NOTE: See more photos from this project online,

Hickory Grove Lake — and most of the amenities that go with it — aren’t open to the public this year as an estimated $3.4 million restoration project is currently taking place.

Though its campground is open at this time (operating with an abbreviated season of Memorial Day to Labor Day), most of the activity at the popular Story County lake southwest of Colo is from those who are working on the project.

The work, much of it weather-dependent, is still on schedule for completion by next spring, confirmed Luke Feilmeier, a park ranger with Story County Conservation who lives on-site at Hickory Grove, where he has an up-close view of the project’s progress.

“It’s amazing the amount of progress they make in just a week’s time,” said Feilmeier on a recent tour of the lake.

Backing up a moment, here’s why the project was necessary, as explained earlier this year by Mike Cox, director of Story County Conservation.

Hickory Grove Lake had been placed on the Department of Natural Resource’s “impaired waters” list several years ago. Cox said Hickory Grove Lake wasn’t meeting the standards needed to support its “recreation” classification. The county’s conservation department did a detailed assessment of the watershed, showing that there were high bacteria levels and soil sedimentation in the lake. Much of that included erosion, especially in the lake’s east basin.

The study by Story County Conservation also revealed that some nearby landowners’ septic systems were draining into the lake’s watershed, which was why something called “optical brighteners,” which are additives in laundry detergent, were found in the watershed.

With the help of the Story County Board of Supervisors and Story County Conservation, a cost-share was provided for households with “unpermitted septic systems” to replace them.

Getting those preliminary projects finished, both on erosion control and making sure no more bacteria from livestock or contaminants from sewer systems were coming into the watershed, opened the door for this summer’s major work on the lake to begin.

Dam Impressive

Feilmeier brings his truck to a stop near the area where earth-moving equipment operators are still at work on the lake’s west dam. In his six years of living at Hickory Grove Lake, he said he’s never seen anything like this.

“The work on the pipe,” he said, about the process to lay in a new draw-down pipe by cutting a massive notch in the existing dam and rebuilding a new dam over the new pipe, “it was so impressive to watch. How to describe it? I don’t really know. It’s hard to put into words. That’s why I’ve driven people out to show it to them.”

Last week, the workers — most of them with the main contractor — RW Excavating out of Prairie City — were leveling off the dirt over the damn and were just about ready to put bentonite clay around the intake pipe. That material, when mixed with water, swells, creating a water-tight seal, Iowa DNR Engineer Don Labate, explained. “It will provide a two-foot barrier all the way around the main pipe.”

Feilmeier said the conservation board had talked about pumping the lake to remove most of its water during this project. But, when they compared the cost of putting in a more permanent solution for drainage by creating a lower draw-down pipe, it made sense. “We’ve invested in a more permanent solution, for close to the same amount of money, and we are giving future managers the ability to easily drawn down the lake again if needed, without pumps.”

On the far side

On the other side of the lake, in the east basin, major equipment operators are also busy clearing tons of sediment out of the area, which Cox had described as the “catchment basin” for the sediment coming in on the stream. “Think of a kitchen strainer in your kitchen sink,” he told us earlier this year. “If the strainer — basin — is full, we need to empty the strainer.”

As you watch from 680th Avenue, you see excavation equipment and backhoes loading sediment into dump trucks, which then haul it to a nearby prairie area. Feilmeier said they are close to half-way done on this time-consuming, but very important part of the project.

There are 55,000 yards of sediment area to remove, he said. Each truckload can haul 10 yards, so it will take 5,500 truckloads to complete the job.

“The current plan is to restore [the soil/sediment being removed] to prairie,” Feilmeier said.

Other objectives

With the overall health of the entire lake as the main goal of this project, Feilmeier is equally excited about other initiatives that are being achieved.

For one, fish renovation, which by removing rough fish like common carp from the system, will increase water clarity, aquatic vegetation and overall lake health to promote a healthier environment for park visitors to enjoy.

The project includes new fishing jetties being constructed at several locations around the lake, two of those being on the lake’s island.

Feilmeier takes pride in the fact that much of the in-lake soil that is being pushed around during the dredging of the lake is being re-purposed and utilized in the building of the fishing jetties and boat ramp expansions. The in-lake material being excavated is primarily clay, which allows the opportunity to be used in forming such amenities.

“When you consider that it would have cost twice as much to haul all that material away, we feel great that we are able to enhance and provide some of the amenities we thought users would appreciate (with soil already on site).”

Jetties and expansion of the north and south boat ramps, and parking area are some of the improvements lake users will see next spring. In-lake dirt is also helping build the base for the bridge that will be going up to connect the north side of the lake to the island. Two 50-foot sections of steel bridge had been sitting in the beach parking lot awaiting placement to the island. The bridge was set in place on Monday of this week.

Another major improvement will be “land benches” at several locations on the south side of the lake, where the lake abuts the road. These “benches” will be built with some of the best soil in the lake to extend the trail’s surface around the lake. Before these improvements, bikers, walkers, joggers and others who have utilized the existing trail have had to come up to the road in locations where the trail doesn’t continue because of the road being so close to the lake. Now, land benches will be built along the edge of the lake in these areas, so a connected limestone trail can be utilized by the public around the entire south side of the lake.

Last, but of the utmost importance to many of the lake’s users, is improvements at the beach area. The old beach house — which has housed workers who provide concessions and boat rentals, restrooms and shower areas — still stands, but will be demolished. A new beach house, which will provide all of the same services, is going up soon at a location just northwest of the current one. The new location, Feilmeier said, will provide a more centralized location to overlook the lake and beach area. This will help with safety because workers will have a much better view of the entire lake area that is used by swimmers.

The new beach house will be a pre-fabricated structure. A couple of trees have already been removed to make room for it and footings were to be laid very soon. Feilmeier said one change with the new beach house is that instead of showers being in the restrooms, there will be an outdoor shower/rinse off area for everyone to use.

Loves to share

Feilmeier said the campground, as expected, hasn’t been as busy this year because of the project that is going on, but there have been some. He said it’s been nice when there are a few campers because it allows him to answer their questions and talk to them about the work being done. He’s always willing to visit with others about the project, and hopes to share more updates before the park is officially opened next year.