New take on an old project

Elkhart Truth file photoA new study will look at whether removing all of the sediment from Dam Pond in Goshen could provide flood control benefits for the Elkhart River, which flows into and out of the pond created 160 years ago.

GOSHEN — Scaling back plans to dredge Dam Pond in Goshen didn’t move the project any closer to reality after six years, so planners have started floating the opposite idea.

Plans to dredge some of the sediment from the pond south of Goshen have been dormant since last summer, when the project advisory board and the city turned down a $2.2 million bid because it was still $1 million above their budget. A new study will look at whether removing all of the sediment could provide flood control benefits for the Elkhart River, which flows into and out of the pond created 160 years ago.

“It’s a bit of a long shot, but the engineering firm and everybody involved said let’s run the numbers and see what the potential is,” Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder said Friday. “If it looks like, after you remove all the sediment you want there’s still no flood control benefits, then it’s a nice idea that’s just not going to work.”

Abonmarche Consulting will conduct the study at a cost of $37,000. The county stormwater board will contribute $10,000, out of funds it had already secured for the project in the past but never spent.

If the result is positive, Yoder said the expanded project would clearly be an expensive one. He indicated that spending a relatively small amount of money now would be worth it to find a possible solution to flooding in Goshen, where heavy rains have left some areas of town under standing water twice since the beginning of last year.

“Can we keep it out of Kroger’s parking lot? That’s the benchmark,” Yoder said, referring to recurring flooding at the bend in the river near Chicago Avenue. “In my mind, we would need to establish a level for the pond for recreational use and to have the capacity for flood control. I don’t see that happening unless we have 100 percent silt removal.”

‘Looking for a problem’

But Adam Scharf, a Goshen City councilman who has been involved with the project for years as a member of the advisory board, expressed doubt that flood control is much of a possibility. He said as much in a resolution he introduced to council Sept. 18, which contained several points about the project that he said were needed to counter wrong information. 

Among other points, the resolution stated that removing sediment wouldn’t have any appreciable flood mitigation benefits, that the project wouldn’t restore open water conditions needed for activities like motorboating or water-skiing and that the 2008 Elkhart River Watershed Management Plan didn’t list sediment dredging among its goals or best management practices. Scharf compiled the information from project documents and conversations with contractors, biologists, the DNR and the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as drawing from his own background in natural science, he said.

He came to Tuesday’s council meeting prepared to argue the same point about flood control, placing two jars full of water on the table in front of him, each with a different level of silt on the bottom. He explained Friday that it was meant to illustrate that, regardless of the amount of silt, there’s still no room for any more water.

“As long as the Elkhart River is flowing, the pond is at capacity,” he said. “I don’t remember in my lifetime the Elkhart River not flowing.”

He questions whether the feasibility study isn’t an attempt to find a new justification for keeping the project alive.

“My question is, are we missing something fundamental?” he said. “We seem to be looking for a problem to fix with our answer, that answer being dredging the pond.”

Another concern of his is with the other source of funding for the study, an economic improvement district that was established around the pond a few years ago. It draws revenue from property owners around the pond – who are residents of the city or the county depending on which side of it they live on – relative to the amount of frontage each one has.

He said the people in the district have no say in how the money is spent, because unlike the economic district centered on the downtown, they don’t have a method of regularly electing representatives.

What Scharf agrees on is that enacting measures to attempt flood control with the pond would be expensive. 

“Are we looking at replacing the dam with a spillway? Because that’s a big deal,” he said. “Are we opening a big can of worms with this or are we just taking an innocent look?”

Brainstorming

The original goal of the project was to dredge 34 acres of the 140-acre pond to an average depth of 6 feet. In the latest version of the project, included in the bid that was ultimately rejected as too costly, six areas were identified for dredging with estimates of between 5,800 and 24,600 cubic yards of sediment to be removed from each. 

After the bid was rejected, Yoder said he, county Surveyor Phil Barker and other county staff members held a brainstorming session. He said they decided to start over and look at the broader possibilities, such as using a silt-free pond as a retention basin for excess rainwater and releasing it downriver slowly.

One of the questions asked at the meeting Tuesday was whether the original purpose of the pond was flood control, or if it was only a way to provide power to surrounding mills. Yoder said Friday that flood control was part of the original design of the pond, based on what he learned from people who grew up in the area and who remember the pond from before it was filled with silt.

He noted that sediment includes runoff from fields and construction sites, something he hopes to prevent in the future whether the dredging project moves forward or not. 

The county rebuilt the dam at the north side of the pond decades ago, then became owner of the pond before putting it in the hands of the parks department, according to Yoder. He said there are also several gates around the pond that could be raised to change the water level, but whether they could handle what would be asked of them now is a question for the Abonmarche study to answer.

Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman said Tuesday the study is expected to come back in three to four months. He also remarked that it was time for the county to take over the project.

“I have had discussions with some county officials and it’s gotten to the point with this project where I think it would be much better if the county took the lead on it, took over the day-to-day efforts that the City of Goshen has been doing,” he said.

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