Anglers, boaters and swimmers will have one more shortened season to enjoy the waters at Scott County's West Lake Park before the park's lakes are drained for a major restoration project.
Roger Kean, the county's conservation executive director, said plans call for starting to draw down the lakes toward the end of summer effectively ending water recreation activities at West Lake. "We'll make it through the first two major summer holidays, but we won't make it through Labor Day," he said Friday.
The Lake of the Hills complex, made up of four lakes within West Lake Park, will close the tail end of the 2019 season as well as its entire 2020 recreation season, he said Friday. Within the complex is Lake of the Hills, the largest and most popular lake in the park, which is surrounded by Railroad Lake, Bluegrass Lake and Lambach Lake.
The $3.5 million to $4 million project, which has been in the planning for five years, is designed to improve water quality and recreation opportunities impacted by sediment and erosion issues.
The restoration is a joint project of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, which will fund 75 percent of the cost, and the Scott County Conservation Board, which will provide a 25 percent match.
According to Kean, the 54-acre Lake of the Hills complex landed on the DNR's Impaired Waters List after the state implemented new clean water standards for testing. It was one of 34 major Iowa lakes identified by the DNR for possible lake restoration projects.
"Our water is safe," Kean added. But higher levels of nitrates and phosphates, as well as higher sedimentation rates, have negatively impacted water quality and recreational activities. "We've noticed our fishing has not been as good (in recent years)," he said.
Kean said while the dirt work is being done, the project also will create new habitat features to attract fish as well as work on the shorelines to repair shores that are caving in and provide protection for the future.
"To the naked eye you don't see the problems but the testing saw those sediments and chemicals there, " he said. "To the average user out there paddling a boat, he doesn't see the problems."
According to Kean, the first phase begins this spring with the construction of nine new watershed ponds to protect the watershed. "These are sediment ponds that will be built along the lakes to slow down erosion and keep the sediment from going into our lakes in the future."
This phase will not impact the lakes' usage, he said.
In an update to the Scott County Board of Supervisors earlier this week, Kean said most of the ponds will be built on watershed within the park. But two other landowners control other parts of the watershed where two of the ponds will be built and have signed an agreement to allow construction.
Kean said the park does not have any watershed ponds. But one of the four lakes —Blue Grass Lake — was originally designed as a sediment pond when the lakes were built in 1970.
Originally 12 to 15 feet deep, he estimated it is six feet deep now because of the silt. "You can walk across it," he told supervisors.
"It served its purpose for all those years," Kean said in the interview. "It was catching everything in the 1970s and 1980s, but as it has filled up it has impacted the other lakes."
Blue Grass Lake is the only lake that will be completely dug out and dredged, while the other three are being drained to be deepened and re-shaped.
Kean said the dirt work will begin next winter and go into winter of 2020. The lakes will be re-filled in early 2021. "Then hopefully we'll be back open the summer of 2021 for that recreational season."
In preparation, Kean said the DNR will relax its fishing regulations this upcoming season and allow what is known as "promiscuous fishing." "It basically means anything goes. All the regulations are abandoned because they want people to catch as many fish as they can."
Otherwise, he said the remaining fish will be killed and wasted when the lakes are drained. The lakes will be restocked later with bluegill, crappie and catfish.
In addition, the conservation board is working to find a commercial fisherman to take out the rough fish, or those less desirable to sportsmen, such as carp and shad. "Commercial fishermen have a market for those type of fish," Kean said, adding among the uses is dog food production.
While West Lake will be closed to water recreation, the park itself will remain open to campers, hikers and picnics when the lakes are drained. The park draws nearly a half a million people each year.
"I think a lot of people are going to be interested in seeing the construction that occurs," he said. "Water quality and improving recreational opportunities is important to people. I think they're willing and understand that we're giving up a year of our lakes to have better lakes."