Compromise ideas afloat for Lake Bella Vista
The dispute over whether Lake Bella Vista should be restored to a free-flowing creek inched closer to a compromise Thursday, though different sides said they still have unresolved disagreements and questions.
A couple dozen city officials, advocates and others gathered at the police station for the latest in months of meetings about the lake, which sits in a 130-acre park just off of U.S. Highway 71 at the northern tip of Bentonville near Bella Vista.
No decision came from the meeting, but several attendees said they could be open to a middle road that, for instance, might remove the lake’s dam and unblock Little Sugar Creek while retaining the benefit of a lake by extending a smaller, calmer pond from one side of the stream.
“I do hope it’s a positive first step to getting us where we’ll end up someday,” David Wright, Bentonville’s Parks and Recreation director, told the group, adding compromise could also take some other form. He plans to organize another meeting next month to continue the conversation.
The occasionally heated meeting also showed enduring differences.
Supporters of the natural-creek option have long said its benefits to the environment, recreation and the city budget are self-evident, while opponents point to the scenery and history of the century-old lake, where many residents grew up fishing and canoeing.
City Council member Bill Burckart of Ward 3, one of at least three members in attendance, said he would want to see a detailed timeline, cost estimate and possible sources of money for the dam’s removal before considering whether to support it.
“I have not been swayed at this point away from the dam,” he said.
Rainwater from 90 square miles converges on the crumbling dam, said Travis Matlock, the city’s engineering director. Floodwater has topped it at least five times since early 2008. The city that year began planning to replace it with a concrete-covered earthen dam and cover most of the $3.5 million cost with federal money.
City leaders are taking a look at other options after the lapse of a particular permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and opposition from the nonprofit Friends of Little Sugar Creek and others. The nonprofit group says a free-flowing creek would be cleaner and healthier while supporting more fishing and other activities.
Dam removal could cost tens of thousands of dollars based on other states’ experiences, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist told the group earlier this week. Dozens of aging dams around the country have been removed in recent years to restore fish and other wildlife populations and save the cost of maintaining or replacing the structures, according to National Geographic and other news outlets.
“We feel like there is just tremendous value in Little Sugar Creek,” said Greg Van Horn with the Friends group. “This failed dam is an opportunity for us to consider a less expensive, more environmentally friendly option.”
Several members of the Friends group said they would support a compromise, though Ken Leonard said hydrologists and other experts should be involved to avoid any stagnation or algae problems in the side lake.
The park around the lake was given to the city with the understanding the dam would be maintained, said Kent Burger, chief financial officer with Cooper Communities, which at one time owned the dam.
Cooper, a real estate company, gave the land to the nonprofit Bentonville/ Bella Vista Trailblazers Association in 2000 so the group could clean the area and create trails. Trailblazers deeded the land to Bentonville in 2006.
“This was private property that was gifted to the public for a reason,” said Burger, who was a member of Trailblazers.
Cooper and Trailblazers didn’t intend for the lake to disappear or for the dam to be a burden for the city, he said, declining to take a firm stance on the proposed compromise. He added Cooper’s willing to at least listen to ideas better than a dam replacement. Tim Robinson, a council member for Ward 2, said the compromise idea seemed promising even while it could take years to carry out.
“It’s the closest we have to a win-win-win,” he said. “I think 10 years is a relative blink of an eye compared to the future we could create there.”
Xyta Lucas, a dam proponent and president of the Bella Vista Historical Society, who did not attend the meeting because she was out of town, weighed in on the issue through an email to The Weekly Vista.
“The Bella Vista Historical Society does not have the money to compete with the backers of the Friends of Little Sugar Creek, and unfortunately it’s money that wins many of these battles rather than the concept of saving our history,” she wrote. “In the past, when the lake has been drained for one reason or another, there was never a large flowing creek except during a flood, so if the dam is removed, I think people who expect to see a big creek on which they can do their kayaking will be disappointed, but hopefully the Friends of Little Sugar Creek will contribute toward landscaping so that the Bentonville Parks Department can make the area look as nice as possible.”
Debris rests against one of the two spillways of Lake Bella Vista dam in Bentonville on a recent afternoon. The future of the dam is uncertain.