Can you recall the last good rain we’ve had in Augusta? It’s been awhile, and if you can’t remember, don’t feel bad. Our last measurable major rain event came on the weekend of July 4 – a weekend in which our firework’s show was almost cancelled due to the showers. Since that time, we’ve dealt with numerous 100-plus, hot summer days and numerous sub-freezing winter days – all with little to no precipitation.
With over seven months of no significant moisture, coupled with extreme temperatures, both our City Lake and Santa Fe Lake show ill effects as water levels continue to go lower and lower. In addition, last summer’s extreme temperatures accelerated evaporation across our 190-acre City Lake, making matters even worse.  Even our latest bouts with snow have not provided any substantial runoff to our lakes, thus leaving our water levels no better off than prior to the winter blasts.
With the obvious water loss at our lakes, there are numerous questions. Some have asked if the City is intentionally lowering the lake in preparation for the $2.4 million dam-spillway project? Answer: No, we are not lowering the lake.  Until recently, however, we have been using this source for part of our drinking water supply. We are not yet to the point of ‘breaking ground’ on the dam-spillway project, but hope to do so late fall or early winter 2011.  This project remains a high priority – a priority in which the City has committed $200,000 in capital improvement funds, the EPA $180,000 and $283,000 from the State Conservation Commission with up to a total of $1 million from the State. The amount of funding we receive will be dependent on the State’s budget situation for the current fiscal year.  Though our drought-like conditions are ideal for the work needed on our spillway and dam, we do not yet have the necessary funding to move forward with the project.
Another question commonly asked concerns dredging our lake. Both of our lakes have acquired significant sediment buildup over the years, reducing maximum depths to as low as 12 feet at Santa Fe Lake and 16-20 feet at our City Lake.  To legally remove these sediments, millions of dollars would need to be invested – estimated to be at least $4 million per lake. We have had numerous discussions with the State Conservation Commission to include our lakes on a list to receive future funding for this purpose. Considering our current national, state, and local budget shortfalls – this could be a very long wait. Based upon the recent studies of the Kansas Biological Survey, it is estimated that through dredging, we could gain approximately 12.5% in storage capacity at the City Lake and 29.5% in storage capacity at Santa Fe Lake.
Because the sediments contain contaminants, debris, and sand – the dredged material is not suitable for reuse or for sale. The millions needed to complete a dredging project include the necessary State permits, the necessary machinery to dredge and transport the material, and the purchased land necessary to spread the unusable sediment. At this point, Augusta has not added this to our 5-year capital improvement plan due to some larger, more critical projects on the forefront – both our levee enhancement project (over $5.4 million) and our dam-spillway project (close to $2.4 million). In the years to come, we will need to closely examine our lakes and begin saving for the dredging projects.
An example of how expensive dredging actually is can be seen with Mission Lake, near Horton, Kansas.  In 2009, the State entered into its first restoration project with a city-owned lake just west of Horton. Mission Lake was awarded the grant in 2007 and required the City of Horton to provide $4 million for the project, while the State Conservation Commission added $6.6 million. As you can see, dredging projects are extremely expensive and are best tackled jointly between state and local governments.
Some have suggested Augusta put forth even a few hundred thousand dollars to dredge what we can  -- maybe with our own employees and backhoes. It seems like a commonsense approach, but there remain some insurmountable obstacles to this approach.   The biggest challenge we face is the simple fact that it’s a much larger project than most of us realize:  scraping off one foot of sediment from the entire 190 acre surface would generate over 8.3 million cubic feet of sediment… that’s a lot of muck, a lot of trucks, and a really big hole to put it in – all for just one foot!  Other issues include:  we would be violating State law; we do not have a few hundred thousand extra dollars in the city budget and if we did, we would use it for other, more urgent items. Basically, it’ll take a significant financial investment to put a dent in the current dredging needs. All would agree that we do need to dredge our lakes. The question concerning dredging is not should we, but when should we?
Thanks to everyone who has inquired on this subject, who has expressed their concerns, and who has offered suggestions. I’ve appreciated all of your thoughts and had to do some ‘digging’ for some of the answers. I wish the digging would have uncovered a cheaper, more immediate solution. Unfortunately, the best solution, for now, is for us to have a series of heavy rains (just not too heavy, and not necessarily all at once, or we’ll have another set of problems). Let’s hope for some big May showers!