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This photo from 1911 shows a regatta on Potter Lake. The lake may not host regattas anymore, but it is getting a new lease on life with a dredging and runoff improvement project.

Preserving Potter

Historic campus lake to be dredged, restored

The little pond north of Strong Hall has been many things: a fire control reservoir, a swimming hole, a home to regattas, an ice skating pond and a peaceful place to unwind. But for the past several years, it’s been overgrown, full of algae and slowly filling with silt.

Potter Lake is about to get a boost, though, as projects to dredge the lake and fix runoff that feeds into it have been slated for the summer.

Completed in 1911, the lake, named for state senator and former Board of Regents member Thomas M. Potter, was built to help protect the new buildings sprouting up on Jayhawk Boulevard from a catastrophic fire. The water lines in place at the time would only provide about five minutes’ worth of water in the case of a fire. The lake would be able to provide four 80-foot streams of water for up to 48 hours, according to a article by Douglas Harvey.

As technology improved, the lake was no longer needed for fire prevention. Students and faculty had plenty of other ideas for it, though. Former Athletics Director James Naismith led regattas and diving contests at the lake, and a diving board was even installed at one point. Canoe races were also a common sight.

By the mid-1920s, water quality problems had set in, and swimming was discouraged. But that wasn’t enough to quell the lake’s place in campus happenings. Glee Smith, a former state legislator and Regents member, who started his KU career in 1939, remembers plenty of hijinks happening at the lake.

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A photo from 1913 shows a gathering of cattle on the hill near Potter Lake.

“The fraternities would use it as part of their indoctrination of new members,” he said. “They’d take them down there and toss them in. In the 1940s, when we won a big football game, people would tear down the goalposts and toss them in Potter Lake.”

In recent years, few have been brave enough to jump in or even throw their friends in. Storm water runoff from Jayhawk Boulevard drains in the lake, bringing with it nutrient rich soil. The soil has led to plant growth that chokes the rest of the life out of the pond.

“A big part of the problem is an overload of nutrients in the water,” said Marion Paulette, landscape architect with Design and Construction Management. “That’s why we had complete green overgrowth there last summer. This project should restore the ecological balance of nutrients and oxygen in the lake.”

The project is a $125,000 plan to dredge the lake, recently approved by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. KU’s Student Senate Finance Committee, the Office of the Chancellor and gifts to KU Endowment from Philippe Adam of Paris, France; Pat and Brenda Oenbring of Houston; and Gary Schmedeman of Morriton, Ark., are funding the work. The project is scheduled to start in June and be completed before the fall semester.

Gray-Little praised the Potter Lake Project, a group of students behind the lake’s restoration.

“The students of the Potter Lake Project have shown tremendous leadership throughout this endeavor. They helped raise awareness of the need for improvements to the lake and worked very hard to secure funding and coordinate clean up events. I am proud of their efforts in preserving a landmark that is very dear to so many Jayhawk alumni.”

— Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little

“The students of the Potter Lake Project have shown tremendous leadership throughout this endeavor," she said. "They helped raise awareness of the need for improvements to the lake and worked very hard to secure funding and coordinate clean up events. I am proud of their efforts in preserving a landmark that is very dear to so many Jayhawk alumni.”


The dredging will be done hydraulically, meaning it will not be necessary to drain the lake. Suction pumps located on a barge will remove sediment from the bottom of the lake, which will then be disposed of. The hydraulic dredging will greatly reduce the amount of damage to the landscape surrounding the lake, said Jim Modig, director of Design and Construction Management.

The lake has been dredged only once, in 1957, in its first century of existence. When it was originally constructed, the lake was about 16 feet deep. Before the first dredging it had receded to depths of about 6 feet. Measurements taken last year showed depths of about 11 feet. When the pond was drained, car bodies, tires, goal posts and various debris were removed. That is not likely to be the case this time, as the water level will be relatively unchanged. There has been talk, however, of a potential display of any interesting items that may be found.

A second project will reduce soil runoff and erosion that feeds into the lake. A $200,000 project will improve undersized inlets on Jayhawk Boulevard, then construct new, bigger inlets and add a sedimentation basin to collect runoff. The improvements will be funded by American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds. The project also will begin this summer. Modig said he does not anticipate the work will cause street closures or loss of parking spaces.

The Potter Lake Project has introduced plant-eating carp, installed aerators and hosted clean ups at the lake over the past year. Testing by the Kansas Biological Survey and engineering firm Burns and McDonnell has indicated that dredging is the most sustainable way of reducing excess plant growth and improving water quality.

Paulette and Modig also gave credit to student leaders who have pursued the lake’s restoration. The Potter Lake Project helped secure funding, coordinate efforts between students, faculty, staff and volunteers and raise awareness of the need for work at the lake.

“They’ve been the driving force behind all of the activity,” Paulette said.

“Potter is an icon. It has its own place in university lore,” Modig added. “Hopefully when the project is complete it will be able to both maintain its beauty and be healthy ecologically.”

Smith, like many alumni, said he and his family have fond memories of Potter Lake.

“It adds a lot to the beauty and ambience of campus,” he said. “I think it’s great that it’s going to be preserved.”

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