The beginning of the endLake Darling dam will be closed Wednesday morning
BRIGHTON — The 51st anniversary of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling’s death will be honored with a celebration of new life for the lake that bears his name, as the dam at Lake Darling will be closed to allow the now dry lake bed to begin filling with water.
On Wednesday, Feb. 12, a ceremony will be held to set the gate of the dam at Lake Darling to impound the waters. This will begin the final phase to refill Lake Darling, which was drained in 2008 to dredge silt from the bottom and reconfigure it. The initial plan was for the lake to reopen in 2010.
“We have been long overdue for this moment,” Fay Vittetoe, the president of the Friends of Lake Darling, said. “It comes early in the year at a time that is not the best for people to get to the dam site, so only a hardy handful will make the trip to the dam. The public is welcome, but it is going to be winter cold.”
Darling was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who worked for newspapers in Des Moines and Sioux City. He was also a prominent figure in the conservation movement. He dedicated Lake Darling State Park on Sept. 17, 1950, during the first dam gate setting. He died Feb. 12, 1962.
Vittetoe said that at 9:30 a.m., people would meet in front of the Anson and Vittetoe Veterinary Clinic in Brighton to go to Lake Darling. At 10 a.m. there will be a program to close the dam gate. Another program will begin at 11 a.m. in the community room in Brighton City Hall. Vittetoe said that there would be a one-hour program that will follow the format of the program from 1950. At noon, there will be a catered lunch.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries management technician Vance Polton said that after the project was rebid last year and work began again, the construction crews are working about two months ahead. He said that the original date to close the dam was in April, but the work has been completed to the point that the gate could be closed.
“Obviously we are not going to back up a lot of water at this time of year, because most of it is still stuck in the snow,” he said. “There is water coming out of the ground and flowing through the pipe. By closing the gate we will start catching that water and this way we won’t miss the snow melt.”
He said that this would start refilling the lake. He said there is a bit more work to do in the lake basin, but it is all in the upper end.
Once the gate closes, Polton said, the in-lake work will be done. He said that crews would have to wait until spring to complete paving the road through Lake Darling State Park. He also said work is still being done on the campground.
“As far as the lake is concerned, it would be nice if it was a wet spring to fill it up,” he said. “As far as the road paving, it needs to stay warm and dry so they can get the base of the road down and get the concrete poured on it.”
He said crews are hoping to get the road done by July, at which point the park can reopen. Polton said the question would be if the campground would be ready to accept campers.
The east side of the park will be paved last, Polton said. He said the west side of the park might reopen before the east side is complete.
“Basically, it will be a new park,” he said. “There are new ponds in the park that are done and all the trails are changed. The dam is completely different than it used to be. The campground is completely new. Even the shower buildings have been completely replaced.”
He said there would still be construction in the park after the project ends because the Friends of Lake Darling plan to build four-season cabins. Vittetoe said the group has enough money to start three cabins, but is hoping to secure enough funding for six cabins.
Polton said no work could be done in 2009-10 due to heavy rains flooding the construction areas and making the ground inaccessible to large equipment, and the project was slowed down.
In 2011, construction crews started on the new dam. Polton said even then it took time to drain the spillway. Crews also hoped that the ground would freeze enough to bring large earthmoving equipment into the unpaved construction areas. When the 2011-12 winter was unseasonably warm, it halted construction. The ground never froze enough for the equipment — which can weigh over 100,000 pounds — to run on the soil.
Polton said that the project has been held up due to a problem with permits. Calling 2012 “the wasted year,” Polton said that work had been started before permits had been issued for the work. The permits, he said, were to remove soil from the area that had been dredged from the lake.
While the original projected cost of the project had been $4.2 million, Dolan said that the costs have increased from when the project began and he believes the total project will cost closer to $5 million. This figure includes all the improvements to the campground.
The project is being funded from several sources, including a federal grant from Lakes Restoration. Fish and Wildlife Trust Funds and Marine Fuel Tax funds have all been invested in the project.
Vittetoe said that in 1963 a state newspaper had declared Lake Darling a “mudhole” and said Darling wouldn’t have liked it. She said the project is reversing that.