The barren banks and dried heaps of brownish-red lake grass resemble the scene of a drought.
But by spring, city officials guarantee Stephens Lake and the surrounding park will look more like an idyllic oasis than a soggy lake bottom.
The $2.5 million renovation of Stephens Lake Park is progressing smoothly, said Steve Saitta of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. City officials have been working to improve the 111-acre park since the city bought it in 2001 for $8.1 million. Phase one of the project, which began earlier this year, includes a boardwalk, swimming beach, fountains for children to play in, and an enclosed day-camp shelter.
Already, the city has completed construction of several shelters and restrooms and a sidewalk that encircles the lake. Weather permitting, construction on the rest of phase one will progress throughout the winter.
Despite an outdated sign on the southeast end of the lake that restricts swimming to hours when lifeguards are present, the new swimming area will be unguarded, said Mike Hood, Columbia director of parks. One of the more ambitious parts of the initial project is an outdoor amphitheater nearing completion in the northwest corner of the park.
“It could potentially be used for music, outdoor theater, all types of performance-related activities,” Saitta said. “It’s something we’re really excited about.”
Workers now are focusing on the boardwalk, which will stretch north and south across the lake, leading visitors to an island in the middle. The boardwalk will also serve as a barrier between the shallow end of the lake and the deep end, where fishing and nonmotorized boating will be allowed.
The lake has been drained for the past few months to enable crews to work on the boardwalk and other projects. While the water level was down, workers removed the muck from the bottom of the swimming area and covered it with boulders to reduce future slime build-up. Boulders were placed around the lake for both practical and aesthetic purposes and include a miniature waterfall on the north end of the lake.
To ensure survival of fish while the water is low, city crews installed an aeration system. That’s good news for the fish and for anglers but bad news for ice skaters this winter.
“With that aeration system, there’s a good chance we won’t have solid ice,” Saitta said. “We won’t be able to allow skating.”
Winter fun-seekers won’t be completely out of luck. Crews have already finished work on a new sledding hill east of the lake.
Meanwhile, at the park, visitors expressed enthusiasm for the project, especially the new lakeside walkway.
“It’s terrific,” Paul Wallace, a daily visitor to the park, said of the new sidewalk. “It’s a great place to walk your dog.”