ALEXANDRIA -- Life without a lake was almost a scary reality for Hanson County residents once again.

After a torrential rainstorm in September breached the lake’s spillway and decimated the body of water, Lake Hanson residents had a mission to bring the lake back to life.

For the roughly 30 residents who own property along the lake, the 61-acre body of water has provided a high quality of life since its creation in the 1930s. During the rainstorm that brought 9 to 10 inches of rainfall to Hanson County in less than two days, the auxiliary spillway responsible for maintaining the water levels of Lake Hanson collapsed. In just a couple of hours through the night, the rural lake dwindled in size to a shallow creek, while its previous water drained away. Once the damage was assessed, the Lake Hanson Association was staring down an $80,000 reconstruction project for the dam to function again.

But nine months later, the Lake Hanson residents’ quest to bring the lake back to life has been accomplished thanks to a team effort led by the lake association and homeowners, who received a boost from several agencies and area businesses along the way.

Water flows out of Lake Hanson's primary spillway. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Water flows out of Lake Hanson's primary spillway. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“Getting this done took a huge amount of work from a lot of very committed people who love this lake,” said Julie Brookbank, who resides on the lake and is as a member of the Lake Hanson Board of Directors. “It is crazy how quickly we got this done, and it really is a project to be proud of.”

The spring-fed lake is about 15 miles east of Mitchell and utilizes two separate spillways, with one on the north side and the other on the south side of the lake. Both spillways allow water from Pierre Creek to flow in and out of the lake. On the south side of the lake, the auxiliary spillway that was put in place allows for runoff when water levels in the lake rise beyond the average height.

Due to the volume of water that heavily strained the spillway in September, the south dam collapsed and caused the lake to drain.

What was frustrating is that it's not the first time Lake Hanson residents have experienced the phenomenon. Jeff Smith, an Alexandria native who owns a cabin on Lake Hanson, recalls the 2007 incident that closely paralleled what occurred in 2019.

“It was a crazy thing to witness, and it required a lot of hard work to get the lake back,” Smith said.

The construction of the auxiliary spillway shows both the improvements and the power of the 2019 flooding at Lake Hanson. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The construction of the auxiliary spillway shows both the improvements and the power of the 2019 flooding at Lake Hanson. (Matt Gade / Republic)

In order for the chosen contractor, Twedt Construction, of Montrose, to complete the hefty repair work on the spillway dam, a lot of the work hinged on whether the Hanson County area would see a dry spring. For the construction to begin on the south side spillway, the existing, excess water that was in the basin of the depleted lake had to be lowered a bit further, which was done through placing water pumps along the north side of the lake.

Crews began working on the dam on May 8 and finishing the project just under 10 days, which required 100 tons of rip-rap rock.

“The challenge to getting the repair done was multi-fold, because we knew there was damage to the county road on the east end, and the access county gravel road on the west end of the dam washed out and the culverts went with,” Brookbank said, noting it posed a serious challenge for construction companies, as the washed out roads restricted access for the companies to fix the areas in need.

As the construction project progressed in early May, it gained support from some nearby lake residents, who Brookbank credited for helping reduce the repair costs.

“For the fill dirt that was needed for the lake, we had a donation from the landowners who own the ground that was all washed out when the spillway went,” Brookbank said, noting the landowners donation of the nearby fill dirt equated to roughly $50,000 worth of fill dirt. “We were so fortunate that we didn’t have to buy $50,000 and have it trucked in.”

Considering the reconstruction of the spillway following the 2007 breach took 57 days to be completed, Brookbank said she was taken aback at how quickly the repair work was completed in early May, which wrapped up in eight days on May 22. Four days later, the lake was up and running and ready for summer.

Lake Hanson is filling back up after having been drained last Sept. as a result of the auxiliary spillway giving way due to the flooding at the time. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Lake Hanson is filling back up after having been drained last Sept. as a result of the auxiliary spillway giving way due to the flooding at the time. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Funding efforts

As one of the members of the Lake Hanson Association -- which consists of all the individuals who own lakefront property along the rural lake -- Smith contributed to the project, while fixing up his own cabin property while the water was low.

Among the groups that were perhaps the most vital funding source for the repairs was the James River Water Development District (JWDD), a government agency that works to promote conservation and development. The group pitched in half the costs to assist in the lake repair efforts with a $40,000 grant in January, which Brookbank said was a game changer for the restoring the lake.

“We had some participation from (JWDD) in the past with the 2007 breach, along with the dredging project we did years ago, and we are very grateful for all that they do for Lake Hanson. It was a key part of helping us complete the project,” Brookbank said.

According to Brookbank, when one becomes a property owner on the north side of Lake Hanson, which is where the homes and cabins are situated, a 99-year lease is attached to the purchase. The Lake Hanson Association owns the entire north side of the lake, and to lease the property, an annual fee is tacked on for owners.

To support the remaining funds for the lake project, the fees for Lake Hanson Association members were doubled this year, which will be in place for several years until the loans the association borrowed are paid off, according to Smith. Between the Lake Hanson Association members, Smith said they contributed roughly $30,000 to the project.

“We have been able to keep those fees really low over the years, but we did have to increase them in 2007 when that breach occurred,” Brookbank said. “With the grant funding we received back then, and the increase in lot lease fees went to retire a loan that we used to finance the repairs. We decided to follow that same model in order to achieve the repairs."

The auxilliary spillway, left, at Lake Hanson is completely rebuilt as the primary spillway lets out water at Lake Hanson on Wednesday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The auxilliary spillway, left, at Lake Hanson is completely rebuilt as the primary spillway lets out water at Lake Hanson on Wednesday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)

A community asset

In many rural towns throughout the state, community pools are vital recreation opportunities. Considering Alexandria has been without a public pool for as long as he can remember, Smith said Lake Hanson is viewed by many locals as the community pool.

“It’s an important asset to the community, because there isn’t a community swimming pool in Alexandria. And the kids and families who don’t have cabins or lakes on the home, they are able to come and enjoy the lake on our beach," Smith said.

The Alexandria community has utilized the lake to its fullest, as Brookbank said it's provided a way for kids to learn how to swim.

“We have lifeguards hired on in the summer to offer their services for the months of June and July, but with the COVID-19 virus and uncertainty of the lake project, we didn’t take that on this year,” Brookbank said.

As the view from her lakefront home faces the south side of the lake, Brookbank is proud to see a view that now includes boats cruising across the lake and the water being enjoyed once again.

“Now, from my vantage point, I get to see the newly constructed auxiliary spillway, and a full lake,” Brookbank said.