With the Decatur City Council set to consider spending $89 million on a project to dredge Lake Decatur, it has possibly never been more important to understand what dredging is. This is a huge project that the city is going to be paying for until 2039, a year in which I presume we will be able to see the lake from our flying cars and floating houses.
Dredging is not a sexy topic. It doesn’t sound cool and its effects are largely hidden from the public eye. One does not fantasize in journalism school about uncovering the hidden depths of a lake bottom.
Yet here we are. I am your city reporter, and there are some important things to understand about this city initiative. I’ll try to put them into the most Buzzfeed-reminiscent language possible for greater effect.
Four things to know about the city’s dredging project
One: The lake is muddy, and this is a problem. The water that goes into Lake Decatur includes the rain that falls in its “watershed area,” which is pretty expansive at 925 square miles. A bunch of that is farmland, which means a lot of silt gets caught up in the water. Of course, these days we understand how erosion works and do things to prevent it, but that wasn’t always the case. Over the 90 years or so since the lake was built, a lot of muck (“sediment” is the official term) landed on the bottom of it. Gross, right?
But that isn’t as much of a problem as the fact that it means the lake can hold less water. Since we share the water with industry such as Archer Daniels Midland Co., it is important for economic purposes in addition to, you know, drinking.
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Two: Removing the mud is complicated and expensive. So what happens is that a piece of equipment imaginatively named a “dredge” scoops up the material (we’re talking billions of gallons), and it is pumped away in pipes. The pipes will take it to what is called the “sediment storage site” in Oakley Township.
The phrase “sediment storage site” initially created for me a mental image of some sort of giant government silo filled with sludge. In reality, it looks like a big, swampy field with a lot of birds and deer running around. As part of this contract, the company is going to build up the ridges (“berms”) around the field so it can hold more of the Mud Formerly Known as Lake Bottom.
Three: You are already paying for it. Remember when the city council increased water rates last year? The rates were set to more than double within three years, and there was a lot of talk about it being an agonizing yet necessary choice for city leaders. Why was it necessary? Well, in large part because of this. They have always planned to dredge the lake, and they always knew it was going to be really pricey. Officials have promised that the increases they already approved are all that will be needed to pay for this, so there should be no new dredging taxes, fees, etc. on your horizon.
Four: It should make droughts way less of a pain. When the city experienced severe drought in 2012, officials enacted mandatory water restrictions that were more than an inconvenience; they hurt people. Car washes were forced to shut down. Landscaping businesses took a hard hit. Had conditions worsened, the effect on the city’s industry could have been devastating.
Keith Alexander, the city’s director of water management, said it’s probable that none of those measures would have been needed if the city had completed this project before the drought. The contract would dredge Basins 1, 2, 3 and 4, and it would increase the lake’s capacity by 30 percent.
In other words, the next time that Mother Nature decides to throw a temper tantrum, the city would be much better prepared to wait it out.