State water officials are recommending a multimillion dollar plan to dredge out John Redmond Reservoir in Coffey County to extend the life of the 50-year-old lake that has been gradually filling up with silt over the decades.
If approved, some officials say the pilot project could become a model for managing other federal lakes in Kansas that are starting to face similar problems. But questions remain about how the project would be funded, and some officials say the state would do better to invest in prevention measures that would keep problems like those at John Redmond from happening in the first place.
"If dredging were a cheap and efficient methodology, it might be best," said Galen Biery, general manager of a water assurance district that uses John Redmond to provide backup water supply to 14 communities in southeastern Kansas. "But it is a very expensive method to try and maintain the total storage in a reservoir."
John Redmond Reservoir is located on the Neosho River near Burlington, about 75 miles southwest of Lawrence. Like many of the other federal dams in eastern Kansas, it was built mainly in response to massive floods that occurred here in the early 1950s.
Besides flood protection, those lakes also provide a source of water for local communities, as well as a source of camping, boating and fishing recreation. In particular, John Redmond is the sole source of water for the two smaller lakes that feed the cooling towers at the nearby Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant.
When it was completed in 1964, the lake had a surface area of 9,800 acres and stored an estimated 82,800 acre-feet of water. But since then, it has lost about 1,000 surface acres and nearly half its total volume, mainly due to erosion along the banks of the Neosho River, which feeds into the lake.
Tracy Streeter, who heads the Kansas Water Office, the state's water planning and policy agency, said part of the problem was relieved earlier this year when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to raise the lake level by two feet.
“It took us 16 years to get that done,” Streeter said.
But that merely bought some time. With sediment flowing into the lake at the rate of 749 acre-feet per year — almost twice as much as the Corps estimated when it built the dam — Streeter said there needs to be a long-term solution for extending the life of the reservoir.
To that end, Streeter said, the Water Office has been developing a plan for submission to the Corps of Engineers to get its permission to make changes or modifications to the federal lake.
Plan for dredging
Earlier this year, the agency solicited proposals for dredging the lake and awarded a bid to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, an Illinois company that specializes in dredging and land reclamation.
But Streeter said the contract is only tentative until funding is secured for the project.
At a meeting Oct. 25 in Manhattan, the Water Office's Reservoir Advisory Committee recommended a plan to issue $25 million in bonds to fund a five-year project to reclaim some of lake's lost storage capacity.
That would include $13.2 million for dredging; $4.5 million for land acquisition to dispose of the sediment; and $7.3 million for stream bank stabilization projects to prevent future erosion into the lake.
The bonds would be repaid through a combination of state general fund money and fees the Water Office charges for water storage and marketing. That includes fees paid by the Cottonwood and Neosho River Basins Water Assurance District that Galen Biery manages.
Under the plan outlined last week, Biery said, the district would be charged between $125,000 and $150,000 a year for its share of the payments over the life of the bonds, money that would have to be passed on to the communities that are members of the district.
Finding the money
Biery said the members of his district believe they already paid for their storage capacity once, and they don't feel they should be charged again to reclaim it. In addition, he said, the district serves a number of small communities that would have a hard time absorbing that additional cost.
Biery said he would like to see more emphasis on preventive measures like stream bank stabilization, which he said has a longer-term impact than dredging an area that may only silt up again.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he supports the dredging plan, but he sees a challenge getting the Kansas Legislature to approve spending general fund money for such a project. For many years, he said, the state budgeted about $6 million a year for similar kinds of water projects, but that program has not been funded in recent years.
"For a lot of legislators, there is no water crisis now," Sloan said. "Therefore other spending or tax-cutting priorities have taken precedence. My belief is we need to convince them that investing before there is a crisis is the politically and economically responsible thing to do."