Even with ice, emergency officials eye lake levels

Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret and Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission President Bill Maas said water levels in the region are coming down, but the county is prepared with an updated water traffic enforcement plan if things change.
Photo by Russ Mitchell

The phrases "mostly sunny" and "partly cloudy" are common on the National Weather Service's seven-day forecasts and that's good news for Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret.

"Mike is keeping tabs on things minute-by-minute, almost," Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission President Bill Maas said. "We're within 5 inches of where the 5 miles per hour speed limit would kick in automatically."

The commission leader is referring to a rule approved at the start of 2019. Commissioners eliminated the 600-foot language for a 5 mph zone or "no wake" enforcement.

Under the 600-foot rule, gauge levels dictated when boaters had to travel at 5 mph near the shore, but the boaters could resume normal speeds at times of high waters once they were 600 feet away from shore. If water levels rose to a second level, all watercraft were slowed to 5 mph, regardless of the operator's location on the lakes.

"We did away with that," Ehret said. "It just had too many issues, and it just wasn't working. So, we took the two levels we had previously and we, roughly, went in the middle of those two levels and created the new level at which the (lake-wide) 5 mph rule gets implemented."

For example, the two gauge levels used to trigger emergency measures on Big Spirit used to be 18 inches for a 5 mph speed limit within 600 feet of the shore and 24 inches for a lake-wide 5 mph limit. Now the 5 mph speed limit is enforced lake-wide when Big Spirit Lake gauges are at 22 inches.

For East Lake and West Lake Okoboji, the 5 mph speed limit goes into effect when lake levels reach 26 inches or 6.2 feet on the Lakeside Lab gauge. The previous standard for restrictions was 30 inches.

"We didn't just throw a dart at the dart board to pick those numbers," Ehret said. "We had a lot of input from residents and businesses last summer. We talked to protective associations and the DNR, of course, because they have to enforce this."

Ehret said most of the snowpack is gone, which is a good sign for lake and river levels.

"It's still coming up just a little bit but it is starting to level out," on lakes, Maas said. "If we don't get any hard rains, we should have it going down a little bit."

Rivers in Dickinson County are already receding from their crests. Ehret said the damage left behind exceeds last summer's floods, which dampened the Fourth of July weekend.

Ehret estimates the county sustained $350,000 damage to roads and county infrastructure in the most recent flood. Snow-blocked culverts redirected river water to locations that aren't usually prone to floods. Gravel roads sustained the highest amount of damage.

"We've got three river gauge sites two of them are actually out of flood stage or pretty close," Ehret said. "Another one is going to be probably this weekend. The rivers are looking pretty good."

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