Tuesday, January 1, 2019

High water levels wreak havoc before major holiday

This is part of a series looking back at 2018.

Photo by Seth Boyes

It's been almost 25 years since the waters in the Lakes Area hit memorably high levels in 1993, and Mother Nature seemed to be delivering an encore at the end of June. Heavy rains led to water entering some basements, the closure of some roads and restrictions on boat travel during the peak vacation season.

The county board of supervisors authorized Dickinson County Engineer Dan Eckert to purchase sand for the public to sandbag their properties. Eckert was somewhat eager to start the process so the public could begin preparing for the rains.

"If I've got to find sand at 10 o'clock Sunday morning, it's going to be fairly difficult," he said at the time.

Photo by Seth Boyes

U.S. Geological Survey gauging stations put the water levels on the Iowa Great Lakes at their highest point since 1993. Although lake levels are far from that year's catastrophic levels, local agencies said shoreline erosion and property damage remained a concern.

The Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission used a quickly-called meeting July 3 to slow down boats on flooded lakes in Dickinson County.

Orleans Mayor Bill Maas and Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret both said they heard from lakeshore residents who saw high waves and aggravated shoreline erosion due to recreational boat travel on the Iowa Great Lakes.

"The water that we're seeing right now is high enough that it is saturating soils along shorelines on the Lakes," DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins said at the time. "Those saturated soils can easily erode and fall into the lakes. Also, it destabilizes some of those shorelines and makes the potential for collapses and other events of erosion to occur."

Under normal conditions, boats have a speed limit of 5 mph within 300 feet of shore. High water levels automatically triggered an expanded 600-foot "no wake" zone because of torrential rains in late June. The commission needed an emergency meeting because the recent storms technically left area lakes just shy of levels required for lake-wide 5 mph speed restrictions."

Mass said the commission was acting preventively.

"Basically what we're trying to do is save property and save people from injury," he said on July 3. "We've put in, effective immediately, that all vessels will not exceed 5 mph anywhere on the lakes in Dickinson County. The only one exception to that would be emergency vessels that will be displaying blue lights to get to an accident scene or whatever the case may be."

The commission's observations and the approaching holiday prompted them to enact the lake-wide travel restrictions.

"Sometimes, when we put things together, we don't necessarily have all of the facts and figures and new facts and figures are always appearing," Maas said. "So, we had to make a ruling (on July 3) contrary to what we had thought would be a perfect ruling before. I, myself didn't take it lightly because I'm one of those after teaching math and physics for forty years I rely on facts and figures, and you should stick to your guns on things. But, in this particular case, I couldn't really sleep if I didn't think we did everything we could to make sure things were safe for the general public."

Iowa DNR Conservation officers also attended the meeting. The DNR's Jeff Morrison said getting the word out about the no-wake policy was going to be critical. He thought most people would cooperate with restrictions if they received the information.

"If it's going to work and if we're going to have an impact on protecting our shoreline, we're going to have to have compliance from the general public," Morrison said. "We'll be out there enforcing the rule as stated the best we can. That's going to be a lot of boats on the water but, bottom line is, we need good neighbors and folks that want to take care of the lake I really believe that, if most of the people know there's a special rule on the Lakes, they will work hard to comply with it."

The American Red Cross made clean-up kits available to anyone, regardless of income. The kits were available in the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office and Ehret sent a number to Lake Park City Hall, the Terril Fire Station and Superior City Hall. The kits include a broom, mop, scrubber and cleaning materials.

Photo by Russ Mitchell

The high water levels led to numerous road closures as well, including Iowa Highway 9 near the Little Sioux River.

Some of the region's sanitary sewers were forced to bypass their systems, emptying into some of the Iowa Great Lakes, as they struggled to cope with the heavy flow. Steve Anderson, with the Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District, said the discharges were not as bad as they seemed and were diluted by the rainfall.

"It's classified as raw sewage but, as much rain water as we've got coming into our plant right now, we can (still) discharge and meet our limits," he said.

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