Environmental groups fight funding for Lake Delhi restoration

Several environmental groups are mobilizing against $5 million in proposed state funding to rebuild the Lake Delhi dam on the Maquoketa River in Delaware County.

Background: During the summer of 2010, floodwaters breached the dam at Lake Delhi, draining the recreational spot in a matter of hours. The Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected a request for federal funds to rebuild the dam, saying the Lake Delhi Recreation Association "was not formed for a public purpose, nor does it provide essential governmental services to the general public."

Side note: the former Iowa lake is pronounced "dell-high," not "deli" as in the Indian city of New Delhi.

During the 2011 legislative session, Iowa House and Senate Democrats successfully pushed for $350,000 to fund a study on rebuilding the Lake Delhi dam. The same bill included "intent" language supporting $2.5 million for the restoration from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. Governor Terry Branstad item-vetoed the intent language, saying reasonably that it would be better to wait for the results from the study. (If only the governor applied the same logic to legislation that would promote nuclear power in Iowa before completion of a separate feasibility study.)

The Lake Delhi dam study went forward last September. Branstad included $2.5 million for the dam restoration in his draft budget for fiscal year 2013. Democratic State Senator Tom Hancock submitted a new bill last week that would allocate $2.5 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund in each of the next two fiscal years.

There was widespread support among legislators last year for funding the reconstruction, and Hancock thinks he can make a stronger case this session.

Since last year, property owners around Lake Delhi have approved a substantial tax increase to help pay for rebuilding the dam that cost them their lakefront property. They approved issuing up to $6.1 million in general obligation bonds to pay for the project. [...]

"The people there are working so hard that I think the state needs to step up," Hancock said.

In addition to the bond issue, residents have launched a capital campaign.

"They've proven to us that it's time to be a partner," he said.

Hancock said the economic impact from the loss of the dam and recreational opportunities on the lake is being felt by area businesses and local governments.

So far, so good for Lake Delhi boosters. Although Hancock is retiring from the legislature after this year's session, Senate Democrats have incentive to support the lake project, because Delaware County is part of the open and evenly-divided Senate district 48. I haven't seen any public statements of support from House Republicans, but they too have reason to back the Lake Delhi project. First-term GOP State Representative Lee Hein is running in the new House district 96, which includes Delaware County.

Last year, backers of funding for Lake Delhi went largely unchallenged at the statehouse. This year, several environmental organizations are waging a public fight against spending $5 million for this purpose. They argue that the project is costly and not sustainable. Letting the Maquoketa River flow naturally would be better for the economy as well as the environmnent.

The Iowa Whitewater Coalition took the lead in opposing a new dam on Lake Delhi. From an open letter (pdf) the group published earlier this month:

Because of the magnitude of the economic and environmental impacts and the number of Iowans affected by the dam's failure, a "Recover and Rebuild Task Force" was created and charged with "leading long-term regional and community planning efforts and identifying best practices with respect to managing the Maquoketa River watershed, reducing the likelihood of future damage by flooding and maintaining or improving water quality." This task force identified river restoration as one option and dam rebuilding as an alternate option. The river restoration option is predicted to have a slower economic restoration for the area but with a predicted greater positive economic impact over time (river restoration economic projection: $8,322,263 in single day expenditures, $989,372 in labor income, 65 jobs versus impoundment recreation economic projection: $4,297,664 in single day expenditures, $510,918 in labor income, 33.5 jobs).

From the environmental standpoint, river restoration is a clear winner over re-creating the impoundment. Dams disrupt aquatic habitat, decrease habitat complexity, decrease species diversity, and have detrimental effects on water quality. Regarding the failed dam in particular, impoundment sedimentation accumulation and water quality issues (algal blooms and pathogens) were ongoing problems before the failure and would continue to be problems if an impoundment were re-created. A prime reason for the sediment and water quality problems stems from the extremely unfavorable watershed to impoundment ratio. An ideal watershed to impoundment ratio is 20 acres of watershed for each 1 acre of impoundment surface. Most Iowa impoundments used as multipurpose reservoirs have ratios of 40 to 1 or less. The Lake Delhi impoundment ratio is 500 acres of watershed for each 1 acre of impoundment surface (223,630 acre watershed, 448 acre lake). This impoundment ratio means that dredging would be an ongoing necessity (5 year cycle predicted with increased need following flood events, $2,200,000 dredging cost for 2006 which was mostly negated by the floods of 2008). While ongoing dredging can be used to address sediment problems, the high nutrient problems with accompanying algal blooms and the pathogen problems would still remain. River restoration would avoid the perpetual sedimentation problems of the impoundment while also improving water quality.

