OXFORD — For the last two summers, campers and other visitors at F.W. Kent Park were met with an empty lake and closed beach during an ongoing restoration project.
For a park that attracts a lot of families, that meant fewer patrons the past two years, said Sherry Frantz, who serves as camp host at the F.W. Kent Park campground with her husband, Bill. The Frantzes live in the campground from mid-April until October or November and help campers check in and perform other duties.
“It has affected the number of campers we’ve had out here,” she said.
This year will be a different story. Johnson County conservation officials started refilling the lake in early April and thanks to heavy rainfall this month, the lake was fully filled this week. That means for the first time since the end of the 2016 season, both the lake and beach are fully open to visitors, and Sherry Frantz said business is already picking up.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “It really is exciting. I can see a difference in traffic.”
Johnson County Conservation Director Larry Gullett said planning for the Kent Park Lake restoration began in 2014. The lake was getting too much phosphorus in the water due to field runoff containing fertilizer or livestock waste. The beach was also being closed at an “increasing frequency” each year due to high bacteria levels from humans and livestock, Gullett said.
“So, we had two problems which were causing the water to be green with all this algae,” he said.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources deemed Kent Park Lake impaired due to levels of chlorophyll — a green pigment plants use in photosynthesis — in the water.
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The runoff problem was tackled in two phases. First, five new catch basins were installed at the park and four were renovated to prevent the runoff in the watershed from reaching the lake. Several storm sewer intake structures were installed to slow down and control runoff. Crews also took measures to filter and slow the runoff from parking lots and the park’s road system.
“All of that work is in the watershed of the lake,” Gullett said. “We’re treating all of the water before it even gets to the lake.”
During the second phase, the lake was drained in April 2017 and allowed to try out for a year. The county contracted to have sediment high in phosphorus and other nutrients dredged from the lake.
“We removed something like 130,000 cubic yards of silt out of the lake bottom,” Gullett said, noting the average lake depth — which was once 6 to 7 feet — is now nearly 10 feet.
After the lake was dredged, four underwater fish reefs were built and modified to encourage fish spawning. Work on the dam was also done to make it easier to manage and grant access for the valve to control the lake level. An observation deck and platform were built off the dam that now offers panoramic views of the lake.
Gullett said the campground opened last month and access roads to the beach and boat ramp are now open.
“People can get to the boat ramp and the beach,” he said. “The beach is fully functional right now and open. ... We’re really excited and looking forward to getting things back to normal.”
Work isn’t quite finished on the lake. Later this summer, officials will drop the lake level in June and July to plant 18,000 submerged aquatic plants. While the plants will be beneficial to the fish, they also will help trap and recycle the nutrients that make it into the water, Gullett said.
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“Our theory is if you don’t put the good plants in there you want, then you’ll have invasive aquatic plants,” he said. “All of the plants will provide outstanding habitat for the fish, plus help recycle outstanding nutrients in the water.”
The lake also has been stocked with thousands of bluegill, and bass and catfish will be added next month.
Rick Hollis, president of Friends of Johnson County Conservation, is among those excited to see the lake and park fully restored. Hollis leads a bird-watching trip at the park twice a month.
“The lake was clearly suffering more and more each year,” he said. “That was never going to go away if you didn’t do anything about it.”
Hollis applauds the work done to restore the lake and said, “it’s going to be awesome.”
“The county took the steps it needed to do in order to return it to what it was,” he said. “I’m a big fan of Kent Park. It’s an awesome place. It’s a good place to take your kids. This is just going to increase what Kent Park can do for the community.”
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