Our View: Even at higher cost, Lake Zumbro is a good investment

September 11, 2018

Lake Zumbro lies 12 miles north of Rochester, with the northern portion bordering Wabasha County and the southern potion bordering Olmsted County.

In terms of the actual work involved, the Lake Zumbro dredging project is a fairly straightforward endeavor to improve the largest reservoir in a region that has no natural lakes.

Removing the sediment that has built up since construction of the hydroelectric dam 100 years ago will make the 600-acre lake deeper and cleaner, and thus far more attractive and useful for anglers and recreational boaters. Lakeshore property values will increase, and there is the potential for new development in shoreline areas that currently offer great views of shallow, smelly mudflats.

But the devil is in the details, which in this case includes a complex web of stakeholders and potential cost-sharers — some of whom have no interest in ponying up.

The lake is in both Olmsted and Wabasha counties, a geographical fact that has complicated all discussions of dredging and cost-sharing. Then there are the lakeshore property owners, some of whom have been far more willing than others to accept tax assessments to help pay for the project. And finally, while on a summer weekend more than 1,000 boats will float on Lake Zumbro, the fact is that a vast majority of southeast Minnesota residents will never drop a line, paddle a kayak or ride a wakeboard on Lake Zumbro.

That’s why we saw it as a borderline miracle when in 2012 the Minnesota Legislature approved $3.5 million in state bonding funds for what was estimated to be a $6.8 million dredging project on Lake Zumbro. The balance of the cost was to be shared by the counties, Rochester Public Utilities, the nonprofit group Lake Zumbro Forever and owners of lakeshore property. That’s a lot of stakeholders getting together to support a common cause.

Six years later, the bids to actually complete the project finally have come in, and the lowest bid was more than $2 million above the $6.8 million budget. Even after some tweaking of the dredging plan, the lowest bid still exceeds the budget by $1.1 million.

So Wabasha County has agreed to increase its contribution from $100,000 to $131,000. Olmsted County will pay $526,000, rather than $400,000. Lake Zumbro Forever will pony up $284,000, rather than $216,000. And RPU, which could generate more electricity at the dam once the lake is dredged, is being asked to pay an extra $367,000 above its earlier commitment of $1.16 million.

While we understand that people who never use the lake won’t like the idea of spending more tax dollars on this project, we see it as a quality-of-life issue. Public swimming pools, public golf courses and city and county parks are all revenue-negative, yet they contribute to the overall health and well-being of a populace.

Lake Zumbro is neither a park nor a pool, but in many ways it serves as both. That makes this dredging project money well-spent, an investment that should pay dividends for decades and generations to come.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that lakeshore property owners — the people who presumably will benefit the most from dredging — will likely share the burden of the increased dredging costs. Owners of the 501 lakeshore parcels already faced increased assessments totaling $1.6 million, and now they appear to be on the hook for an additional half-million dollars in new taxes.

Spread out over 20 years, that additional $1,000 in taxes per lot shouldn’t force anyone to sell property — but we do wonder if all other options have been pursued.

For example, we’ve suggested in the past that user fees could be put in place on Lake Zumbro. This is far from a new concept — Minnesotans routinely pay to use state parks, and at the county level, anyone who swims, picnics or fishes at Chester Woods Park east of Rochester must pay a small daily entry fee or purchase a $25 annual vehicle pass. A self-serve kiosk even makes it possible for people to enter the park when the gates aren’t staffed.

Why couldn’t people be asked to pay an annual fee for the right to launch their boat, canoe or kayak on Lake Zumbro, with all of the money going directly toward the dredging project?

In that way, everyone who enjoys the lake could contribute directly to its improvement, and perhaps the tax burden on local property owners could be lessened.

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