County officials are planning to drain and clean the lake at Ascarate Park as the first step in a potentially major renovation of the 400-acre, 83-year-old park in the coming years.
Deadly algae blooms have plagued the fish population within the 48-acre Ascarate Lake periodically over recent years, when dozens or hundreds of fish die and float to the lake’s surface. But the El Paso County Commissioners Court on Monday agreed to pay the engineering firm AECOM $93,000 to study water quality at the lake on 6900 Delta Drive and figure out how to best drain and dredge the body of water. The county set aside funding to pay for the study and part of the dredging project back in May 2022.
After the water quality study is completed in January, the county will likely have to pay a contractor between $6 million to $7 million to dredge up sediment, trash and plant debris and clean Ascarate Lake and the adjacent duck pond, according to El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, who represents the area.
“We’re going to, basically, clean the lake up completely,” Stout told El Paso Matters in an interview. “It’s probably going to be the single largest project that we’ve done at Ascarate park for many, many years.”
Stout said anglers should expect the lake to remain closed for “a number of months” while the dredging project is underway. The county will start soliciting offers from contractors likely early next year.
The county will set a timeline and start date for the project after AECOM presents its study in January.
“At this time there are no plans to close the lake or do any dredging until the study is completed,” Lidia G. Arias Banach, a civil engineer for the county’s Public Works Department, said in an email.
The county’s plan is to keep the duck pond open and stocked with fish while the larger lake is closed, and then later dredge the pond when the lake reopens.
Organizations have studied the water quality and algae problem at Ascarate Lake and offered different solutions over the years, including a study published by researchers at UTEP in early 2020 that said the county should establish artificial islands made up of African iris plants to help prevent algae blooms and protect the lake’s aquatic life.
But Stout said the proposed dredging project presents a larger investment than any other past efforts to study water quality at Ascarate or clean the lake.
“We’ve tried over the years to bring more investment into the park, and I think it’s been good, but spending $6 million or $7 million on one project has not been done in a long time at the park,” Stout said.
The dredging project is the first in what Stout said he hopes will be a series of renovations and modernizations that the county will eventually implement at Ascarate Park. The county crafted a master plan in 2021 for county-owned parks and sports facilities, which identified around $73 million of needed upgrades at the different sites – the vast majority at Ascarate.
County administrators are exploring how much debt the county can issue to potentially finance the park’s renovation, but without boosting the tax rate or degrading the county’s relatively strong bond rating.
Stout said El Paso County could issue over $100 million in debt over the next two years in part to pay for possible amenities at Ascarate Park, such as a bridge spanning the lake or an arboretum, as well as for more basic repairs like burying overhead electrical wires and replacing parts of the lake’s deteriorating wall.
“We have up to about $130 million left in bonding capacity that we can do over the next couple of years that will go to pay for a lot of these projects, but will keep us at the 5 cent” debt service tax rate, Stout said.
The county’s tax rate is 45.9 cents per $100 property valuation. Of that, about 5 cents goes to pay off the bond debt. Because the county will pay off old debt before taxpayers would begin paying off the new bonds, the 5 cent debt service rate would remain the same.
El Paso County currently carries about $256 million of outstanding debt, according to a recent presentation to county commissioners by financial advisors at the investment bank Stifel.
County Commissioners are eyeing a bond election next November. Commissioners will decide which among dozens of potential county projects they want to prioritize, and then ask voters next November whether or not to fund the proposed projects, such as upgrades at Ascarate Park.
“I’m definitely going to be advocating for trying to do this sooner rather than later,” Stout said of dredging Ascarate and upgrading the park. “It all depends upon the will of the court, and how much money we’re willing to put towards this.”