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Mitchell Lake project weighs cost and style of recreation

Mitchell Lake dam
Black Hills National Forest
Mitchell Lake dam

The Black Hills National Forest is seeking input on what to do with a nearly 90-year-old dam in Spring Creek just east of Hill City.

Officials say the Mitchell Lake dam is old, in poor condition and needs repair.

The Mitchell Lake dam was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corp.

The recreational lake is located upstream from Sheridan Lake along Highway 16.

Jim Gubbles, Mystic District Ranger, said Mitchell Lake is small but has a large watershed.

“It was built as a recreational fishery. So, it just doesn’t offer much in the way of flood protection," Gubbles said. "It’s extremely silted in, which has further diminished its ability to hold water.”

Officials are presenting three options for the dam. Each has a vastly different price point.

Rehabbing the dam would cost a proposed nearly $35 million dollars. To decommission the dam and restore the stream would cost about $2.4 million dollars. To do nothing could cost up to $15 million if the dam fails.

The lake is stocked with trout, but fish are unable to reproduce.

Some see the lake as vital to the Hill City community.

Travis Bies is vice-chair of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board. He’s also a full-time rancher in the Black Hills who has driven by Mitchell Lake his entire life. He said he’d like to see the lake remain.

“When you grow up here in the hills you get used to certain things being there and you always count on them. It’s just something you look forward to seeing when you’re passing by or seeing the people down there recreating and having their kids down there and teaching their kids down there and teaching their kids about the outdoors and everything," Bies said. "To me, that means that’s pretty vital to a lot of people.”

The forest advisory council meets next month to discuss its position on the lake dam. Officials say regardless of what happens, the area will remain a fishery—either lake or stream fishing.

The project is still in the public scoping period. Forest service officials say they’d like to decide in the next two to three months.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.