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Mitchell City Council backs Lake Mitchell drawdown project, but dredging remains uncertain

Council member Marty Barington emphasized that the decision to advance the drawdown of Lake Mitchell that’s estimated to cost around $3.5 million was not a vote on the entire Lake Mitchell dredging project.

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In this file photo, water flows out of the spillway in August 2020.
Republic file photo
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MITCHELL — Although there are mixed feelings about dredging Lake Mitchell, the Mitchell City Council agreed Monday to move forward with a drawdown of the lake water.

For some council members, the decision to support the drawdown of Lake Mitchell was a move that brought the city closer to dredging. But other council members who are opposed to dredging pointed to the drawdown project to help the city construct a better wetland upstream along Firesteel Creek.

Council member Marty Barington, a strong proponent of dredging Lake Mitchell, emphasized that the decision to include the drawdown project in the 2023 budget that’s estimated to cost around $3.5 million was not a vote on the entire Lake Mitchell dredging project.

“I’ve been getting my ears rubbed a lot this past week with people saying, ‘You guys are deciding this huge $15 million to $20 million project Monday.’ This is just the drawdown, which is a key part,” Barington said.

Focusing on wetlands and improving the Firesteel watershed instead of dredging the lake has been a key reason behind several council members’ opposition to taking on a dredging project at this time. But council member Susan Tjarks expressed confidence on Monday that wetland work and lake dredging can be done simultaneously.

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“I can’t imagine a world where we don’t need the drawdown regardless. I mean haven’t we established it’s important not just for the purpose of dredging, but for the purpose of the wetland,” Tjarks said. “I think we need to do both things simultaneously.”

Read more of Sam Fosness' best recent stories ...
“They are very smart. They will never chase your wildlife or hurt anybody,” she said of her pet pig, Bruce.

With the council’s mixed support for dredging the 693-acre lake as a method aimed to improve the algae woes hampering the body of water, the rough timeline for a future dredging project remains up in the air. City officials previously indicated dredging could start as early as 2024, pending council’s approval. However, the $680,000 final dredging design was removed from the proposed 2023 budget. The first two dredging designs took roughly a year each.

The council was planning to vote on whether to move forward with a dredging project sometime in October or November, but when that decision will take place also remains uncertain based on the discussions during Monday’s council meeting.

The second phase of the dredging design led by Barr Engineering has yet to wrap up. When it does, city officials said the engineering team is slated to present the design around March 2023.

According to Public Works Director Joe Schroeder, the timeline of dredging would be affected if the council decides to delay or not move forward with dredging related projects after the March meeting when Barr Engineering presents the second design.

What the drawdown would like and what level the water would be lowered to has yet to be determined, as the council would weigh bids on the project in the future.

In past discussions, Schroeder said the drawdown could be achieved through the construction of a structure near the spillway dam that would allow the city to lower and maintain control of the lake water level. In September, Schroeder said the project could begin as early as 2023.

“The drawdown project has benefits beyond dredging. But there are great advantages of doing the drawdown and the dredging at the same time,” Schroeder said.

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The drawdown project would be funded through a loan from the State Revolving Fund (SRF), if secured.

Joe Kippes, a leader of a local nonprofit called Friends of Firesteel, noted that the organization’s planned fundraising campaign for a future dredging project is in limbo until an official decision on the project is made.

“We’ve got to get to that point to get busy with our fundraising. My concern is that the longer this drags out, the less interest there seems to be,” Kippes said.

Lake Mitchell dredging talks heating up...
Coverage of recent Lake Mitchell dredging discussions
“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.

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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