DECATUR — The Decatur City Council on Tuesday appeared poised to move forward with an $89 million dredging project to increase Lake Decatur’s capacity by 30 percent.
The project, which would remove billions of gallons of sediment from the lake bottom, received enthusiastic praise from council members, who cited water’s importance to the community’s economic prospects. The council discussed the plans in a study session and is scheduled to vote on them at the next meeting, Feb. 3.
City Manager Ryan McCrady characterized the move as historic.
“This will be the biggest project the city of Decatur has ever undertaken,” McCrady said. “I can’t think of a more important asset to invest in.”
The contract with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock would dredge Basins 1, 2, 3 and 4. It would also rehabilitate a 523-acre site in Oakley Township that stores the sediment pumped from the lake.
Memories of the region’s recent crippling drought clearly affected officials’ thoughts as they discussed the project. The low point came in 2012 when, after months of severe dry weather, large swaths of the lake were completely dry. The city at that time enacted mandatory water restrictions that hurt landscaping businesses and closed car washes.
“You would think in a town the size of Decatur, you would not have to be closing down your car washes,” Mayor Mike McElroy said. “Well, that’s not going to happen anymore.”
The council last year approved a series of water rate increases that were designed to pay for the dredging project, as well as other measures to bulk up the city’s water supply.
The lake supports major employers such as Archer Daniels Midland Co., so its health is tied inextricably to the city’s economic welfare. Officials also expressed hope that increasing its capacity could also attract new business to a community struggling with high unemployment.
Larry Altenbaumer, interim president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County and a co-founder of the Grow Decatur community development initiative, said dredging was a crucial measure from both perspectives.
“In the months that I’ve been involved with the EDC and the kinds of inquiries I get from other businesses seeking to locate in areas throughout the country, water supply continues to be one of the most frequently cited requirements for them to consider a location,” Altenbaumer said.
It was that comment that Councilwoman Dana Ray said emphasized the importance of the project for her.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for years. It’s something that we need to stop talking about ... and actually start doing something about it,” Ray said. “I’m glad that we’re finally able to address the issue.”
Councilman Jerry Dawson was absent from the meeting, but McElroy passed along a question from him about the amount of local people who might find jobs with Great Lakes during the six-year project.
Jon Nieman, vice president of Great Lakes, said the company would employ as many local people as possible and source its materials locally when feasible.
The company dredged Basin 6 in 2010 and 2011. Nieman said it has already begun to contact some of the local people it employed then.
“Most of our positions are skilled positions with very specific training,” Nieman said, stressing the importance of safety during the high-risk dredging operations. “We’ve made a commitment to the city to bring on those people, train them up, and when they can take the higher position, we’ll bring on another local guy in the lower position.”
In other business, the council approved a $479,000 contract to purchase and install a fiber optic “backbone” to improve the city’s wireless communications. Officials said the investment could also generate economic opportunities in the future.