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Committee reviews Lake Mitchell restoration options

Algae turns Lake Mitchell green near the Lake Mitchell Day Camp on Tuesday. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)

Draining Lake Mitchell is on the table, but city officials don't expect a negative impact on property values.

When a trio of concerned citizens questioned a discussion over a potential $6 million draining and dredging project to remove sediment and limit the amount of algae-fueling phosphorus from the lake, a handful of city officials were quick to counter.

"Always pain in growth, I guess," Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey said after he was questioned about the impact lake drainage could have on someone selling their property next summer.

The discussion came about during a Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday at the Mitchell Recreation Center. And while the city is far from formally approving the project to drain the lake—which would come with another $1.2 million in contingency funds and $420,000 in engineering fees on top of the $6 million initial investment—Toomey said the company looking into the plan is leaning toward drainage.

The city has tied itself to Omaha-based Fyra Engineering to assist in restoring Lake Mitchell, which was riddled with algae last summer and in several summers beforehand. Fyra pitched a plan that includes the initial dredging and three future projects:

• A $7.9 million to $8.66 million installation of a retention pond, wetlands and an aluminum sulfate chemical injection.

• A $11.2 million to $12.3 million by-pass system to divert water away from the lake.

• Ongoing watershed improvements.

For the initial phase, which could be done with or without draining the lake, some attendees at the meeting were hesitant about a possible real estate impact that a drainage could create. Like Toomey, committee member Mike Vehle suggested that working toward an improvement is better than an odorous and green lake in someone's backyard.

"Let's just say that we did make that decision, we're on the positive side," Vehle said if they moved forward with the preliminary phase of the plan.

With phosphorus loading coming almost equally from within and without the lake, Fyra's first step of its development strategy would at least take care of one of the problems. According to the report, the dredging would put Lake Mitchell in as good of shape as it's ever been.

"Step 1 returns Lake Mitchell to 1928 condition," the report in Tuesday's agenda reads.

But, step one is expected to come with zero grant funds for the project total of $7.62 million. The future projects, however, are expected to see a maximum city contribution of 40 percent, with watershed improvements expected to be 100 percent grant funded.

One item that committee members tried not to focus on Tuesday was where the step one funds will come from. Committee member Chad Nemec said there will be a debate on funding regardless of how the project proceeds. Toomey said those discussion would be "putting the cart before the horse."

It was also clear Tuesday that Ducks Unlimited's Steve Donovan isn't on board with the rough draft of the Lake Mitchell development strategy.

Donovan pointed to the line in the "Watershed Improvements" column of the strategy that says watershed improvements aren't necessary.

"I certainly cannot endorse and would not endorse the plan that's on the table right now," Donovan said.

Donovan's comment confused some committee members, who questioned his interpretation of the strategy, which states that watershed improvements "will help reduce phosphorus levels below our water quality goals in Steps 1-3."

The city is awaiting a mapping study to determine how much sediment will need to be dredged from the lake. Last week, Toomey told The Daily Republic that the mapping study will give Fyra a better sense of how much a dredging project could cost.

The next step, according to Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell, is to make a funding request for the dredging project to the Mitchell City Council on March 5.