—by Todd Thorson, with contributions provided by Jane Todey

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), residents of Little Wall Lake and Hamilton County Conservation Board members met in Des Moines on Tuesday, Oct. 15 in an effort to advance the management plan of the 256-acre lake located just south of Jewell on Highway 69. The two sides have been at odds over the lake’s water level management for a number of years now, and a stalemate has ensued as of late.

As a shallow lake, the DNR statewide management plan sees natural drought cycles as healthy for the resource, allowing sediment to solidify on exposed lake beds and to get vegetation established that benefits fish and wildlife and helps remove nutrients from the lake water.

Lake residents prefer to increase the lake level for recreation during drought years, and have wanted to pump water into the lake from nearby Mud Creek. Mud Creek has high levels of phosphorus that would cause additional water quality problems for Little Wall Lake.

Previous discussions have occurred as part of a group created to discuss the management of the lake, including the water level issues. But no progress has been made.

At the October 15 meeting the DNR’s plan included various proposals, some made sense, in the eyes of the lake residents, and some did not. Lake residents in attendance included Jane Todey, Jeff Knutson and Russell Teig.

The first proposal discussed concerned getting rid of the grass carp and yellow bass in the lake. By using a cool weather, low dose chemical treatment, the "fish kill" would get the fishery back in balance, which would then improve water clarity and increase aquatic vegetation, thus removing the bad nutrients and benefit the fish.

Scott Grummer, DNR fisheries expert, said the chemical treatment is being tested at the Rathbun hatchery to see what effects it has on other species.

"This will kill off all the walleye that have been introduced by local groups," stated Todey, "and we were told that they would be replaced. (So) basically they do plan to restock what they kill."

The fish kill may, however, not transpire until a year from now, in the fall of 2014. Then the dead fish could be cleaned up by wildlife over the winter before the following spring. Grummer also said that this type of chemical dissipates after a few days and will only impact gill-breathing wildlife, not migrating birds, for example.

According to Todey, the DNR also killed all of the fish back in the 1990s. "After there were no fish to stir up the sediments at the bottom, the water cleared and the sun could reach the bottom," she explained. "Weeds started to grow, and essentially choked most of the lake, causing weeds to wrap around propellers and preventing anyone from getting out on the water." Todey says "boat trails" could even be seen weeks after people had tried to cut through the weeds.

Following that initial fish kill, the DNR put in grass carp to eat the weeds. "They also put in small fish that didn’t make a lot of difference right away," Todey said. "At a meeting in Jewell, a DNR person said they became ‘impatient’, so they introduced over twice the recommended number of fish for a lake this size. These fish don’t reproduce, but they have lived a lot longer than anticipated, so they continue to eat the habitat for the other game fish, and (also) continue to stir up the lake bottom so the water always appears muddy."

Boat access during low water cycles was also discussed at the meeting, and improving and extending the boat ramps is a distinct possibility.

"I’m not sure this will make any difference, since Jeff and I took our boat out the next day (following the meeting) and naturally went off the end of the ramp," commented Todey. "The problem was that we continued to back as far as we dared to into the lake and the trailer never submerged any further. We couldn’t get our boat completely on the trailer because there just wasn’t enough depth."

The bottom line in all this is that the Little Wall Lake water level is just too low to provide adequate boat access for larger pontoons and power boats. So, while Todey and the residents continue to be frustrated, they do feel the DNR is trying to help by extending the ramps, but there is no guarantee it will make any difference. "They just don’t understand how shallow the lake is," stated Todey.

The DNR also addressed the containment reservoir as a secondary water source. Originally they wanted to destroy the containment because it wasn’t originally built to act as a wetland. Now, according to Todey, the DNR is talking about grading the inside of the containment so that the water captured from rainfall will flow more easily back into the lake.

"I was told at the meeting that this area is 60 acres - about a fourth of the area of the lake," Todey said. "So any rainfall should help increase the water levels. Sounds good on paper, but I can’t imagine that this will help substantially since we are in a drought pattern and rainfall will likely soak in long before it runs off."

This work proposal is not currently budgeted, so Todey thinks it could take up to two years before anything is done with the containment issue.

Other water sources were also brought up, including a well, gravel pit or pumping from the creek, but the DNR had no plans to address any of those ideas at this time.

"I pushed them to pursue other options for maintaining the lake level," added Todey, "(but) they don’t really want to do that because they want the lake to fluctuate naturally."

Todey recalls talking to a water quality specialist in the past, about how some larger city water systems use shells to filter sewer water. If certain "vendor" products were made available, they could reduce the nitrates and phosphorus from the creek water and then pump that water into the containment to filter it before running it into the lake. Other possibilities were also discussed beyond that, and Todey continued to encourage the DNR to do more research.

The DNR also believes that the last several years Little Wall Lake has been higher than it is supposed to be. "They believe a tree caused the overflow to heave so that water was not running out when it reached the appropriate elevation," said Todey. "Jeff asked them if they could mark the appropriate elevation on the overflow in the campground."

In the end, it’s apparent both parties want to find a solution, but the appropriate means and procedures will continue to be debated.

"We are not against pumping water, but we need to find a source that will not harm the lake," said Martin Konrad, also with the DNR Fisheries Bureau. "We presented our view of ways to improve the water quality, while addressing recreation issues that come with lower water levels." Konrad also said the working group will continue to search for an alternative, outside water source that would not adversely impact the water quality of the lake during low water years.

And so, it appears no progress will be made on the water level issue for at least another year, and that will not sit well with the Little Wall Lake residents. They have become impatient and frustrated for going on two years now.

"We’ve been handed a lot of promises, just as we have in the past," concluded Todey. "I guess we’ll have to wait and see."

The DNR and the Little Wall Lake group agreed to continue meeting, and Todey suggested to them that they do so in order to "figure out the details of their proposals, and to get more background on another water source". The next meeting, however, will probably not occur until the first of the year.