CEDAR RAPIDS — Plans to transform Cedar Lake were dealt a “minor setback” when an application for a federal brownfield grant to study lake floor sediment for toxins was passed over last week, but officials say they may wind up better off.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded 218 environmental assessment grants worth $55.2 million to 131 communities, including $400,000 each for projects in Waterloo and Burlington, $200,000 for work in Dubuque and $550,000 for the East Central Intergovernmental Association in Northeastern Iowa. Cedar Rapids, which wasn’t selected for its $200,000 request for Cedar Lake, was among more than 400 applicants.
Dale Todd, president of Friends of Cedar Lake, an advocacy group behind the restoration effort, remains optimistic, though.
“When one door closes, other doors have appeared to open,” Todd said, calling it disappointing but a minor setback.
Activists have been pushing for decades to convert Cedar Lake from industrial pool into a community recreational asset. Momentum has picked up in recent years after Alliant Energy, which owns the lake, decommissioned its flood-damaged power plant and stopped using the lake just north of downtown.
The Friends group released a restoration master plan earlier this year calling for $8.8 million in improvements with fishing, boat ramps, a boardwalk, lights at night and parking. Backers have sites on grants, private fundraising, and a new state recreational tourism grant program called Enhance Iowa, which Gov. Terry Branstad approved last week but has yet to be funded.
William Micheel, assistant community development director for Cedar Rapids, has been working to support the efforts to upgrade the lake.
He said the EPA grant was extremely competitive and Cedar Rapids just missed the cutoff, but a “fantastic alternative” has been identified. Micheel has a “high level of confidence” the lake qualifies for the targeted brownfield assessment program through the EPA’s regional office, he said.
“This is not competitive,” Micheel said. “If you meet the requirements and there is money available, you are in ... My thought is they do have the money and our project does meet requirement for acceptance in the program.”
Cedar Rapids City Council may be asked to approve an application in June, and if that happens the EPA could decide by early July, Micheel said. The assessment would likely start within a month of approval, Micheel said.
The latest option may work out better, too, Micheel said. The EPA would administer the work, while Cedar Rapids would have been administrator if it received the grant. Basically, Cedar Rapids would have less paperwork, and the assessment could move faster, he said.
The backup plan is to get contributions for the assessment from a mix of sources, including the Friends group, the governments of Cedar Rapids and Linn County, the U.S. Geological Survey and Alliant, Todd said.
The environmental assessment is a linchpin for the broader Cedar Lake plans. Alliant paid for a phase one environmental assessment, but a phase two test is also required. That is what is in limbo.
The Cedar Lake master plan assumes transferring ownership of the lake, which had been used to cool the Alliant power plant, to the city. More grant money, such as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Lake Restoration Grant, is available for a public resource than a private one. Cedar Rapids is requiring the testing before taking ownership to minimize liability.
“In order to access private and public funding sources there needs to be an exchange of real estate from private hands to the public domain,” Todd said. “All parties agree it is appropriate to understand what is in the sediment first to understand if it exposes any parties to any liabilities.”
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Officials with Alliant and EPA did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The EPA did not release any analysis of how it viewed Cedar Rapids’ application.
A news release accompanying the EPA grant notification stated that money was awarded to “aid underserved and economically disadvantaged communities through the assessment and cleanup of abandoned industrial and commercial properties and expand the ability of communities to recycle vacant and abandoned properties for new, productive reuses.”