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Des Moines lake reopens after years of cleanup work

June 29, 2019
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In this June 17, 2019, photo, Easter Lake watershed coordinator Julie Perreault stands for a photo at the Owens Covered Bridge in Easter Lake Park in Des Moines, Iowa. After years of renovation, Easter Lake Park will host a re-opening party Sunday, June 23, with pontoon boat rides, canoeing, free ice cream and more. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — After nearly two decades of planning and six years of work, Easter Lake is open again for swimming, kayaking and, eventually, fishing.

Since its creation in 1967, the lake on Des Moines’ south side has struggled with poor water quality, elevated bacteria levels and piles of sediment that have frequently landed it on the state’s impaired waters list and no-swimming advisories.

So a group of neighbors, along with city, county and state officials, decided to do something drastic: dredge the lake, drain it and start over, the Des Moines Register reported.

“I care about water quality and making our natural resources better, but I also want to help get more people outside enjoying the natural spaces around us,” said Julie Perreault, the Easter Lake watershed coordinator. “As our cities get bigger, we lose special places like this. ... It’s been great getting to see the residents really enjoying the park.”

On a recent cool morning, dozens of runners, bikers and families with young children were out using the new 4.1-mile trail that loops around the lake. As it got warmer, some children moved over to the beach on the lake’s north side.

It’s a frequent sight at Easter Lake now that the improvements, which started in 2013, are largely complete. In fact, officials expect more than 1 million people will now visit the lake each year — more than double the 400,000 visitors it averaged prior to the cleanup.

That can be attributed, in part, to the clearest water Easter Lake has ever seen, said Kami Rankin, community outreach supervisor for Polk County Conservation.

“People feel a little bit more at ease getting in there and recreating on the beach and in the water,” she said.

Many of the 165-acre lake’s problems came from the tons of sediment it collected due to the urban environment, said Michelle Balmer, from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ lake restoration program. The sediment and bacteria, including excessive levels of phosphorous, are what gave the lake its “Yoo-hoo or chocolate milk color,” she said.

Crews dredged 678,000 cubic yards of sediment from Easter Lake — the equivalent of 20,545 dump truck loads. They also removed more than 500 tires and a pickup truck, which was stolen in 1994 and dumped in the lake.

Easter Lake is now, on average, 3 feet deeper than it was when it was drained in 2015.

The sediment was used to stabilize nearly four miles of the lake’s shoreline and create nine fishing jetties. It was also sent to help Des Moines build up the Riverview Park island, where a 6,000-seat concert venue is under construction.

Sixty percent of the lake’s sediment came from Yeader Creek, its main tributary that flows from the Des Moines International Airport into Easter Lake, Balmer said. Increased stormwater flows into Yeader Creek have accelerated erosion, which led to the silt and other materials ending up in the lake.

Des Moines is constructing five streambank stabilization projects to help address erosion along Yeader Creek. Sediment basins, bioretention cells, wetlands and rain gardens have been installed around Easter Lake to help slow and clean stormwater before it enters the lake. Eventually, all the turf grass around Easter Lake will be converted to native plants with mowed pathways and spaces for picnic tables and fishing.

Neighbors, too, are helping by installing rain gardens, rain barrels and permeable driveways at their homes. They’ve completed 200 stormwater management projects that have resulted in a 26% reduction in stormwater runoff from the neighborhood into Easter Lake, Perreault said.

“The community has been very supportive of this project,” she said.

All this work — about $23 million worth in the entire 2,600-acre watershed — will not only improve water quality, but help attract more visitors. About $7.9 million of the project’s cost came from the $50 million Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond that voters approved in 2012.

The lake is now stocked with bluegill, walleye, largemouth bass, channel catfish and black crappie for fishing off the shoreline or the new jetties. Crews removed the invasive common carp and gizzard shad and installed 130 fish habitat structures to help the new fish spawn and grow.

It will take one to two years before the fish are mature enough for catching, Balmer said.

A concessionaire will start renting kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and fishing boats soon. A boat ramp is available for people who want to bring their own — motors are allowed, just no wake.

The Mark C. Ackelson trail, a 4.1-mile paved trail around the lake, is now open. Des Moines plans to eventually connect the new trail to the Des Moines River Trail, which starts downtown and ends at James W. Cownie Baseball Park.

Polk County Conservation is considering adding a full-service campground north of Easter Lake within four years, said Doug Romig, deputy director. It would have 50 campsites, a shower house and a playground with hookups for sewer, water and electricity.

The organization is also considering redesigning its boat ramp and adding more boat storage if the Des Moines Rowing Club moves its operations to Easter Lake, Romig said. Easter Lake is large enough for the club to host a full regatta on a 1,000-meter course.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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