Sapphire Lake plans are underway


Liv Hage

The plans for the development of Sapphire Lake are yet to be refined.

Oliver Wolfe, Staff Writer

Sapphire Lake is a proposed 400-acre public lake that would be located south of Grinnell in Poweshiek County. The lake would provide a host of recreational activities such as water sports, boating, fishing, recreational trails, biking, beaches, camping, natural areas and parks that would be completely open to the public. Sounds great, right? But do not get your hopes up yet, the project is anything but a done deal.

Local developers began the Sapphire Lake project almost 20 years ago, and throughout that time, the Sapphire Lake project has suffered a number of starts and stops.

According to Rachel Bly, city council member and director of conference operations and events at Grinnell College, the developers completed several of the project’s first steps, but eventually they were not able to get all the resources that they needed. After running into some logistical issues obtaining the land, they dropped the project.

The lake would also offer public and private housing options for those interested in owning or renting property on the lake. Sapphire Lake would also encourage tourism — current projections estimate a 4,000-person daytime increase to Grinnell’s population, which would in turn positively impact Grinnell’s economy. Especially during the warmer parts of the year, it would provide a beautiful Midwestern retreat for anyone in the area, including Grinnell College students. 

“They talked to a lot of the farmers, and they got agreements on a good chunk of the land. But this is a big project, and they didn’t get some outside money that they were hoping for to make it happen. And they didn’t get all the farmers to buy in at that point for a variety of reasons. So they kind of dropped it, you know,” said Bly.

Due to logistical and technical issues that are sure to accompany construction projects of this size, progress started to slow, and the prospect of Sapphire Lake appeared less and less likely. That is until recently, when the development of the project was taken over by McClure Engineering, a reputable and successful engineering company that is known for its extensive work in water studies, and it also recently expanded and added a developmental branch. “They saw this as a really interesting early project for them with this new development arm,” Bly said.

There are all these pros and cons that need to be taken into consideration.

— Rachel Bly, City Council Member of Grinnell

Bly continued by saying that this move brought some life back to the project, and McClure has been working with the Grinnell City Council to make Sapphire Lake a reality.

The next piece of the puzzle is the funding, said Bly. McClure has had their eye on Destination Iowa, a grant program for tourist activities in Iowa, which has funding available for projects like Sapphire Lake. According to Bly, McClure recently submitted a funding request and is waiting to hear whether the project will receive funding for the lake’s construction. In addition to Destination Iowa funds, McClure will look to receive available city and county tax dollars. If these sources of funding do not work out, especially the Destination Iowa funding, it seems unrealistic that Sapphire Lake will actually be built.

“The other piece that isn’t done yet is the fact that there’s not a lake there. Right now, it’s farmland,” said Bly. “They still have to get all these farmers to agree because if the farmer in the middle of the lake says no, they’re kind of screwed. So you know, they have to go in and have in-depth conversations with these farmers about, ‘Hey, would you be willing to sell your land so we can do this amazing project?’” she explained.

Even after all of this work, the project would still not be cleared to break ground. If McClure does receive all of the necessary land and funding, they would then need to work with the Grinnell City Council and county supervisors to obtain their approval. “We have to be really thoughtful about large development projects and projects that take a lot of water because it’s a finite resource. That is one thing we’re looking at really, really closely,” Bly said.

According to the project’s website, “Efforts will be taken to ensure Sapphire Lake uses best available environmental practices to achieve the highest level of water quality. These will include environmental buffers, stream bank erosion control measures, natural areas, sediment basins, storm water structures to capture debris and sediment and a host of other practices.”

It is hard to say how long it might be until we know more about the future of this project. It could easily take over a year before the project is cleared to begin construction if it even reaches that point. If it does, the construction of Sapphire Lake could take another 5, 10 or 15 years from that point. The official website of the project readily admits this as well, saying, “There is much work to do before this project can become a reality.”

Despite all of the potential challenges, the project has made more progress in recent history than it has had in its near-20-year lifespan. The future has never looked brighter for Sapphire Lake.