Residents worry Grand Island dewatering plan will leave them high and dry

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July 17, 2012 - 7:00pm

On a recent hot summer day, Rick Saalfeld steps out his back door toward the lake that sits just a hundred yards or so away. He notices some children playing.

The kids fly off a swing, dropping into the water. It's a scene Saalfeld has seen for 27 years here at his home on Lake Davis, a couple miles east of Grand Island, Neb.

"My kids have learned to ice skate and swim here. My grandkids are doing the same thing," he said. "So it's my good life. It really is. It's my good life."

Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

Residents enjoy swimming, boating and fishing at Lake Davis east of Grand Island.

Saalfeld and other residents of lakes around the perimeter of Grand Island are worried their good life may be taken away. Three areas of the city have recurring problems with flooded basements, and officials are considering a dewatering project that would use wells to pump up groundwater and then pipe it out of the city. Lake residents fear the project could lower lake levels, decreasing home values and changing the way of life that brought them here. For Saalfeld, the lake holds nearly three decades of memories.

"You can't replace those. And a mud hole certainly ain't gonna do it," he said. "I'll fight with whatever efforts I got and energies I've got to see that that doesn't happen. And that's that is the mindset of every one of the residents out here."

Grand Island City Council President Peg Gilbert said the problem isn't new to the city of 44,000, but it may finally be time to do something about it.

"We're just studying it right now and I want that to be very clear, because there are a lot of unknowns," Gilbert said. "High groundwater has always been an issue for Grand Island. What makes it different now is our community continues to grow, and the land that is in a higher elevation, that has been pretty much developed. So if we're going to continue to expand as a community, we need to use our periphery."

The dewatering project the city is considering has an estimated price tag of $20 million with a $2 million annual operating cost. The city had Olsson Associates, an engineering firm based in Lincoln, originally studied this project about 10 years ago. Then, it was projected at half the current cost of $20 million. But with lower interest rates, firm geologist Karen O'Connor said, the annual cost is about the same as before.

"We are looking at installing ... up to 33 groundwater extraction wells, wells that will pump the water out of the area and then down to the Platte (River) through the Wood River," she said. Olsson Associates' proposal would lower the water table level beneath the city to a depth of 15 feet, leaving a buffer underneath basements, which are typically 10 feet deep.

A pipeline system would transport the pumped water to the Wood River from wells located in the northwest, south and southeast parts of the city, avoiding plumes of contaminated water the Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up. O'Connor said those areas include about 4,000 houses with basements.

"When you have that many people calling in and saying, Once again, we have water in our basement and this is a problem,' we should look at (this) as an overall citywide problem," she said. "It's a unique one in that there's too much water; usually, it's the other way around, and we are trying to find water for folks."

But the high groundwater level is what makes area lakes possible. What dewatering the city may do to those lakes wasn't studied initially, but is being looked at now, and O'Connor said there are options.

Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

A proposed dewatering project would pipe ground water from parts of Grand Island to the Wood River, pictured here south of the city. It would then flow to the Platte River.

"There are things we can do, like take samples of the lake bed and see how (hydrologically), the lakes, ground water are connected whether there're clay layers that might impede the flow," she explained. "Overall, the plan is to monitor those lake levels and if needed, pump water back in those specific lakes."

The Central Platte Natural Resource District and the city of Grand Island each paid half for the Olsson Associates study. Ron Bishop, Central Platte's general manager, said pumping water back into area lakes is an option.

"But then you get into kind of a recycling the water, yet you pump it out and put it in the lake and it soaks back into the groundwater and then you pump it out again," he said. "Whether or not that would be feasible remains to be seen."

Bishop said smaller dewatering efforts have been successful, and if Grand Island pursues one, there's a potential the water removed could become a revenue source.

"There are some potentials, and we've been thinking about them," he said, like irrigation. Say an industry moves into the area, like an ethanol plant.

"The water that they pumped for that ethanol plant would have an impact on the Platte River, and under current law would have to be offset", Bishop said. "They'd have to secure a like amount of water somewhere and put it back in the river. And so, that's one possible thing, if the Lower Platte Basin were to ever be declared fully appropriated, then ... under state law, there would not any new depletions allowed on the Platte River unless they were offset by water. So this is a potential for offsetting future depletions to the Lower Platte River if and when it's ever constructed and if and when the Lower Platte Basin ever got declared fully appropriated."

For now, Gilbert with the City Council said the city should consider the dewatering project because of the damage she's seen in homes.

"When people experience water seeping into their basement, even with water systems, then it makes it uninhabitable - and also, potentially a public health hazard with mold and other things."

Gilbert also said the project could address another problem that arises when residents pump excess water into drains instead of outside their homes.

"We're having this huge extra load on our wastewater treatment plant of clean water, of clean rainwater," she said, sometimes as much as 40 to 50 percent. A side benefit of lowering the water table, though difficult to measure, would be the "economic return to the community of increased capacity in our wastewater treatment plant."

Back at his Lake Davis home, Rick Saalfeld plans to keep watching to see if the further study of impact on area lakes shows he can keep his piece of the good life, the way he likes it.

"It's time that we got beyond the assumptions and got to some assurances. Are you gonna assure us that if, in fact, our fears are not appropriate - then fine," he said. "But if they do, we do realize (lower lake levels), you're gonna correct it."

Two public meetings are scheduled in Grand Island on the dewatering project looking at, among other things, how to finance it.



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