STORM LAKE, Iowa | When the wind whipped up the shallow water on Storm Lake a couple decades ago, it created an interesting scene.
The wave action lifted sediment off the shallow lake's bottom, leading to cloudy, brown water conditions and strange-looking waves.
"We didn't have whitecaps, we had kind of like chocolate caps," said Gary Lalone, chairman of the Lake Improvement Association in Storm Lake.
Now, after 15 years of dredging removed enough material from the lake bed to cover 800 football fields with 5 feet of silt, the lake's water is clearer, and visitors now see waves the color one would expect. The dredging project ended late this fall, but local officials expect to see the benefits for years to come.
"We're seeing a lot more people use (the lake)," Lalone said.
The dredging wasn't intended to last that long. It was initially a one-year Iowa Department of Natural Resources project to deepen an area of the lake to prevent winter kill of fish, especially walleye, whose eggs are harvested at the lake for fish hatcheries that supply young fish to lakes across Iowa.
After that first summer of dredging in 2002, local leaders wondered if more could be done.
"When that was coming to an end, we thought it would be nice to continue to dredge. One could see water clarity was starting to clear up," Lalone said.
The lake had become so silted in that it was only 7-8 feet deep in many areas. Sediment was almost constantly churned up and suspended in the water, leading to the cloudy conditions. Many agreed it was worth exploring more dredging. The Lake Improvement Association, or LIA, was formed, drawing representatives from the city of Storm Lake, Buena Vista County, the city of Lakeside and the Lake Preservation Association, a nonprofit group involved in several lake and area improvement projects.
They came up with a plan: The city of Storm Lake owned land for a spoil site where silt dredged from the lake could be deposited, Buena Vista County bought a dredge and the LPA raised nearly $1.5 million to pay for more dredging. Funding from the DNR's Lake Restoration Fund also was secured, and dredging began again in 2003. Funding from the DNR and other local sources continued to flow in, and the dredging continued, year after year.
Not only was the dredging deepening the lake to 16-22 feet and improving the clarity of the water, it led local officials to think of how to keep the lake looking so good and capitalizing on it.
"Once we started to clean that lake up, it was the impetus for city leaders to come together and talk about how to better use the lake," said Storm Lake Mayor Jon Kruse, who will retire Dec. 31 after 18 years in office.
At 3,100 acres, Storm Lake is Iowa's third-largest natural lake, with 80 percent of its water coming from ground water sources and 20 percent from surface runoff. Dredging projects in the 1930s and 1960s removed silt, but had no conservation components designed to reduce the amount of sediment running back into the lake and necessitating more dredging. This time, city and conservation leaders realized the impact such conservation measures could have.
As the dredging continued, the DNR and conservation groups improved the Storm Lake watershed, installing buffers and terraces and getting farmers to increase no-till and reduced-till practices, all with the goal of keeping nutrients and sediment on the land rather than have it run off into the lake, said Julie Sievers, a DNR environmental specialist senior.
During that same time, the city of Storm Lake improved its storm sewer system and drainage to improve the quality of water running into the lake.
All that work, in addition to the dredging, has paid off, Kruse said. Fishing has improved. Boaters flock to the lake on nice summer weekends. Kruse and Lalone both believe that King's Pointe, a popular resort and water park on the lake's north shore, might not have materialized if the water quality hadn't been improved.
People are attracted to water, and the city and county can capitalize on lake-related tourism to attract new residents and businesses, Kruse said.
"It's a benefit when you're trying to recruit people," he said.
So with only about one-third of the lake dredged, why stop now?
"We weren't seeing as much improvement anymore, and we expected that," Kruse said. "You get to a point where is it cost-effective to continue?"
More than $10 million in state and local funds was spent to dredge the 7 million cubic yards of sediment from the lake.
Through 2015, the dredge was operated by city employees. But it became harder to hire workers for the seasonal work, Kruse said, and a private contractor was hired to dredge the last two years. The dredge also experienced expensive mechanical problems in those two years.
"We accomplished a lot. We'd like to do some more, but costs are going up for the return we're getting," Kruse said.
With those developments, Lalone said the LIC decided it was probably time to end the dredging. The city plans to sell the dredge. Once it's sold, the LIC likely will cease to exist much longer.
"You kind of hate to see it end, but understand it's been a huge benefit," Kruse said.
A private firm could be hired in the future to complete a year or two of dredging, if desired. The DNR is exploring other possibilities to improve water quality.
"We're always looking for ways to improve water quality," Lalone said.
With conservation practices in place to reduce the sediment flowing into the lake, Sievers said the scope of the recently concluded dredging may never be needed again. Still, it's going to be strange to drive by the lake next spring, she said, and not see the dredge out on the water.
"We've accomplished tremendous things, but it will be different not to see it out there," she said. "It truly is the end of an era."
MERIDEN, Iowa | While Easter is often considered the customary holiday for sunrise worship services to celebrate Christ's resurrection, at least a few local churches meet at dawn on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus' birth.
At Oakdale Evangelical Free Church north of Meriden, the candlelight service begins at 7 a.m. Monday, an hour, if not two hours, later than in Christmases past.
"We used to enter the church in the dark, maybe at 5 a.m.," said Merle Wester, 88, of nearby Cherokee, who recalled attending the Swedish Julotta Christmas service as a child. "They'd have a candle in each window."
Candles also illuminated the tree within the church, prompting Wester's great uncle, August Anderson, to keep his eyes on the tree, making sure it didn't catch fire.
Julotta, the traditional Swedish church service on Christmas morning, is translated this way: "Jul" is Swedish for Christmas; "otta" is Swedish for the time just before dawn.
