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As lake vanishes, talk of dredging bubbles up

This abandoned buoy was once used to signify the swimming area at Lake Contrary. Some county officials believe dredging the lake would provide a recreational asset close to St. Joseph and improve property values in the area.

Posted on September 11, 2023

About four years ago, Mike Harris stood on the shore and watched a pontoon boat on Lake Contrary.

Harris waved and even cheered for what was becoming an increasingly rare sight. Today, the attorney looks back on that day as a swan song for the body of water that he now calls Weed Contrary.

“I never thought I would come down to Lake Contrary and look at weeds and there would be no water,” said Harris, who has owned property at the lake since the 1960s. “When I come down here now — I enjoy sitting out — I honestly have tears in my eyes when I look out there. I cannot understand what has happened.”

This lake, located outside the city limits in Buchanan County, has largely vanished into a waist-high tangle of weeds where swimmers, pontoon boats and water ski enthusiasts used to spend lazy summer weekends. Today, boat ramps and docks lead to nowhere. A buoy lies abandoned on the empty beach. The remaining body of lake water is so tiny that it only takes two minutes to walk around it.

The fate of an oxbow lake, formed when a meandering section of river gets cut off from the main channel, is largely predetermined. With no significant water source, these lakes eventually fill in and become bogs or wetlands. What’s happened at Lake Contrary comes as little surprise, but the speed of its demise has caught some property owners off guard.

About 15 years ago, when attorney Jim Bowers moved there, you could swim or water ski in the lake. Just four years ago, there were still pontoons.

“It was a very, very different lake in those days,” Bowers said. “It’s gone down and come back. It went down this time faster than anything I’ve experienced.”

The lake’s current status has county officials once again talking about the possibility of dredging it.

“If we dredge, I think year-round, we’d have water,” said Ron Hook, the western district commissioner.

As far as dredging goes, the concept is fairly simple. Dig deep enough and you hit the water table and bring the lake back to life.

The problem involves money more than engineering. It could cost anywhere from $7.5 million to $11 million depending on whether the county hired a company or acquires and operates its own dredging equipment. There’s also the issue of where to put all the dirt, which is why the county is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deposit it into the Missouri River.

“There’s still a long ways ahead of us,” Hook said. “But we’re further now than we have ever been with the Corps of Engineers.”

Hook said the county continues its research and has worked with Fritz Ambrozi, a contractor hired on the courthouse roofing project, for some initial estimates and approaches to the Corps of Engineers and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Hook said he envisions a public meeting with landowners to discuss the possibility of dredging, though he acknowledges that support is more mixed among those who don’t live near the lake.

“There’s people who say, ‘Let it take its course,’” Hook said. “I think it would be a true asset.”

Presiding Commissioner Scott Nelson said he’s open to dredging but would like more information on the depth of the water table beneath the lake bed and whether a more steady water supply can be found.

Pressure-relief wells are designed to supply water to the lake, but only when the Missouri River is above a certain level. With the river running low, they have little impact.

“Really, what this is going to boil down to is why now, and the cost,” Nelson said. “Is is viable?”

Harris, who remembers the flotilla of pontoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day in past years, thinks the commission needs to treat the lake the same as any other county-owned asset like roads, bridges and the courthouse itself. The public wouldn’t be too supportive of the courthouse falling into the same state of disrepair as Lake Contrary.

“We’ve been talking about dredging Lake Contrary for 40 years and it never gets done,” he said. “Now we don’t even have water in the lake.”


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