project for city leaders to tackle.
As Everson put it, “We will continue to work on the watershed forever.”