by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona city officials hoped a giant balloon could save the ice skating season at Lake Lodge. Yesterday that plan failed, and now they say there will not be ice skating at Lake Lodge this year.
Every winter, the Winona Parks and Recreation Department floods the lake ice outside Lake Lodge to make a smooth skating surface, rents out ice skates for just $15 per year, and serves up hot chocolate inside the warm lodge, making it a popular spot for families with beginning skaters and even for some high school dates. This year, however, ground water pumped away from the construction of Winona State University’s (WSU) pedestrian railroad underpass is keeping Lake Winona from freezing near Lake Lodge. The pedestrian tunnels are far deeper than Winona’s relatively shallow water table, and in order to keep the tunnels dry as they poured concrete, contractors have been pumping water out of the tunnels and into the city’s stormwater sewer system. From there, the relatively warm ground water — around 55 degrees Fahrenheit — flows into Lake Winona at an outlet near Lake Lodge. That steady influx of warmer water has kept a stretch of the lake near the outlet from freezing. “Our concern is that it would be unlikely that it would never ice up this winter,” Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said in an interview last week.
City officials gave WSU permits for the dewatering project, and they do not want to halt an important safety project that has been nearly a decade in the making.
Instead, city officials ordered an inflatable plug. The plug is essentially a giant balloon that city officials planned to use to stop up the storm sewer outlet at Lake Winona and force the ground water further east, to an outlet near the Lake Park bandshell, where it would not affect the city’s ice skating program.
Late yesterday afternoon, city staff tried out the plug. It did stop up the outlet by Lake Lodge, but instead of re-routing water to the bandshell outlet, staff said water began backing up into catch basins in the park, where it would have overflowed and wound up flowing back to the Lake Lodge outlet anyway.
“It didn’t work,” said Public Works Director Keith Nelson. “It stopped the water, but the water came up somewhere else.”
“We’ve explored all options to divert the water and, for the winter season, there is not another option,” Ubl said in an interview yesterday. Even if it gets cold enough for ice to form near Lake Lodge, Ubl and his staff are concerned that the continued influx of warm water from the outlet would leave pockets of thin ice. They will not open Lake Lodge for ice skating this winter.
“We’d certainly like to open up other options for public skating,” Ubl continued. That might include open skating at Bud King Ice Arena or creating more outdoor rinks at city parks, but Ubl spoke less than an hour after the plug failed Tuesday afternoon and his department had not yet laid alternative plans.
Over the holiday break, the Winona Area Youth Hockey Association opened up Bud King Ice Arena — which is owned by the city and leased by the hockey association — for free, open skating for a couple hours each day. Hundreds of children and adults packed the renovated indoor rink. However, that one-time program is over, and the association is not currently offering regular hours for open skating. Open skating was supposed to be part of a deal the City Council struck with the hockey association to help finance the renovation of the ice arena, but because warm temperatures have prevented the opening of the arena’s also newly-renovated outdoor rink, there is not enough ice time to go around for all the youth hockey teams and figure skaters to practice.
The city’s outdoor ice rinks at Tillman Park and the Bob Welch Aquatic Center are open for public skating and, as of this past weekend, still icy.
“We’re disappointed that there won’t be skating at Lake Lodge, but I don’t think WSU or the city foresaw this happening with the dewatering of the tunnels,” Ubl stated. “We understand the importance of the tunnels to the university, and if Lake Lodge is closed for one season, certainly we’re not excited about that, but in the larger sense of the community, if that makes the campus safer, we accept that.”
WSU leaders have installed large fences and worked hard to discourage students from cutting across the railroad tracks that divide campus from the school’s football stadium and baseball field, but nevertheless, several students have been accidentally killed by trains there over the years. WSU officials expect the new tunnels to open by May.