In terms of state resident use for recreation, free flowing stretches of the Maquoketa River have been some of the most frequently paddled river sections in Iowa. Free flowing stretches of the Maquoketa River are also home to such river species as smallmouth bass and freshwater mussels (neither of which do well with the decreases in habitat complexity and water quality caused by river impoundment). Restoring the previously impounded and impaired section of the Maquoketa River to a free flowing condition offers the return of a valuable environmental and recreational resource to all Iowans while avoiding the perpetual environmental and economic costs of re-creating a dam with a completely unsuitable watershed to impoundment ratio.

The Des Moines Register's Perry Beeman reported on the controversy this week:

"My opinion is that the research shows that not putting the dam in will make everybody happier except a handful of property owners that are very politically vocal," said Peter Komendowski, an outdoorsman and an Iowa Whitewater Coalition board member. [...]

"I understand that some people have taken an economic hit with the value of their property," he added. "My bet is if we pay them for their losses or buy them out, it might cost less than rebuilding the dam. There are a lot of sides to this; let's take some time."

Central Iowa Paddlers, Friends of Iowa Trails, Friends of Iowa Rivers, and the Iowa Environmental Council all signed the Iowa Whitewater Coalition's open letter. The Iowa Environmental Council added more arguments against the Lake Delhi funding this week.

"Before the dam failed, Lake Delhi was a small impoundment compared to the large area of land that drained into it," explained Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council.  "Because of that, the lake required frequent dredging, which Iowa's taxpayers have helped fund through special legislative appropriations.  We're concerned about continuing the flow of taxpayer dollars to a project as unsustainable as this one."

Iowa's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has an existing Lake Restoration Program which funds improvements to Iowa's public lakes.  To be eligible for funds through that program, lake projects must be sustainable for 50 years.  [...]

The DNR is currently working through a list of lake restoration projects which it carefully prioritized according to which projects would provide the most public benefit.  The Iowa Environmental Council believes the state should fulfill its existing commitments to improve public lakes before choosing to funnel more taxpayer dollars into an unsustainable new impoundment on the Maquoketa River.

Note: I'm active with the Iowa Environmental Council, but I was not involved in the group's decision to oppose Lake Delhi funding.

The most extensive case against Lake Delhi came Wednesday from Iowa Rivers Revival, a non-profit focused on improving rivers environmentally and as recreational opportunities. Click here to view the full two-and-a-half page fact sheet on the dam and the "hidden costs" of rebuilding it. Key points (emphasis in original):

Although called a "lake," the Delhi impoundment was only about 400 feet wide and about 8 miles long -- a long, narrow river pool lined almost completely with private docks on both sides. It was a mostly private lake-like impoundment of river. There was very little public access, and little interest in public access. [...]

* Were there chronic problems with the Delhi impoundment? Yes - it was choked with sediment. The biggest problem in maintaining the Delhi impoundment for recreational boating for the shoreline owners was the need for expensive dredging over and over again because of all the sediment washing into the impoundment. [...]

* How expensive is dredging? It already has cost millions of dollars. Dredging Delhi in 2006 cost more than $2 million. The benefits lasted only two years. The 2006 dredging was undone by a single flood in 2008 that swept in new sediment. The 2006 dredging project was funded by $2.2 million in revenue bonds issued by the shoreline owners' taxing district. The debt will not be retired until 2026. That's 20 years of debt for 2 years of benefits. The 2006 dredge project also used $525,000 in state public funds. The estimated price tag of $12 million for a new dam does not include any expenses for dredging.

