History of Easter Lake

Today many people know Easter Lake and Easter Lake Park to be one of the many great recreational resources offered by Polk County Conservation providing trails, park shelters, play grounds and volleyball courts, boating, fishing, and even a beach. However, not so many years ago the Easter Lake area was better known for farmland and coal.

Imagine its 1930 in Des Moines, its late summer and you are wanting to go for a swim to cool off- where would you go? Certainly not Easter Lake! Pictured below is what Easter Lake looked like in 1930.


Easter Lake 1930s

Easter Lake Through the Decades

DSM Metro - GLO

This map from the Nature Conservancy depicts original vegetation of the Des Moines Metro from the 1840s-60s General Land Office Survey notes. In the photo tan represents  prairie and green is most likely oak savanna. Historically, where Easter Lake and the park are located was oak savanna while majority of the rest of the watershed was prairie.

Click here to view a PDF version of historical vegetation map

As you can see Easter Lake has undergone a lot of change since 1930. Read more to learn about  the exciting history of the creation of Easter Lake and Easter Lake Park.

The Creation of Easter Lake

Until 1967 no one was going to Easter Lake for boating or to fish and that is because historically the Easter Lake Watershed was primarily agricultural land, and before that oak savanna and tall grass prairie. Did you know Easter Lake was also the site of the last operating coal mine in all of Polk County? (Click here for an interactive map of historic coal mines in Iowa).

In 1959 the strip coal mine was closed. This closure opened the doors for discussion of what to do with the land. Initially, it was suggested the site be turned into a landfill. News of this proposed landfill sparked a group of neighborhood leaders to form the South Town Lake and Development Society around 1960 which led the effort to promote the creation of a new park. In 1965, construction of Easter Lake, the dam, and spillway began. In 1967, Easter Lake was officially open.

New Development Threatens Water Quality at Easter Lake

For the City of Des Moines and Polk County, the creation of a new lake and park was an exciting time. The lake offered new recreational activities like boating and fishing on the south side of town. However in addition to being a great spot for recreation, Easter Lake offered an attractive location for new housing developments.

BEaster Siltationy the early 1990s, housing developments began springing up around Easter Lake at a rapid pace. Much to the dismay of lake users, silt from construction sites was entering Easter Lake at alarming rates. The silt from the nearby construction sites in addition to sediment deposited from stream bank erosion in Yeader Creek and the overall watershed decreased water quality and contributed to an overall 30% reduction of lake volume from 1967 to 2012.

Today most of the Easter Lake Watershed has been urbanized. Urbanization has increased stormwater runoff leading to greater pollution into Easter Lake through sedimentation, pollution from trash, oils, fertilizers and other chemicals that run off roads, parking lots, lawns and other surfaces overall decreasing water quality and recreational use of Easter Lake.



Click the images below to see how the watershed has changed and developed over time.

Management History of Easter Lake

Since its creation, Easter Lake has endured a series of management strategies to restore lake health and improve the fishery. Below are some of the highlights of management throughout the years.

    • 1971 First sport fish including channel catfish were stocked in the lake
    • 1974 Jetties and boat ramp construction
    • 1974 Chemical treatment to control undesirable fish species
    • 1975 Shoreline control measures implemented
    • 1978 Chemical treatment to control undesirable fish species
    • 1981 Walleye stocking begins
    • 1981 Water draw down by 11 feet
    • 1989 Grass carp introduced for aquatic weed control
    • 1990 Water sampling
    • 1997 Retention pond construction
    • 2000 Pollution prevention plan for the Des Moines Airport Implemented
    • 2001 Sediment Pond construction
    • 2002 Fisheries restoration work
    • 2005 Sediment pond construction

Despite these management strategies, water quality continued to decrease. After years of research and planning, the Easter Lake Watershed Project officially began in 2013. Through the restoration of Easter Lake, project partners are working on repairing and restoring the lake through dredging, shoreline work, and improving the fishery. Upstream we are working on stabilizing Yeader Creek and working with landowners including residents and businesses to minimize their impact by using urban conservation practices such as soil quality restoration, rain gardens, rain barrels, and more. Working together with project partners and residents of the watershed we can positively impact Easter Lake now and into the future. Every effort to reduce stormwater runoff at your home, recycling efforts and minimizing trash, stopping the use of phosphorus fertilizer, among other things helps to improve our local water quality bettering our lake and community.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can positively impact Easter Lake considering installing a conservation practice or volunteering with us!

Together we can make the difference.

Historical images for this page are referenced from the Iowa DNR Historic Mapping Interactive site. Click here to visit interactive mapping site.

Additional historic photos were found using the Polk County GIS Mapping site. Click here to visit site.