Curt Schnell and his brothers grew up understanding the importance of keeping West Okoboji Lake as blue as possible.
“All three of us worked on this golf course when we were growing up,” said Schnell, who now owns Okoboji View Golf Course – just 600 feet from the lake – with his brothers, Steve and Dan. “It’s a unique golf course, and we want to keep it that way.”
The Schnell brothers are poised to lend a hand in an effort that not only is expected to improve the management and beauty of the golf course, but play an instrumental role in protecting the lake from the threat of increased agricultural pollution.
The three co-owners are in negotiations to grant a permanent easement on about 12 acres of the 125-acre, 6,015-yard, par-70 golf course to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for introduction of two wetland areas on the golf course.
Schnell said the project will reduce drainage problems for the course, preserve and improve the wildlife habitat that already exists on the course, and prevent pollution from reaching the lake.
“A golfer told me the other day that he watched an osprey grab a goldfish out of one of the ponds,” Curt Schnell said. “We have goldfinches and purple finches and assorted other birds and wildlife. This project should help to attract even more of that kind of wildlife.”
Plans call for construction to begin early next year as part of the continuing effort by environmental groups and community and business leaders to reduce nutrient pollution from nearby farm fields as much as possible into one of the state’s few lakes designated as having outstanding waters.
But the project also is expected to help correct a major drainage problem that has bedeviled the Schnells since they purchased the golf course in 2004.
Two years ago, a major rainfall shut down the golf course for almost two days. Cornstalks from nearby farms littered the course, and spontaneous ponds formed throughout the fairways. The Schnells and their staff spent a lot of hours cleaning up and building makeshift walking bridges.
“We were picking up cornstalks for days,” Schnell said.
The Okoboji View wetlands project is part of an overall $2.6 million project that will transform just over 350 acres of cropland back into natural prairie and wetlands just west of the golf course, which is located on the west side of Highway 86 less than a half mile from the far northwest bay of West Lake Okoboji.
Most of the property for the project was obtained from a partnership led by area businessman Tom Bedell, as well as from area residents Katherine Sebby and Susan Chapman. Total cost of land acquisition was about $1.8 million, according to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation officials.
The project is a joint effort by local, state and federal environmental and wildlife agencies and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a non-profit group that assists in the acquisition of property by conservation agencies in its statewide effort to preserve Iowa wildlife and prairie lands.
Already, the Foundation has supported 55 protection projects covering just over 5,000 acres in Dickinson County.
“We understand the importance of the Iowa Great Lakes to the state and how it must be preserved and enhanced,” Hannah Inman, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s director of communications, said. “The fact that the community is so involved is a major asset for the level of cooperation we receive.”
Overall, there are six sources helping to pay for the project, including $1.2 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a $375,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, $328,000 in grants through two Iowa DNR funds, $275,000 from the Dickinson County Water Quality Commission and a $50,000 bequest from LaVonne Foote to be spent in Dickinson County.
Heather Jobst, land projects director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, said that local and state officials became concerned over the past several years about nutrient pollution levels that began to rise as a result of farmland runoff near the golf course.
A Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) study found a large sediment shift in the northwest area of West Lake Okoboji about two years ago.
Those runoffs resulted in an increase in sediment levels that contained unacceptably higher amounts of phosphorus and nitrates getting into West Lake Okoboji – a rare spring-fed, deep-water lake that is one of Iowa’s few designated “outstanding waters.”
That designation, as well as the lake-related tourism that forms the economic foundation of the community, has made the quality of the lake a major concern for most residents and businesses.
“The business community certainly understands how important the quality of the lake is and how we need to maintain that quality,” Julie Fillenwarth, co-owner of Fillenwarth Beach Resorts, said. “People are ready to help provide the money to find a solution.”
Further study pinpointed the area around the golf course, as well as to its west and south, as the major contributor to the pollution levels.
Preservation of the quality of West Lake Okoboji and improvement of its sister lake, East Lake Okoboji, has long been a goal for area residents.
The two lakes, despite being connected, couldn’t be more different to both the naked eye as well as the scientists who study their composition. As a result of its depth (averaging 39 feet and reaching 136 feet) and its rare spring sources, West Lake Okoboji is a crisp blue hue. East Lake Okoboji – a much shallower lake fed by rainwater and runoff – is a dull shade of green.
As Iowa’s deepest natural lake, West Lake Okoboji formed as a pothole from the last glacier to cover the northern part of Iowa more than 13,000 years ago. The lake’s major sources of water are an unknown number of subterranean springs that provide the 3,847 acres of blue water. According to local lake expert Greg Drees, it is one of only three “true blue water lakes” in the world.
West Lake Okoboji and the other great lakes, in an area once inhabited by roving members of Sioux Indian tribes, became popular in the late 1800s as a Midwest tourist attraction as well as a location that could beckon the wealthy of Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota as a site for large summer retreats. One pioneer developer, Wesley Arnold, constructed a water toboggan slide on West Lake Okoboji that would eventually become part of Arnolds Park Amusement Park, a Coney Island-style experience in northwest Iowa.
Community leaders have been able to preserve a lake known for its boating, swimming, and fishing (walleye, northern pike, muskie, walleye and bass can all be found there) as well as hiking and biking the more than 14 miles of paved trail around the lake.
Drees, who is the current chairman of the Iowa Natural Resources Commission, says that none of this can be continued unless West Lake Okoboji is kept as clean as possible.
“I don’t think you can underestimate how important a body of water this lake is,” Drees said. “It has great economic impact for the area and provides wonderful recreation opportunity. We simply need to protect it.”
According to Drees, local officials are strongly advising homeowners to use phosphorus-free fertilizer on their yards and to maintain rain barrels or rain gardens if possible.
“All these kinds of steps are needed to maintain the lake’s quality,” Drees said.
When Schnell heard that the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation had purchased nearby property to create natural prairie and wetlands near the golf course, he thought he might be able to expand the wetland areas on his golf course.
“It sounded like a great opportunity because we could figure out how to deal with the drainage problem we were having and help the lake,” Schnell said. “We grew up here. We fish and hunt here. It's a big deal to make sure everyone can keep on doing that."
Plans for the project inside the Schnells’ golf course include one wetland area on what is now the driving range on the southwest corner of the course. That likely will mean that the driving range will be reduced in size, but Schnell said it’s worth it.
“We are probably going to be losing a few range balls, but it’s worth it to keep the cornstalks off the course,” he said.
The major wetland will be constructed on about 10 acres that is the lowest point of the golf course on the north end. Right now, Steve Schnell, the course superintendent and Curt Schnell’s brother, has designated that part of the course, which runs between the 3rd, 11th and 12th hole fairways, as a so-called “no mow” area and is now essentially left to grow weeds.
“It’s a no-mow area because it’s usually so wet we can’t get anything down there anyway,” Steve Schnell said.
Curt Schnell said that the changes in the course will necessitate moving eight tee boxes and relocating a substantial amount of his underground watering system and will be a challenge as the work begins.
“We will have a lot of work to do,” he said. “But we think that this is a win-win for us and the lake.”