Officials delay release of Lower Gar Lake

Pritts pleads to hold back water


Decision deferred to closed session

The Dickinson County Board of Supervisors was considering releasing the outlet of the Lower Gar Lake, but deferred the decision to a multi-jurisdiction committee that met in secret on Tuesday. 

In front of a crowd of around 150 at the Dickinson County Courthouse, the supervisors empaneled a 10-member committee that will study modifications to the outlet at Lower Gar underneath 230th Street, just northeast of Milford. The supervisors opted against releasing the lake outlet, after over two hours of fierce protests from community leaders along the Little Sioux.

Spencer Mayor Steve Bomgaars said releasing the Lower Gar was ill-timed. The discussion, Bomgaars said, came a week after thousands in the path of the Little Sioux’s floodwaters lost everything. Cherokee County Emergency Manager Justin Pritts said the Lakes area “is not suffering from the floods,” an assertion that generated applause from the packed courthouse. He encouraged the board to tour Spencer, Sioux Rapids or Cherokee, where he believes the flood-related damage was more apparent than in communities like Spirit Lake and Okoboji. 

“Get your butts in the car and drive an hour south and you’ll know what suffering really is,” Pritts told the supervisors during a special meeting on Saturday. “I’m telling you. People are hurting. I’m not trying to upset anybody here. I’m just being honest. There are people who are hurting from here all the way down (the Little Sioux River).” 

Pritts pleaded with the supervisors to “hang on to your water” in the chain of seven lakes that includes West Okoboji, Big Spirit and the Lower Gar, which have swelled from torrential rains in recent weeks. 

The Lakes tourism economy is suffering. Hence the discussion to breach 230th Street in the first place. At an emergency meeting of the Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission last week, owners of resorts and marinas pressured commission members to release Lower Gar. They claimed the lake levels, which crested as high as four feet above average, posed an economic catastrophe, according to Explore Okoboji. Boats have floated away from their hoists. Basements in Spirit Lake, Milford and Okoboji have flooded. Marinas and business owners who’ve staked their livelihood on tourism and lake traffic are suffering from a sudden, protracted economic downturn. 

“Let’s move this water,” said Rich Meyers of Fillenwarth Beach Resort of Arnolds Park at an emergency management commission meeting last week. 

The Lower Gar’s outlet lies just under 230th Street, which is under the control of the Dickinson supervisors. The supervisors claim they need no higher authority to breach the road and release the flow down the Little Sioux. County Engineer Cole Budach said the county would need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if the modifications to the Lower Gar outlet are permanent. Budach noted the supervisors are considering temporary measures under an emergency, where normal regulatory provisions are suspended. 

“Nothing in detail has been discussed with the committee yet, so it’s too early to say what we’re considering yet,” Budach said Monday. “As far as any recommendations or anything that’s going to be made to the Dickinson County board on action on this, that’s what the committee was put together for.” 

The committee met in private on Tuesday at 1 p.m. 

The public won’t be invited to sit in on deliberations, according to Supervisor Bill Luepold, who noted representatives from Clay County, Cherokee County and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will also be included. (Buena Vista County won’t be represented.) Luepold said the purpose of the meeting is to synthesize years of research state authorities have done on the Lower Gar outlet and bring recommendations back to their respective boards for approval. 

He said the board of supervisors would “heavily rely” on the committee’s recommendations. 

“Dickinson County has its solution,” Luepold said Monday. “What can Spencer do about flooding in the future? What could Cherokee, Rock Rapids do? Whether that’s huge grains, seawalls, I have no idea. That’s up to the committee to figure out.”

Luepold said the committee would reopen a report by the Iowa Flood Center that explored the possibility of removing 230th Street. A list of committee members wasn’t made immediately available. A list of meeting dates wasn’t made available. Luepold believes the board can deliberate in private because it doesn’t have a majority of a single jurisdiction represented. 

“They’re just representatives that will bring back information to their various boards and whatnot,” Luepold said when asked whether the meetings will be open.

Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said he was “greatly troubled” by the decision to close Thursday’s committee meeting. Evans believes the Open Meetings Law requires the county to open the meeting because the committee was formed by an official vote of the supervisors on a matter of public policy. Either way, Evans argued, the board should open the committee meetings. County Attorney Steven Goodlow didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Luepold’s claim. 

“I’m greatly troubled that a committee by Dickinson County to look at water levels — a topic with huge public interest in and around the Iowa Great Lakes and downriver — would exclude the public from its meetings,” Evans wrote to the Chronicle Times via email. “Closing these meetings to the public sends a very clear signal that these officials do not want to be bothered by public comments, questions or criticism. And that is unfortunate.”

THE COMMITTEE is expected to start from an exhaustive review of modifications the board of supervisors have considered in the past. The supervisors have been studying how to lower lake levels more efficiently for years. 

In 2017, the board of supervisors commissioned a report from the Iowa Flood Center that found modifications to 230th Street would significantly lower lake levels during wet years, but have “minimal impact” during dry years. The report considered options ranging from removal of the road to lowering the culverts underneath it. Those options, if implemented today, would result in river levels between two to four inches higher in Spencer, said Larry Weber, director of the flood center. 

The models don’t exactly predict the future, Weber cautioned. The findings are estimated through water volumes, flow rates and weather conditions, all of which aren’t precise. 

And they’re never politically popular. During drought, advocates for the lakes worry that modifying 230th Street will significantly lower lake levels. During high water, communities along the Little Sioux worry that the flooding will become more severe. The recommendations from the report seven years ago were never adopted. 

“It’s more of the same. On one hand, you had the folks that didn’t want high water, and the other hand, you wanted folks that didn’t want more water,” Weber said. “At the time (the report was complete), there wasn’t much of a conversation about passing flows through the Little Sioux into Spencer and Cherokee.”

Weber said the lake system’s “bottleneck” at the Lower Gar isn’t “an ideal configuration” for seven lakes with nearly 13,000 acres in surface area. It could take months before the Great Lakes lower from recent rain. Slow drawdown happens every time rains become persistent, Weber explained. With climate change intensifying, the lakes bottleneck seemingly every five years, he added. Boat traffic slows. Marinas are flooded. And the tourism economy must play the waiting game before lake conditions abide. 

Many of the Great Lakes could remain near their current levels until October if the rain doesn’t abate, Weber noted.

Weber cautioned against using the report as a cause for lowering lake levels now. He said the report could be implemented when the Little Sioux falls. The Little Sioux has only been falling less than a half foot per day in some areas. Its waters were just underneath Spencer’s downtown thoroughfare on Saturday, while all Cherokee’s main roads were opened by Tuesday. Weber noted the board of supervisors opted against “pouring more water onto Spencer.”

“Once it’s back within bank, maybe there’s a possibility of releasing more water and the lake area pulls back down,” Weber said.

Dickinson County Board of Supervisors, Lower Gar Lake, Little Sioux River, Justin Pritts


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