Untapped potential

April 1, 2014 | 9:20 am

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Cedar Lake’s local reputation is hardly sparkling.

Its proximity to so much heavy industry just north of downtown Cedar Rapids has led to all sorts of speculation about its possible pollution. Channel catfish caught in the lake still carry a consumption advisory slapped on years ago by state environmental regulators.

Now, a group of residents, Friends of Cedar Lake, is determined to re-imagine Cedar Lake’s future. They envision a vibrant urban lake serving as a recreational magnet at the heart of the city. Gray’s Lake in Des Moines and urban lakes in the Twin Cities have helped inspire the effort.

“There’s no reason Cedar Lake couldn’t be a destination place,” said Dale Todd, a former city parks commissioner who is spearheading the group’s effort. “This shouldn’t be a project that we have to fight to make happen.”

THE OBSTACLES

But the first obstacle the Friends face is the fact that the two biggest players in the lake’s future have bigger fish to fry.

Alliant Energy, which owns the lake, is embarking on work to decommission its Sixth Street Generating Station. The coal-fired plant was damaged in the Floods of 2008 and once used Cedar Lake as a source of cooling liquid. Now, Alliant is focused on demolishing the plant and mitigating its nearby ash pits. The lake is a separate issue.

“Cedar Lake is a little bit down the road for us,” said Doug Kopp, Alliant’s new president of Iowa and Minnesota operations, who, as a kid, fished in the lake with his dad. “It’s not a top-tier priority for us.”

In 1982, the city of Cedar Rapids signed a 99-year lease allowing public recreation while also shielding the power company from liability stemming from that public use. The lake already is ringed by a popular trail loop connected to the Cedar Valley Trail, and a deli/pub, the Sag Wagon, is building a following among hikers and bikers.

City leaders see the lake as a recreational asset, but their response to calls for a more ambitious redevelopment push so far has been lukewarm.

“I’m not enthusiastic or unenthusiastic. I just want all the facts,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said last month.

We believe Cedar Lake is a community asset with untapped potential. We also agree with the mayor. More facts are needed before we know what’s realistic and what’s not. And we think the city needs to be more hands-on and active in making sure those facts are gathered.

Cedar Lake is in the center of this city, highly visible from the interstate artery that carries thousands of people into Cedar Rapids every day. It sits on the doorstep of Coe College and Unity Point-St. Luke’s Hospital and is a short stroll from the downtown core that the city has worked so hard to revitalize.

That makes Cedar Lake tough to ignore. Instead, let’s gather those facts.

DNR TESTS so far

For starters, we need to know much more about Cedar Lake’s water quality challenges.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources regularly tests fish tissue for contaminants. For years, that tissue contained significant levels of chlordane, a once widely used termite treatment, prompting the state to issue fish-consumption advisories. And although chlordane levels dropped, testing showed excessive levels of PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals used in electrical equipment, insulation, oil and many other products. PCBs were banned in 1979.

In 2010, tissue tests showed that the PCB reading had dropped below the level triggering a consumption advisory. If the next test follows that trend, the advisory will be dropped.

That’s good news and undermines the notion that Cedar Lake is toxic and hopeless. But it provides only a partial picture. The DNR has not conducted more comprehensive water quality testing at Cedar Lake. We think such testing is a large missing piece in the Cedar Lake puzzle. There are multiple public and private options for testing that are not prohibitively expensive.

The city’s lease says Alliant is the “sole judge of the acceptability of the chemical analysis ... in conforming with all governing local, state and federal permits and the city shall have no authority over variations in these characteristics ...” But that doesn’t mean the city can’t use its considerable influence to urge broader testing.

FLOOD PROTECTION KEY

Cedar Rapids leaders also must clarify their position on flood protection. The city’s preferred flood protection plan, approved by the City Council in 2008, shields the Cedar Lake area from future flooding. But the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans stop short of Cedar Lake, cutting off protection just north of Quaker Oats.

The difference between those plans, according to Rob Davis, the city’s engineering manager, is 1.5 miles of protection and an estimated $50 million. Those dollars cover the cost of installing flood walls and earthen levees between Quaker and high ground along J Avenue — measures that would protect Cedar Lake and nearby businesses. Alliant, which has a storage facility that would be protected by the city’s preferred plan, supports that approach.

Davis says the city still prefers that plan, but it probably would have to be built in stages. It’s possible that the city first will opt for localized protection measures to shield businesses while leaving the larger lake area unprotected.

Clearly, $50 million is a sizable investment. If city leaders decide they no longer prefer to protect the lake, they should explain that decision and allow the public to weigh in.

It’s an important decision. Flooding would only add to the lake’s water quality and sediment problems. Also, a protected lake would be eligible for potential funding through the DNR’s Lake Restoration Program. Without flood protection, the lake isn’t eligible for state assistance.

PIVOTAL TIME

We appreciate that Friends of Cedar Lake is dreaming big while starting small. Initially, they want to encourage canoers, kayakers and others to give the lake a try with hopes that more residents will follow. We also acknowledge that both Alliant executives and city leaders say they’re interested in the lake’s future.

“We’d like to see the lake be an amenity, a resource for the community,” Kopp said.

We’re not certain whether Friends of Cedar Lake’s more ambitious plans are possible. But we agree with its contention that the power plant’s decommissioning and the state’s decision to allow Cedar Rapids to tap sales taxes for flood protection dollars makes this a pivotal, transitional time when the lake’s future should be addressed.

We understand the trepidation inherent in finding out more about the lake’s condition and challenges. But they can’t be met and addressed until they are understood. Let’s gather the facts. Soon.

In the long run, the community’s best interests aren’t served by disinterest.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.com

More on Friends

For more information on the Friends of Cedar Lake initiative, contact Dale Todd: dale@hatchdevelopment.com.

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