* What is the plan for future dredging? None. The $350,000 engineering study of a new dam (a study paid for with State funds) proposes reconstruction of the dam but devotes only two short paragraphs to the chronic and inevitable problem of sedimentation. It recommends sediment-control measures in the watershed but fails to acknowledge that effective sediment control in the 300-square-mile watershed would be huge financial undertaking unlikely to occur. [...]

* Should State taxpayers be more concerned about the Delaware County tax base than Delaware County taxpayers? No. Local pleas for State funds stress the importance of the Delhi shoreline owners' property values for the local property tax base. Delaware County could finance a new dam, but will not do so. If public funds are so important to restore private property values for the local tax base, Delaware County should take the lead in funding. Delaware County has the capacity to issue general obligation bonds to pay more than the $5 million sought from the State for replacing the Delhi dam. The final report of the Governor's "Lake Delhi Recover and Rebuild Taskforce" (Dec. 2010) identified Delaware County's bonding capacity as a key component in financing for a new dam. But Delaware County has not been willing to invest in a new dam. Why should state taxpayers shoulder the burden?

* Were there other problems with the Delhi impoundment? Yes - pollution problems from homeowners' septic systems. One issue that has not been a priority for Lake Delhi homeowners has been solving their wastewater problems. The DNR has identified the homes and cabins along Lake Delhi as Iowa's largest unsewered community. (Governor's Taskforce report.) Canoe the river through the former lakebed and look closely on the banks, you'll occasionally notice narrow, green slicks, which can be traced back to homes and cabins. [...] Delhi was also one of the two lakes in Iowa infested with zebra mussels, an exotic invasive species. [...]

* Has downstream damage been accounted for? No. Epic flooding in 2010 caused by failure of a recreational lake and dam with no flood control function inundated homes, businesses, farm fields, and public infrastructure first with water, then with silt and sand. A "head-cut" that formed in the lakebed continued spewing so much silt that technicians needed to dilute it with one part tap water in order for a turbidity meter to be able to take readings. The head-cut was active for months after the breach event until a temporary $660,000 project led by Iowa DNR stopped it. The net result is that smallmouth bass in a catch-and-release section of the Maquoketa River were reduced to 25 percent of former populations, according to fish sampling results. No river restoration work has offset the harm, and no damage cost figures have been released to document the damage downstream.

* What plans are there for fish passage around a new dam? The "plan" is to try to avoid the fish passage requirement in State law. State law -- the Code of Iowa -- requires that dams on rivers be constructed with a spillway that allows fish to move upstream and downstream past the dam. Delhi interests are trying to get by without meeting the fish passage requirement. Their consulting engineer has recommended not including a fish passage structure because it would be expensive and would allow Asian Carp to migrate up the river. DNR fisheries biologists disagree with that recommendation. Asian Carp (or Silver Carp) thrive in slack-water pools like Delhi, and are less of a problem in free-flowing rivers. Fish passage on the Maquoketa River is important for native fish species. If local property owners are allowed to rebuild their water-ski impoundment, they must at least do it in a way that allows fish passage around the dam, as the law requires.

* Would $5 million for a Delhi dam take money from more deserving lake projects? Yes. State infrastructure funds would be used for the Delhi dam. The DNR Lake Restoration program uses State and Federal funds for public lake restoration projects designed to last for decades without filling back up with sediment. Those lakes provide public recreational use for well-documented numbers of Iowans and are much higher quality lakes than the Delhi impoundment. The restoration program received about $8 million in annual funding for several fiscal years but was reduced to $5.5 million last year at the same time $2.5 million was proposed for the Delhi dam. Sensible and sustainable projects across the state will see funding reduced to accommodate $2.5 million per fiscal year for two years poured into a new Delhi dam.

Environmentalists aren't a powerful lobby group at the capitol, so my hunch is that the Lake Delhi backers will get their way. But in a time of scarce funds for river and lake projects, spending $5 million on a dam for a private neighborhood is excessive. If self-styled taxpayer advocates or business groups weigh in against the project, chances of defeating the funding would improve greatly. Beeman's Des Moines Register piece suggested that outcome is possible:

Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said the debate over the appropriate response would make taxpaying businesses wonder if the state should be involved. "Because there is no clear-cut choice, our members would say that is not something the state government should pay for," he said.

