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Monday, May 2, 2016

Ross Rambles: A question of balance

Monday, May 1, 2006

A letter from Dave Phipps, printed in the Wednesday Chronicle Times, criticized an April 20 front page article I wrote titled, "Lake project discussed." Phipps contended that important details were missing from the article.

The article described a discussion at a Cherokee County Board of Supervisors meeting on April 17. The discussion was between the supervisors and three representatives of Olsson Associates regarding a possible recreational lake in Cherokee County.

The discussion focused on a possible Mill Creek location. Michael Sotak, vice president of Olsson Associates, did most of the talking for the engineering firm at the April 17 meeting.

Of course, not every statement made during a meeting will be printed. There are space limitations and considerations are made for the time and interest level of readers (and the writer).

The entire subject of a potential lake is speculative and I tried to avoid too much reporting of speculation within speculation.

Phipps, in his letter, quoted Olsson Associates as stating, "This lake will not be a northern Minnesota lake with crystal clear water. The lake water would be green or brown in color and will experience seasonal water level fluctuations, necessitating piping water from the Little Sioux River to Mill Creek Lake."

I had thought about including a quote from Sotak stating, "I tell people there are basically two choices for lakes, green or brown." The quote has some humor but, if taken out of context, it can be misleading. When you think about it, every body of water except swimming pools and a few places like northern Minnesota lakes have some coloration. People can't see their feet when standing neck deep in most bodies of water but that doesn't mean that the bodies of water are inappropriate for recreation, including swimming.

Dealing with the general subject of water quality, as discussed at the April 17 meeting, would be more appropriate than simply stating that water will be brown or green. The article I wrote did refer to concerns raised by the ratio of 100 acres of drainage area to one acre of lake and the article quoted Sotak as saying this might require the use of a series of basins for the water to flow through. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that the drainage area reference and the series of basins proposal referred to water quality issues but I believe most readers could figure that out.

Sotak noted that the degree of water level fluctuation depends on a number of factors. A primary factor would be the degree to which the lake is designed for flood control (requiring capacity that is unused most of the time) or simply left as a recreational area with little impact on flooding (allowing a fairly stable water level).

One possibility for adjusting water level would be to divert water from the Little Sioux River. However, Sotak explained that this would be dependent on the river being close enough at some point to make it practical.

I didn't go into this in my article because it was speculation about matters that will require engineering studies in order to have valid information. Sotak didn't know whether piping water from the Little Sioux River would be either possible or necessary, contrary to the statement in Phipps' letter.

Sotak played the devil's advocate at the April 17 meeting, warning the supervisors of potential problems, including competition from lakes in other places and the short term net loss of property tax revenues from areas covered by water.

He went on to say that for every completed project his company has been involved in, people of the communities have, in general, been pleased with the overall economic impact. He mentioned one South Dakota project that Olsson Associates was not involved in that had disappointing results.

Regarding property tax revenue, Sotak said it would take only about eight $250,000 lakefront homes to compensate for the loss of ag ground from a 1,600 acre lake. He said any development beyond that would add to the tax revenue.

My April 20 article did not get into either the potential negatives or the potential positives. I figured I might at some future date (like right now).

In his letter, Phipps quotes Sotak's statements regarding potential negative effects of competition and the negative effects on property tax revenues. He refers to these as important facts omitted from my article but apparently didn't regard Sotak's positive conclusions about overall results as important enough to include in his letter.

My reporting of the meeting could not be considered cheerleading for one side or the other and I certainly made no attempt to hide difficulties faced by the promoters of a lake. In fact, the lead sentence started, "Building a lake in Cherokee County may be possible but there are considerable hurdles to overcome…"

I believe I have reported the meeting in a balanced manner but that doesn't matter to some readers.

The proposed lake involves the potential loss of property for some people, including Phipps. This makes it a highly emotional issue. One thing I've learned about reporting, people who are emotionally involved in an issue are not looking for balanced reporting.