In Sweden, the holiday rite called for church-goers who lived the greatest distance from the church to start their journey toward church well before dawn. Walking or traveling by sleigh, they carried lanterns and stopped at farmhouses along the way, picking up other Christians on a pilgrimage that culminated in a candlelit service to announce the birth of Jesus.
Founders of the Swedish Free Mission Church Class, which was named Oakdale Evangelical Free Church in 1923, carried the Julotta tradition with them upon settling north of Meriden. There are other churches in the region, in cities such as Albert City and Cherokee, among others, who still celebrate Julotta as well.
Four of the eight children of the late Mabel and Elmer Wester, including Merle Wester, pastor emeritus, plan to take their places at Oakdale Evangelical Free Church on Christmas morning to celebrate Julotta, as they have for years.
"I don't remember going to Julotta by sleigh, but I do remember how cold it was when I got up on Christmas morning because the fire hadn't yet been started," said Lorraine Mortenson, 90, of Cherokee, one of the four surviving Wester children. "And to think, someone had to be at the church that early to get the fire started there."
Another sibling, Evelyn Kludas, 83, of nearby Aurelia, said she recalled the children attending that Christmas service clad in their pajamas. And when they returned home, they always found that Santa Claus had visited their farm.
Jeanette Johnson, 82, who resides north of Meriden, is the fourth Wester child who will attend Julotta on Monday.
Merle Wester and his wife, Eleda Wester, helped keep the Julotta tradition going on another continent as the couple served as missionaries for 43 years in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The missionaries before us had Swedish backgrounds, although they were from the United States," Eleda Wester said. "They had introduced Julotta before our arrival."
So, for four decades of Christmas celebrations, the Westers joined as members of the congregation arose around 3:30 a.m. each Dec. 25 to the sound of drums.
"People carried kerosene lanterns to church and Merle would always fire up his Coleman pressure lamp to help light the church," she said. Their Julotta service in the Congo often ran from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and was heavy on Christmas music and Scripture readings announcing the birth of Jesus Christ.
"There were no sleighs there," Eleda quipped.
"Temperatures in the day-time was often around 90 with humidity," Merle Wester added.
After the Julotta service concluded in the Congo, church-goers would carry their lanterns out into rural villages while inviting others to join them for a second service, which commenced at 8 a.m.
At Oakdale Evangelical Free Church, the Julotta service lasts 45 minutes, officiated this year by The Rev. Jonathan Caldwell. Ross Peterson, 33, grandson of the late Dale Wester, said he'll help lead Christmas carols while playing his guitar.
"It's sentimental for me," said Peterson, whose parents, Lloyd and Nancy Peterson, share Julotta traditions from Oakdale (Nancy's home church) and Evangelical Covenant Church (Lloyds' home church) in Albert City, a Buena Vista County community known for its Swedish heritage. "I grew up with this service and I remember seeing a lot of kids here in their pajamas. As a family, we'd open our stocking stuffers after church."
Some years, Peterson said, everyone holds a candle through part of the Julotta service. Other years, there are minimal lights.
This much has changed in the century since Julotta was first celebrated here: Nobody walks to church.
"When my folks first got married, they would have taken the sled or horse-and-buggy," Mortenson said. "I remember sitting in the car going to church, sitting between my mom and dad. We rode five people in the front, five in the back."
Merle Wester smiled while reflecting on Christmas hymns sung in Swedish during Julotta, always a well-attended celebration. He predicted a crowd of 240 for the service this year, which won't quite fill this beautiful church built one decade ago.
"There's not necessarily a message, but more Scripture and hymns," Eleda said. "It's quite a worshipful service."
"As a church family, it's great to get together and put first things first," Ross Peterson concluded. "We celebrate His coming and celebrate His coming again."
SIOUX CITY | While analyzing a display of plush Star Wars merchandise at JCPenney Saturday afternoon, Jason Kotz admitted the description "last-minute shopper" fit him well.
This year, with two days left before Christmas, he said he was looking at the items in front of him with his 7-year-old son in mind.
"My youngest loves Star Wars, so we're just trying to furnish his room with as much stuff as we can," he said.
Beside him, Steffani Taylor said the two had a handful of people yet to shop for that afternoon, with several more shopping stops ahead.
"We wanted to be able to find the best gift, and we haven't quite found it yet," she said. "We're trying to narrow it down."
Kotz and Taylor weren't the only ones looking to snag late-season deals Saturday afternoon, as shoppers flocked to Sioux City businesses with just two days two days to go before Christmas.
The Saturday before Christmas, often known as either "Super Saturday" or "Panic Saturday," falls among the highest-traffic shopping days of the season.
At JCPenney, general manager Larry Morrison said the store expected crowds and strategically increases staffing as the holiday season progresses.
"Weekends are always the biggest," he said.
Steady lines formed at Customer Service and checkout counters, where he said the store had placed mints to help make the wait a bit more inviting.
The rest of the Southern Hills Mall was bustling but still navigable early Saturday afternoon. Among those in the crowd Saturday was Beth Bjorkgren, who stopped briefly in the mall's common area to say she still had to buy for "everyone" and had a blitz of several stores in mind.
"Target, Gap, Ulta (Beauty), Christopher Banks, Old Navy -- that area," she said. "I'm a procrastinator."
Bjorkgren's mother, Pat, also said she was in the process of crossing one final gift off her shopping list. But she said there were still good deals available.
A survey published by the National Retail Federation earlier this week estimated about 126 million Americans planned to shop on Saturday, and sixteen percent of the survey respondents said they planned to purchase their last gift that day.
There will be no Monday Sioux City Journal so our employees can enjoy the holiday with their families.
Today's paper, however, will include comics and other features you'd normally find in the Monday paper.
We'll be back on racks and doorsteps Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile, you can always check siouxcityjournal.com for all the latest news. Reporters will be populating the website with the latest news.
Please enjoy the holiday.