I'm racking my brain trying to think of a time Mike Ralston and Iowa environmentalists were on the same side of an issue. Please help me out in the comments, Bleeding Heartland readers.

  • No way

    this dam should be rebuilt.  It was about 90 years old when it collapsed, a throwback to an earlier era. What was humorous last year as the Governor's Task Force compiled its report was to hear the dam supporters argue that the public had access to it.  There was one small access point which could basically accomodate a jet ski or a row boat, then the second access point way upriver could arguably not even be considered part of the Lake. This was a PRIVATE lake.

    To me, the watershed numbers alone are enough to put the kibosh on this turkey.

    There is a reason somewhere the Branstad Administration is supporting the re-build...somewhere a Branstad contributor has a tie to something or someone involved with the dam and has picked up the phone.  That's the way it works up there.

    That said, the many environmental groups listed above will have no influence whatsoever on whatever debate, if any, occurs over the rebuild. They are immediately discounted by those in power.

  • IF . . .

    it becomes inevetable that the state will be building this neighborhood pond for those few property owners, then I believe the state must include serious access for public use.

    Obtain and improve a state park for camping and trailering. A properly adequate amount for day-use parking. Proper quantity of sanitation facility. A user-friendly permanent boat launch and dock space. (As Yul Brynner said) Ett-SETT-terra, ett-SETT-terra.

    Let the neighbors put up with the jerks on jet skis and ski boats that the state park will attract, because honest, real, public access is what MUST come with public money.

    • Upon further reflection

      Ya know, that response of mine was a knee jerk vindictive reaction to what I perceive to be a boondoggle "lake-to-nowhere" kind of project.

      If that lake really is less than a city block wide and a couple miles long or so, even in my worst get-even moment can I condone putting water skiers and beer sizzling rednecks on jet skis on that water. They'd destroy the place and ruin it for everyone else and not only for the cheap, greedy neighbors.

      No, if we do in-fact end up rebuilding that neighborhood pond, let's ensure that we do it not only to benefit the general public as I wrote above, but let's do it responsibly.

      I'd suggest instead putting the force of law behind making it a true "quiet lake"; no power boating allowed at all. I mean NONE, not the public at large, not the neighbors. Limit all boating to human powered or electric trolling motors at most.

      There is something similar up at Hayward, Wisconsin where three neighboring lakes property owners have established an Association they appropriately have named The Quiet Lakes Assoc.. Granted, they allow motoring but are pretty stern about limiting it to 10mph and no jet skis allowed at all and no water skiing.

      I'd suppose my vindictive side could live with not allowing the neighbors to operate their boat toys on MY lake (that's said tongue-in-cheek).

      BTW, that Quiet Lakes Assoc is GOOGLE-able.

      • yeah

        ...sorry...no quiet lake for you. The lakeowners want this home of the University of Iowa water ski club, complete with powerboats, restored asap with your money, thank you very much.  If they must grudgingly allow the unwashed into their backyard tub as tit for the tat, so be it.

        In a way, this is a concrete (pun intended) example of all that is wrong with this state - clueless legislators, a venal executive branch, an ineffective environmental lobby.

        No reasonable analysis of this project would possibly conclude this dog should be rebuilt.  

        What caused this in the first place?  Why a huge, unprecedented rain event !  And why did that happen?  Well, maybe it had something to do with ... wait for it ...  CLIMATE CHANGE ! Watch legislators put their hands over their ears and say nah nah nah I can't hear you.

        Except in Des Moines, where their answer to new Army Corps flood projections threatening all the new fangled stuff downtown is . . . MOVE THE WATER THROUGH FASTER !!!!!!!!

  • First time in history???

    ...the Register editorial board is exactly right.  No way should this be a publically funded project.  

    Those are all nice riverfront properties now.  If they want a dam, they can pay for that.

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