It would be easy in this space to tell Burlington leaders to do whatever they can to save Echo Lake, the 70-acre body of water that provides an oasis of nature in the heart of the city.
But, alas, the answers to what to do with the troubled body of water are not easy and come with a hefty price tag.
With decades of pollutants and sediment covering the lake bottom, the average water depth is just 2 feet. State regulators have determined that the dam regulates the lake’s water flow into the White River is longer is adequate to protect Burlington from the possibility of a catastrophic flood.
The state Department of Natural Resources has given the City of Burlington until 2025 to either upgrade the dam to meet safety standards, or dismantle the dam and allow Echo Lake to drain into the White River. The choice comes down to either investing millions of dollars in saving the lake, or allowing a longstanding community amenity to vanish into the history books.
Consultants are estimating that it would cost $2.5 million just to dredge the lake bottom and clear out the muck. Studies are still underway to determine if the dam could be modernized to meet state standards, and if so, how much that would cost.
And the meter is already running on consulting costs. City officials have agreed to pay Ayres Associates $11,533 — in addition to $13,500 already paid — to report on the feasibility of the alternative dam approach. The report is expected by November.
The prospect that the lake might go away has understandably struck a nerve in the community. The lake has been part of the Burlington landscape since the 19th century when Ephraim Perkins and his son Pliny received permission to flood land they owned to accommodate a dam they used for milling purposes.
But for much of its existence, the lake has been a natural background for recreation purposes. In the 1930s, the city assumed ownership of the lake. In subsequent years, Echo Lake Park was established along Milwaukee Avenue and has been the site of numerous community functions over the years – from fireworks, to the Lions Club’s popular annual chicken barbeque, arts and craft shows, the Burlington Fire Department’s annual dance, and the Jaycees popular boat races. The Burlington Kiwanis Club places an automobile on the frozen lake and raises money by inviting people to guess the exact date when a spring thaw will send the vehicle crashing through the ice.
Children have run in playful bliss in the grassy areas between the Echo Lake playground and the lake shore. Picnickers have enjoyed the view for generations.
In 1963, the Veterans Memorial Building was built as a place for veterans groups to meet and as a venue for receptions and community events. That structure was replaced with the much more aesthetically pleasing and accommodating Veterans Terrace in the 2009. The lake has been the backdrop to numerous wedding photos.
In the waters just southeast of the dam fisherman have long enjoyed the rocky area of the White River that flows to its nearby confluence with the Fox River in the heart of Downtown.
In short Echo Lake is part of the fabric that makes Burlington the great city it is.
Paul Haynes, a former longtime city Park Board member and board president, says it may be time to return the acreage the lake flows over to its former and natural identity of being terra firma. And, after the devastating flood of 2017 that left much of the Downtown and residential areas along the Fox River under water, maybe heeding the advice of the DNR and environmental engineers is in order.
But hundreds of residents are sounding the alarm and urging preservation of their beloved Echo Lake.
And, acknowledging that there will be expensive upfront costs to study options, we urge city leaders to continue to do all they can to gather information to determine what can be done and to look for funding assistance in the form of grants and possible state and county aid.
But we also understand that city leaders have a fiscal responsibility and there are, of course, many ongoing needs and unexpected expenses in running a city that is a regional center of commerce and home to more than 11,000 residents.
“This is a huge decision that has the potential to impact the community for generations to come,” Mayor Jeannie Hefty said in a statement. “We must be thoughtful, thorough, and not make decisions based on emotions.”
We agree and extend our thoughts and best wishes to Burlington as the community tackles this most difficult chapter in its history.