Lake Altoona getting new tech to remove sand, but first must find funding for start-up costs

Jan. 25—ALTOONA — An alternative may be coming to the costly, annual dredging that has been used to keep sand from clogging up Lake Altoona.

The Lake Altoona District has been gifted $1.2 million worth of equipment that passively filters sand out of river water and moves it off-site. But before that new machinery can get up and running, it requires significant up-front costs and numerous approvals.

Michele Skinner, chairwoman of the lake district, has a contract from the Port Authority of Cleveland to accept the donation of a bedload sediment collector and associated equipment. Once she puts her signature on the document, the lake district will have 90 days to transport the many tons of machinery here.

"There are some very large pieces of equipment that are part of this entire bedload system," she said, noting it will take multiple semitrailer-loads to move it all.

The collector itself is a triangular-shaped metal box that is 30 feet wide, 12 feet across and four foot tall at its peak. Made by Streamside Systems of Findlay, Ohio, the device is placed on riverbeds so water can flow across it and through a grate on the collector's surface. Gravity causes sand to fall into the collector, but finer sediments, silt, clay and other organic matter remain in the water and flow on.

Sand in the collector's hopper is periodically drawn out and transported off-site using a 50-horsepower pump connected to tubing. At the nearby sand spoils site, other machinery separates water out and returns it to the river.

Sand taken out of the river could then be sold to companies in need of it. That's already done with sediment dredged out of the river, but Skinner said this new method would result in a purer sand that would be more in demand because it won't have organic material in it.

"The prospect of it being used for other purposes is going to be improved," she said.

While the lake district will use its own funds to truck the equipment here, it will be seeking donors, partners, grant money and other funding sources to help with subsequent costs.

"As we move forward we're going to initiate some fundraising activities," Skinner said.

Those funds would be used to help pay for overhauling the machinery, engineering work, preparations for permitting, installation of the collector and the mile of tubing that connects it to the sand spoils site.

Start-up costs between transporting the equipment here and ultimately turning it on are estimated to cost at least $500,000, according to Skinner.

She has already been approaching politicians and agencies to see about getting government grants to help with those costs.

That includes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which gets money both from federal sources and the state's budget to help waterway projects.

Dan Baumann, the DNR secretary's director for west-central Wisconsin, said he's heard of the lake district's interest in funding, but isn't yet sure which grant program might be able to help.

"At this point we don't know, but we don't want to say 'no' until we take a hard look," he said.

Water quality funds usually tapped by lake districts are competitive in Wisconsin, Baumann said, with more applications than there is money available.

"There's just a lot of needs," he said.

The bedload sediment collector coming to Lake Altoona would have the distinction of being the first use of that technology in Wisconsin.

"It's new to us," Baumann said. "It's definitely worth a look."

This particular collector had been in use for a few years through a grant-funded pilot program to clean up the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. But the collector didn't work well at filtering out the clay and fine sediments found in that river, which prompted the Port Authority of Cleveland and state of Ohio to seek out other communities where the equipment could be more effective.

A "think tank" gathering the Lake Altoona District held last summer with people from several agencies and organizations included a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers member who knew of the sediment collector technology. It was through that connection that Ohio learned of Lake Altoona's interest in the collector, leading to the donation.

Skinner hopes that sand in the Eau Claire River will be drawn out by the collector more effectively than the device's use on the Cuyahoga River.

"We truly believe it will work, we're just not sure how well it will work," she said.

Skinner has hopes that if the technology helps Lake Altoona, it could be beneficial to other lakes that were created by dams, rivers and streams.

"If this works here, this could have huge ramifications for the other impoundment lakes in Wisconsin," she said.

Exactly when the bedload sediment collector could be planted in the riverbed — likely at the existing sand trap on the Eau Claire River over a mile upstream of Lake Altoona — will depend on funding and approvals.

A permit for a miscellaneous structure on navigable water takes time to process while DNR experts weigh potential short- and long-term impacts the technology may have on fisheries. There's also a 30-day period seeking public input on the project, a public hearing and other steps needed to get that permit.

And Skinner notes that often for grant programs, you apply one year to get funding the next. If government funds will indeed pay a big chunk of the collector's installation costs, she doubts it will be in place this year.

"I'd love to get it in this year. I don't know if we'll be able to," she said.

Until the new equipment can be installed, the lake district plans to continue it's current course of emptying its sand trap annually to prevent an excess of sand from flowing into Lake Altoona.

"We got to control the sediment, otherwise we won't have a lake anymore," Skinner said.