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."