After receiving a $10,000 boost from the Mitchell City Council, Friends of Firesteel is gearing up to kick start a fundraising campaign to support dredging Lake Mitchell.

The local nonprofit organization — which was created more than a year ago to aid the city of Mitchell’s quest of improving the lake — has been working with a consultant to determine whether their goal of raising roughly $3 million for a future dredging project is feasible. The consultant firm, Maximizing Excellence, of Sioux Falls, was tabbed by Friends of Firesteel about a year ago to help the group plan a fundraising campaign for dredging the lake, should the city decide to pursue that option.

While the first phase of Maximizing Excellence’s work has been in motion over the past several months, Friends of Firesteel President Joe Kippes said the pandemic caused some delay. However, Kippes said the consultants are expected to present their information about the feasibility of the fundraising goal in roughly a month.

“Maximizing Excellence was brought into the picture to gather information and come back to us and tell us if we have the appropriate structure as a nonprofit organization to do this kind of fundraising, and does the city and area have that type of capability to reach that fundraising goal,” Kippes said. “We were going to have that first phase finalized by Dec. 1, but they had some health issues that will get us the results in early January.”

The next part of the project is seeking donations in a fundraising campaign, which Kippes said is anticipated to take up to two years.

Friends of Firesteel’s $10,000 subsidy that was approved by the council in November will help the group pay Maximizing Excellence’s study fee, which cost $32,000. Although Friends of Firesteel was one of the new groups to submit an application that was eliminated due to the financial uncertainty amid COVID-19, the council ended up unanimously approving the group’s subsidy request when it was brought back in November.

For Mitchell City Council member Jeff Smith, Friends of Firesteel’s mission to help improve the lake that’s had a long history of algae woes and poor water quality is too critical not to support.

“The lake has been an issue for years, and everyone kind of has their own opinions on how to rectify it. But we know it is a real problem that will take several years and a well-thought out plan to resolve it as best we can,” Smith said. “We also know that there is very little grant money available for in-lake dredging, so a lot of that will land on the city and the citizens. It’s good that the group is taking a hard look at dredging fundraising because it takes a lot of planning to dredge.”

Smith pointed to the issues that the lake has experienced over the years as one of the city’s biggest challenges. However, he said working upstream along Firesteel Creek is just as important as addressing the issues in the lake itself.

“The lake work is huge, but the Firesteel watershed is massive and much larger than the lake, so we need to focus on the plan that we have put together. And we are tackling that plan now, thanks in large part to the leadership of the mayor, who has been doing a lot behind the scenes lately,” Smith said. “You have to take care of the water coming in before you take care of the lake itself.”

Talks of dredging the lake intensified three years ago when the city entered into discussions with Nebraska-based Fyra Engineering, which pitched a couple of dredging options that came with a hefty price tag. The estimated costs of the dredging options presented by Fyra hovered around $10 to $17 million.

While dredging the lake wasn’t always collectively supported in the past for reasons that span back to the 1980s, Kippes said it seems there are more people in favor now.

“I think dredging got a bit of a black eye from when we did it back in the early 1980s. But the purpose was different then, as it was done to increase the water capacity of the lake since it was our city’s only water source,” Kippes said, noting the lake was nearly dried out at that time. “After Fyra presented their extensive data, that helped us understand that we have to get the soft sediment out of the lake, which showed dredging was the best way to do that.”

City’s wetland materializing upstream

While Kippes said dredging the lake is a critical step to improve the water quality, he noted reducing the phosphorus coming into the lake from Firesteel Creek is just as important. According to previous studies conducted on Lake Mitchell, 53 percent of the phosphorus that flows into the lake comes from Firesteel Creek, while 47 percent is in the lake itself.

In 2019, the city spent $4.1 million to purchase 371 acres of land 2 miles west of the lake with the goal of creating a wetland dam to dramatically reduce the phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake from Firesteel Creek.

As the city moves closer to constructing the wetland upstream from the lake, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said the project has been gaining momentum with a growing number of partnerships forming to help design and fund the wetland. Some notable partnerships to help the wetland include James River Water Development District, Ducks Unlimited and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We’re in the design phase of the wetland, and we have had a lot of momentum going with the partners who have been involved,” Everson said. “We are excited to begin tackling the issue that’s been a major source for the lake’s problems, but now the focus is to dredge the lake itself.”

Although the city has been focusing its efforts on creating the wetland, which Everson said is expected to begin construction in summer 2021, the city is currently seeking lake dredging designs from interested groups.

“The studies have shown us that we have between 7 to 9 feet of sediment on the bottom of Lake Mitchell that contains a heavy amount of phosphorus. Every time the lake has a natural kind of turnover and flushing whether it’s during a heavy rain event or such, we get fresh water in the lake,” Everson said. “But once the water settles in more, we start to see algae blooms, so that’s the basis of the importance to dredge.”