Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Is DNR policy hurting lake?

by Chris Schultz

October 18, 2012

This summer's drought was brutal on Geneva Lake water levels, and a state Department of Natural Resources policy isn't helping, according to the Geneva Lake Level Corp.

Contributing to the lowering of lake levels is a state DNR policy calling for the GLLC to release 1.9 cubic feet of water per second from Geneva Lake into the White River.

The GLLC is a private, nonprofit organization that owns the Geneva Lake dam, spillway and mill race just behind the chamber of commerce office in Lake Geneva.

Its board of directors include representatives of the four communities holding major shares of the Geneva Lake Shore. The GLLC is a private, nonprofit organization that owns the Geneva Lake dam, spillway and mill race just behind the chamber of commerce office in Lake Geneva. Portions of lakefront, town of Linn, Fontana, Williams Bay and Lake Geneva.

Karl Otzen, president of the GLLC board of directors, said the lake level is 10 inches below the top of the dam. In July, the DNR sent a letter to the GLLC, directing it to open the dam gates and release 1.9 cubic feet of water per second into the White River, and cited Wisconsin State Statutes 31.34 as authority.

The GLLC believes this DNR directive will have serious negative consequences for Geneva Lake levels and will affect the economic health of the entire area.

Otzen said lower lake levels in the winter might expose pier cribs to ice shifts, which would damage the cribs. He said the lower water would also make the lake less appealing to tourists. Fewer tourists would mean fewer dollars for local hotels, restaurants and businesses.

The GLLC and the DNR are now locked in a legal dispute over how much, if any, water the GLLC will have to release from Geneva Lake to maintain the ecology of the White River, said Otzen.

"We're in very delicate negotiations with the DNR," Otzen said.

On Monday, Otzen said this summer's severe drought and the DNR's water release policy has the lake level down 10 inches below the top edge of the dam.

"We have pretty much exhausted the aquifer," Otzen said. "The lake isn't getting any recharge."

Meanwhile, the GLLC is continuing to release water from the lake into the river through the dam.

According to a letter from Larry Larkin, GLLC treasurer, the corporation asked for time to study the situation, but the DNR refused. DNR officials indicated that they would cite the GLLC $1,000 per day in fines if it would not comply immediately.

The DNR also indicated it may ask the GLLC to release even more water in the future.

The GLLC began releasing water from the dam in July.

Larkin wrote that the lake level corporation has long adopted a passive management policy. The gates at the dam in Lake Geneva have been kept closed except at times of exceptionally high water levels.

When the lake is high, water typically flows over the spillway,.

When lake levels drop, usually in late July, and water stops flowing over the spillway, the dam gates are kept closed to conserve the water level in the lake.

GLLC representatives met with DNR staff Sept. 24 to discuss the DNR order and the effect it is having on Geneva Lake, said Otzen.

The two sides are supposed to meet again this month, although a meeting date hasn't been set, Otzen said.

According to the Geneva Lake Environment Agency, another multijurisdictional organization which is not affiliated with the GLLC, the lake is at the lowest level in more than a decade.

"It is low," said Ted Peters, GLEA director. "We haven't been this low going back to 2001."

Lake levels typically fall starting in July and continue to dip lower into January, Peters said.

When he was interviewed on Friday, Peters said the water level was 8.25 inches below the top edge of the dam.

He said the closest recorded levels to that from this time of year, is from November 2005, when the monthly average was 7.4 inches below the top edge of the dam.

On Monday, Otzen reported the lake level as 10 inches below the dam's top edge. He said he was also going to check on the dam that morning. The dam gates are jammed with debris and may not be releasing the required amount of water into the White River, he said.

Otzen said the GLLC does release lake water into the White River through a mill race, a connection between the lake and river that goes back to the earliest of the Geneva Lake dams.

The water enters the river in front of the Geneva Lake Museum on Mill Street, he said.

However, the DNR is insisting that water be released from the dam gateway, Otzen said.

Otzen said DNR marine biologist studied fish populations in the White Rive between Center Street and Burger King in Lake Geneva and found the fish environment in that part of the river to be stressed.

The GLLC has since hired attorney William O'Connor of Wheeler, Van Sickle & Anderson of Madison to represent the GLLC's position before the DNR. The corporation also has hired hydrology experts Montgomery & Associates to provide scientific data.

The GLLC has no source of income. The organization has had to borrow money to hire its experts and legal counsel, according to Larkin's letter.

The corporation is asking for lakefront communities to commit up to $2,500 a year until the loans are paid off.

"Because of serious consequences to the area that could result from lower lake levels, particularly if global warming and drought conditions become the norm rather than the exception in future years, we believe we must continue to strenuously and thoroughly present our position to the DNR to protect the level of Geneva Lake now and in the future," Larkin wrote.

The Geneva Lake Level Corp. was founded in 1895 to protect the level of Geneva Lake.

Geneva Lake is fed by underground springs, precipitation and runoff from its watershed. It has no other source of water.

It's only surface water drain is the White River.

In addition, Geneva Lake's watershed is small.

The 5,500 acre lake is in a bowl-shaped depression, with only 18,368 acres of watershed, or a ratio of about 3.3 acres of watershed for one surface acre of lake. Geneva Lake has an estimated mean depth of 63 feet.

By comparison, Delavan Lake has a surface area 1,906 acres and a watershed of 26,000 acres, for a ratio of about 13.6 acres of watershed per one surface acre of Delavan Lake.

Delavan Lake has a mean depth of 21 feet.

According to information from the Geneva Lake Museum, the first dam on Geneva Lake was built by early settlers in 1836.

In the 1840's a more substantial dam was constructed, which raised the water level in the lake about 6 feet.

Subsequent floods and droughts, however, resulted in inconsistent lake levels, so in 1894 the dam and adjacent property were purchased by the newly-formed Lake Geneva Water Power and Lake Level Protection Co.

Control gates were installed by the company to keep the water level within narrow limits.

Around 1944 the company was converted to the nonprofit Geneva Lake Level Corp.

In 2003 the dam and gateway were renovated with the communities around the lake sharing the cost.