Geist Reservoir is clearly showing the signs of age. While Eurasian milfoil, blue green algae and zebra mussels have been the topic of conversation in recent years, let’s not forget that the 70-year-old reservoir is slowly filling up with sediment. Passing the hat for ad hoc weed treatments will mask the problems for a while. What we need is a long-term plan and course of action that shares the responsibility of preserving the lake across all those that benefit from the lake.
Introducing Lake Lemon
Just south of Martinsville between Monroe and Brown Counties is another reservoir called Lake Lemon. Back in 1955, Lake Lemon was built to provide a water supply for the growing city of Bloomington. Lake lovers built homes, fished and launched boats into the water for recreation.
Then in the mid-1980s, the shorelines were eroding, and weeds started dominating the coves and waterways. With property values dropping, a small group of homeowners decided to form a conservancy district to save the lake. In 1995, the Lake Lemon Conservancy District was formed, encompassing 500 homes on and around Lake Lemon. Their first order of business was to hire a Lake Manager, Bob Madden from Fishers.
“My first year budget was $155,000,” said Madden during an interview at the Lake Lemon Conservancy District offices next to their public boat ramp. “I made a whopping $24,000 a year salary, and the rest was spent on weeds and shoreline erosion control.”
In the early years, the volunteer board of directors prioritized and tackled the lake’s biggest problems. Homeowners started seeing results immediately and in turn started implementing best practices and erosion management plans of their own. Property values climbed.
Today the District has a $500,000 annual budget with ongoing weed management, a shoreline preservation plan and a mechanical dredging operation. Monthly board meetings are open to residents to find out the timelines on treatment schedules and capital improvement projects. Collectively, the residents in the Lake Lemon Conservancy District are working together to solve any and all problems that arise on their shared natural resource.
Madden, who lived in Fishers until this summer, is very familiar with the issues we have been facing. “Geist reminds me a lot of Lake Lemon 19 years ago.”
Lake Lemon vs. Geist Reservoir
On the surface, Lake Lemon and Geist Reservoir are very similar in size, topography and purpose. Both are reservoirs built to provide water for nearby cities. They are roughly the same size (Geist is a little larger with 1,890 acres vs. 1,650 at Lake Lemon). Geist and Lake Lemon both have a yacht club, sailing club and a marina. They even have a restaurant called the Porthole Bar & Grill. And yes, they are also battling Eurasian milfoil.
James Van Tassel, a lake biologist for the Lake Lemon Conservancy District, said Eurasian milfoil has been causing them problems in recent years. “You need some weeds in the lake, but [Eurasian] milfoil tends to grow really deep and choke out some of the other native plants.”
Surprisingly, Lake Lemon has not seen any of the Zebra mussels yet. Launch workers have been very diligent to keep them out, in addition to signs posted at the ramp.
Demographically, the reservoirs are very different. According to the US Census Bureau, the average household income at Lake Lemon is $64,503 compared to $148,779 at Geist. Home values are also much higher at Geist, a whopping $365,814 compared to only $138,800 at Lake Lemon. And with only a few hundred waterfront homes, erosion control has been a major focus since the early days of the district. Lake Lemon’s 24 miles of shoreline is mostly rip rap instead of the concrete seawalls that line Geist Reservoir.
How a Conservancy District Works
Made possible by Indiana Code 14-33, there are approximately 100 active conservation districts in the State of Indiana, about 10 of which are for lakes and reservoirs. Each of them is governed by an elected volunteer board. They are able to collect a “special benefits assessment” from those residents residing inside the district as well as assess boat launching fees, dock fees and annual boating permit fees.
In the case of Lake Lemon, revenues are a 50/50 split between fees collected from the homeowners in the district and fees collected from the boaters and slip owners. Madden said each home is accessed 12 cents per $100 of assessed value on their home annually, which is $120 per $100,000 of home value. Everyone is sharing the burden, and everyone is sharing the benefit.
Conservancy District at Geist
Last August, the Town of Fishers hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives from Citizens Energy, Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Town of Fishers, Geist Lake Coalition and several Geist area homeowners’ association representatives. At the time, the focus was on the treatment plan for Geist in 2014 and getting the Aquatic Management Plan updated. Subsequent to that, discussions have evolved to include the possibility of a conservation district at Geist.
“We have three options to evaluate,” said Scott Fadness, Town Manager for the Town of Fishers and facilitator for many of these conservation district discussions. “We can move forward without additional action. We can work with our stakeholders – including Citizens (Energy), DNR, the City of Indianapolis, Geist Lake Coalition and residents – to restore the lake and apply for federal grants. Or, we can take the reservoir’s destiny into our own hands, and create a conservation district.”
Geist resident Matt Troyer, partner with the law firm of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, agrees. Troyer and his firm have already spent quite a bit of time and internal resources investigating the conservancy district option. Based on his research, the earliest Geist Reservoir would see a conservancy district is the summer 2015.
“Until then, we have to control the weeds,” added Troyer. “Residents still need to contribute to the Geist Lake Coalition for milfoil and algae treatments.”
According to Troyer’s preliminary work, the Geist Conservancy District could represent approximately 4,000 homes, more than eight times the size and more than double the assessed value of Lake Lemon’s constituents.
Last month, the Geist Impoundment Fund voted to create a Request for Qualifications to solicit bids from consultants that specialize in turning back the hands of time on reservoirs. Fadness explained the committee’s reasoning: “Until we know the problem and how much it will cost to fix it, we can’t get our hands around it.” This plan will detail the current conditions of the lake and also address the total capital cost to restore Geist to its younger glory.
Madden agrees with this tactic. “You first need a plan. You need to hire people that know this business to tell you where you are now and where you need to be. Then you need the infrastructure that can implement that plan.”
Madden offers one piece of advice, “You had better create a conservancy district if you want to ultimately save your lake.”
Each month, the Geist Community Newsletter will feature updates on the Geist treatment plans, advancements on the potential Geist Conservancy District and any other news as it pertains to the long-term health of Geist Reservoir.