Lake association board members seek assurances concerning long-awaited improvements
Clear Lake is in good shape. The 432-acre body of water in southern Forest Lake is considered a Tier 1 lake by the Rice Creek Watershed District, meaning it routinely provides recreational opportunities and represents a high-quality resource for fish and wildlife.
It also boasts a strong lake association consisting of 113 of the 145 shoreline property owners. So it is no surprise that Clear Lake Association board members turned out en masse at Monday’s City Council meeting in the wake of recent developments related to Clear Lake’s water quality.
Quietly, much of the local Highway 61 corridor drains to Clear Lake, starting on the south shore of Forest Lake’s First Lake and continuing south for more than 2.5 miles, even past County Road 50 on the east side of Highway 61. Though this area represents only part of Clear Lake’s total watershed, the Highway 61 corridor is a main commercial district, making it a significant source of storm water runoff.
“It is our single biggest source of phosphorus loading into Clear Lake, which produces algae and weed growth and other issues regarding water quality,” Clear Lake Association Secretary Patrick Kelly told the council.
A contributor to that runoff is the former Northland Mall site west of the highway. The 14-acre site essentially lacks storm water treatment capability. The site’s border with the Winnick Supply property follows a ditch, where drainage from hundreds of acres runs after crossing underneath the highway. Drainage then flows under Forest Road and on into Clear Lake.
“We used to beat a dead horse about what we are going to do about this runoff,” said Kelly, a past president of the association. “We were always told that, when Northland Mall is redeveloped, we will take care of those issues at that time.”
Indeed, city officials billed storm water improvements at the mall property and the possible rerouting of the ditch in order to allow for improved treatment as significant benefits when a proposal emerged last year for a city hall and public safety building project at the site.
As plans for the City Center proceeded this year, however, the project’s building committee chose to include in its budget only the required improvements at the former mall property itself. Storm water there will be treated through biofilitration in the parking lot and fed through pipes to a pond at the north end of the property.
For the big-picture improvements that did not make the budget, the city will partner with RCWD to pursue a Clean Water Fund Grant through the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
That game plan was made early in the City Center planning process, as the building committee shaved its budget down to $21 million. Apparently, lake association members only learned of the grant-pursuit strategy, informally dubbed “Phase 2,” at a July 11 meeting of the city’s Lake Improvement Committee.
The association board is concerned with the undetermined nature of the non-budgeted improvements and the loose strings a rejection of the grant request would leave.
“We don’t want a Phase 2,” Kelly told the council. “We think now is the time to deal with this problem while the equipment is on site, while the land is open up, while there’s land available for extra holding and water retention. We would like these issues to be addressed now, not as a nebulous Phase 2, which to us does not have funding and a time line.”
Mayor Chris Johnson and City Administrator Aaron Parrish on Monday defended the building committee’s strategy as fiscally prudent.
“It’s a responsible thing to bring external resources into a community, into a project,” Parrish said.
At the July 8 City Council meeting, Community Development Director Doug Borglund expressed confidence in the grant proposal’s chances, citing the potential impact of the improvement and feedback from RCWD.
Johnson went a step farther on Monday, saying RCWD should make the storm water treatment improvement a reality, with or without the grant.
“Our hope and expectation, really, is that they will fund that as part of this project,” he said.
The grant proposals are due in the fall and will be evaluated by January. Parrish indicated RCWD would cover a 25 percent local match the grant would require.
Should the request fail, or win only partial funding, work could still be timed in with the City Center construction, should the watershed district or council choose to authorize the expenditure.
Councilman Ben Winnick said residents along Clear Lake deserve to know whether the full-scale improvements will be made. He advocated the council committing to fund the work, if necessary.
“We have an opportunity here,” Winnick said. “I don’t want to get it forgotten about or say let’s wait another year or two years. As (the association board) indicated, when Northland Mall was going to be redeveloped, that was the promise that was made. I think we need to hold that promise up one way or another.”
He owns Winnick Supply and stated for the record that he is committed to a private storm water improvement project on his property, which he hopes can be timed with the work next door and in the dividing ditch.
Beyond the grant, Parrish said funding options include RCWD’s budget, storm water management fees and the City Center budget, which currently is in the black by about $500,000. He is meeting with RCWD officials this week to study preliminary engineering concepts required for the grant proposal. The results of a feasibility study will give a clearer picture as to the potential cost of the full improvements.
“I think you have time to evaluate this and assess what you think,” Parrish told the council. “Clearly, water quality improvement is a big goal in our strategic plan. It’s something that we’re doing on many different fronts and facets.”
Watershed district’s goals
Earlier on Monday, RCWD Administrator Phil Belfiori gave the Forest Lake Times more information on the grant proposal.
He described the annual Clean Water Fund Grant program as highly competitive, with $3 or $4 typically requested for every $1 funded.
Belfiori said the watershed district’s Tier 1 designation, given to Clear Lake in 2009, is beneficial; such lakes receive more investment from RCWD.
A 2012 diagnostic study of Clear Lake identifies a RCWD goal for Tier 1 lakes regarding phosphorus concentrations. For Clear Lake to reach that goal, 140 pounds of phosphorus must be prevented annually from entering the lake through the whole of its 4-square-mile watershed.
Combined, the City Center site improvements and those to be proposed in the grant application are projected to filter roughly 40-80 pounds of phosphorus on an annual basis.
Belfiori has no doubt the work would significantly improve the lake’s water quality.
“We’ve worked closely with the Clear Lake Association for years,” he said. “The lake is not impaired, so we’re trying to keep the quality from diminishing.
“The watershed district is really trying to be a regional entity, wanting to work with the city as much as we can to get to as many acres as possible, and this is one project we can do.”