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To dredge or not to dredge? 

SLO City Council members have a few unanswered questions about Laguna Lake. Among the most pressing questions that need answering are whether it’s worth the cost to give the lake a metaphoric liposuction, and if it is, who’s going to pay for it?

“I think that we do need to engage the community,” Councilwoman Jan Marx said at the Dec. 1 meeting. Later, she added, “My own feeling is that what’s proposed here is way too expensive—we can’t afford it.”

What was proposed was a 10-year dredging project that would cost $460,000 per year, on average, to remove 150,400 cubic yards of silt from the artificial lake in the southwestern area of the city. At least, that was the plan. The new plan is to kick any official decision down the road for at least another six months.

Council members unanimously—with the exception of Allen Settle, who was absent—instructed the city’s staff to explore other options to address the accumulated sediment in Laguna. The worst-case scenario would be the all-out dredging outlined in the original proposal, but all the council members want something cheaper.

“What level of manipulation are we comfortable with, and toward what objective?” Councilman John Ashbaugh asked his fellow members about the lake.

In other words, how much is the city willing to fork out for a lake that’s primary purpose is to sit there and look pretty?

As Councilman Andrew Carter put it, the city is contemplating buying “aesthetics” by dredging the lake. Marx said simply letting the lake naturally revert to wetlands is one option: “Nature is not going to stop putting silt into that lake. So we’re fighting a natural process here.”

The city built the lake—basically expanded from a seasonal wetland—in the 1960s. It was originally more oriented toward activity, as opposed to the passive scenic quality it enjoys today. By the 1980s, the city was developing a plan to deal with sediment and vegetation that was filling in the lake and physically altering its surface area, according to a city staff report. The Laguna Lake Management Plan wasn’t completed until 1993, and by that point the rhetoric shifted more toward viewing the lake as a natural preserve. Since then, leaders have toyed with the idea of dredging the lake—the city even shelled out about $200,000 over a two-year period in the 1990s to hire people and prepare studies—but so far haven’t pulled
the trigger.

“In a way, this whole thing has been a can that we’ve been kicking down the road for a heck of a long time,” Carter said.

It seems they’re going to kick it a bit farther. In addition to exploring cheaper and smaller-scale alternatives to removing the sediment, city staffers are going to look for grant opportunities, and reach out to residents to see what locals want to do about the lake. Perhaps, council members wondered, they might create an assessment district to generate funds from Laguna Lake neighbors and pay for the dredging that way, if the neighbors are willing and the cost is manageable.

Council members also approved an environmental document that will allow the city to aggressively dredge the lake over 10 years, if that turns out to be the desired option. Whatever the solution, it seems something concrete will be set in motion in the coming months.

“I believe that we have an obligation to preserve something,” Mayor Dave Romero said. “That was our mission.”

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