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Group seeks to grow Delavan Lake network

August 03, 2011 | 08:35 AM
Delavan Township — Delavan Lake is relatively small with a surface of 2,070 acres and a maximum depth of about 60 feet.

It gets a large portion of its water from the surrounding 26,000 acre watershed.

And that's a problem, said Maggie Zoellner, Delavan Lake WIN program manager.

Zoellner and others involved with Delavan Lake WIN were at a special meeting of the Delavan Lake Sanitary District on July 28 to explain the program and point to some early successes in getting changes in the Delavan Lake watershed.

WIN stands for watershed initiative network. The watershed is always there and the initiative is needed if the lake's water quality is to be preserved. A network needs to be built up to carry out the lake preservation programs over the coming years, said Mary Knipper of the Kettle Moraine Land Trust.

The organization's start up hasn't been smooth. Not all residents are impressed by its efforts to date.

Some residents are concerned about costs, claiming that of the $106,925 budgeted for WIN this year, 66 percent goes to staff, office space and overhead.

At Thursday's meeting, a few residents asked whether WIN might use more volunteers and donated office space.

While WIN has faced some complaints and criticisms, building a lake-saving network is not impossible, said Knipper. In fact, the communities came together in 1989 in a daring plan to save the lake, she said.

As the land around the lake became developed, more and more nutrient-rich runoff went into the watershed and into the lake. Those nutrients fed algae blooms that turned the lake into a sickly, rotten smelling pea soup by the middle of summer.

Worse, most game fish couldn't live in that pea soup. They died off and were replaced by rough, bottom-feeding carp and and bigmouth buffalo.

A number of factors were contributing to the lake's decline, said Jeff Thornton, a planner with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Wastewater seeped in from leaky septic tanks along the lakeshore and from outdated sewerage. Fertilizers flowed in from local farms and lakeside lawns.

It's not that the residents didn't care or didn't see the problems. In 1969, the town of Delavan created the Delavan Lake Sanitary District.

In 1981, after years of public hearings and applications for federal and state grants, the sanitary district spent $50 million, about 75 percent of that in grants, to install a modern wastewater treatment system to replace the old sewerage and septic system.

As a treatment system, it worked well. But it wasn't the complete answer. Because in 1983, the algae blooms came back even worse.

The communities had to reorganize and go back to the drawing board. Studies were done with the U.S. Geological Survey and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In 1989, the lake communities began a $7 million, three-year comprehensive rehabilitation project.

The project included drawing down lake levels to kill off the undesireable fish population and building ponds to help capture sediment coming from Jackson Creek, the lake's major inlet.

A dam was built to further control inflow and the bottom of the lake was treated to bind up phosphorous sediments and keep them from feeding any more algae blooms.

The lake was then restocked with game fish.

It was one of the nation's largest lake rehabilitation projects, and it appeared to be successful.

By 1992, lake clarity was good, fish were abundant and the lake drew a lot of visitors, said Knipper. Unfortunately, once the restoration project was done, there were no plans to maintain the lake's water quality and no partnerships to carry out those plans, she said.

Since the restoration, lake clarity has declined a bit and some of the algae blooms have returned, said Thornton. However, lake water quality is still good, he added.

What's needed is a lake protection program that connects all entities that not just abut the lake, but which also encompass the watershed around the the lake.

"Anyone who lives in a watershed has an impact on the lake," said Thornton.

Delavan Lake's problem is not from any single source, but rather from farm field wastes and lawn fertilizers that are still finding their way into its waters.

"The biggest source of nonpoint source pollution is storm runoff," Thornton said.

Zoellner said Delavan Lake WIN is now engaging farmers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

WIN is a recipient of a three-year, $200,616 Mississippi River Healthy Basins grant. Another $42,000 came from Walworth County for planning and design costs.

In the first year, WIN convinced six farmers to convert to no-till, which will reduce farm field runoff.

The WIN now has a steering committee which is subdivided into two working groups, one for land management, the other for education and outreach.

The land management group made some early strides.

The education and outreach group is just getting started, Zoellner said.

So far, WIN has approached the cities of Delavan and Elkhorn and the town of Delavan. The towns of Geneva and Walworth are also within the lake's watershed. None of the municipalities have committed to joining WIN at this time.

Delavan Lake WIN is managed by the Kettle Moraine Land Trust. Members and cooperating organizations include the Delavan Lake Improvement Association, SEWRPC, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA, the state DNR, Walworth County, the UW-Extension and the Delavan Lake Sanitary District.

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