Bill Lewis with the Buffalo Lake District, talked about the timing of this meeting and how the Lake District can keep members better informed.  Over 100 people came to Saturday’s meeting with the DNR about the Buffalo Lake dam project set to start next year.  Drawdown will begin probably September 11.  The lake will not be refilled until May, 2014. (Photo by Kathleen McGwin)


Buffalo Lake drawdown to begin

September 11


By Kathleen McGwin
People who attended the special meeting on the Buffalo Lake dredge bank road and dam project at Montello High School on Saturday heard Steve Miller, Facilities and Lands Bureau Director with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), say that property owners should expect the drawdown necessary for work to be done on the repair and enhancement of the dam to begin September 11, 2012.  That is a week later than he said when he began his presentation, but pleas from businesses and property owners to give them as much time as possible to remove boats and piers and allow access for tourists and other lake enthusiasts, were heard and Wildlife Technician Jim Tomasko, gave the new date adding, “Expect it to begin at 8 AM on September 11.”

Drawdowns of lakes like those that have occurred regularly on Montello Lake and on lakes elsewhere in Marquette County, require that the water be drawn down no more than four to five inches a day to allow amphibians, reptiles, fish and other animals to make adjustments in their behavior, maximizing the likelihood of their survival.

Just over 100 people attended Saturday’s meeting that was arranged on shorter than usual notice by the Buffalo Lake District.  Bill Lewis, President of the Lake District told the audience that it was imperative that the meeting take place if the project was to move forward in 2013.  Any delay would put it off until 2014.

Background of the project

The need for repair of the dam that forms Buffalo Lake came to the forefront during and after the floods of 2008.  Sunset Drive, also known as the dredge bank road, has been closed to traffic since the inspection by dam safety engineers after the flooding when notice was given that the dam must be removed or repaired by December of 2012.  The dam is made up of the concrete capped overflow spillway with sluice gates as well as a 2,523-foot earthen dike which makes up Sunset Drive.  At that time it was clarified that the DNR owns the dam and Marquette County leases land for a park and the City of Montello maintains the roadway.

The spillway is where the water flows over the concrete dam structure at Krakow Park.  The locks and sluice gates are next to the spillway.  The embankment is the dredge bank road which was created from materials dredged from the bottom of the Fox River to maintain river traffic beginning as early as 1852, according to a history of the Fox River.  Later, a road was built on top of the dredged material.

The late Howard Zellmer, former Montello Mayor Frank Breitenbach, and former Administrative Coordinator Brent Miller, among others, pushed for the State of Wisconsin and the DNR to find a solution to the closed road both for emergency transportation reasons as well as economic impact to the county and city.  With the strong urging and support of Senator Luther Olsen and State Representative Fred Clark, the DNR pursued a course of action that would provide a long-term solution to the repairs needed and would enhance the dam as a recreational area for Montello and Marquette County. 

In October of 2011, a public meeting was held that put forth four alternative solutions.  A plan was chosen that will repair, renovate and/or improve the lock and sluice gates, spillway, which will include a fish passage, embankment and that will make enhancements to the recreational area on the dredge bank road and fishing areas.  The project includes a two-way road up to the present boat landing, improved parking, a walking/bike lane, and a one way road from the boat landing to Krakow Park that will only be used for foot and bike traffic but that would be able to be used for emergency vehicles.  Montello Joint Fire District Chief Glen Bubolz who was in attendance at the meeting Saturday clarified this with the DNR and stressed the importance of emergency access to the road.

 The State Legislature approved $9 million dollars for the project in the 2011/13 budget in a way, Miller told Saturday’s audience, which assures the money will be there if not used during that budget cycle.

Earlier this year the architectural and engineering firm of Mead & Hunt was chosen from the bidding process to be the design firm for the project.  After the design has final approval from the DNR, bids will be put out for construction. The construction work will require a full drawdown of Buffalo Lake to its natural flow as the Fox River.

Historically, the Fox River, also called the Neenah by early explorers, always was wider where Buffalo Lake is today. From Increase Lapham's 1844 Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin: "Buffalo Lake, an expansion of the Neenah [Fox] river, at the northwest angle of the county, commencing nineteen miles below the portage, and extending eleven and one-fourth miles. It is narrow, and the water is shallow, being mostly filled with wild rice."

 The river wasn’t completely dammed until the Fox River Navigation Company and then the US Corps of Engineers wanted to improve transportation from Green Bay to Portage which included building the Portage Canal.  The mill on the Fox River at Montello used a raceway, not a dam to move the wheels, so it was the improvement of the Fox with dams as well as locks that set in place the conditions that made the lake we know today.

The projected schedule of the present dredge bank road and dam project, according to Mead & Hunt is as follows:
• Begin drawdown September 4, now changed to September 11.
• Provide review documents in September.
• Final design documents completed January 2013.
• Advertise for bid, February 2013.
• Bids in, March 2013.
• Award contract and begin construction May, 2013.
• Construction complete and Buffalo Lake refilled May of 2014.
• Project closeout December 2014.

Previous draw down

In 1970, Buffalo Lake was drawn down completely for two years mainly to kill the population of carp, however, compaction of the silt bottom was also a goal.  During the draw down, the locks at the Grand River dam which were three miles below the Montello dam were removed. 

The Tribune reported in 1970 that the troubles that initiated the draw down on Buffalo Lake only went back 25 years, but that they began 100 years prior to the draw down.  The report said that until the late forties, a heavy weed growth and “fine lotus bed” helped stabilize the fine silt bottom and fishing was excellent.  “Weeds have one advantage---they provide a haven for fish and food for ducks, even though they may ruin the lake for boating,” the DNR was quoted as saying at that time.

But then the weeds disappeared due to an eruption of carp.  At the same time, the report says, three days of “violent winds” 25 years prior had swept down the lake before the spring weeds emerged causing water that was “too thin to plow and too thick to drink.”

Without sunlight, the weeds died and carp continued to root the bottom of the lake.  State crews, it was reported, seined the lake for carp for years, taking thousands of tons. 

During the draw down in 1970, chemicals were placed in the upper portions of the lake and the tributaries of the Fox upstream to kill every fish.  It was estimated that 95% of the fish were carp.  The poisoning took place in Mason Lake, Neenah Creek, the Fox River and Portage Canal, to the Endeavor area and into Buffalo Lake.  A drip station was set up at County Trunk O over the Fox at the bridge where antimycin and rotenone were placed in the water.  Ditches on property where the owner refused to let the DNR place poison were sprayed by air.  One hundred tons of antimycin, an antibiotic, was used in the water.  The cost of chemicals then was $60,000.

When the water was returned to the lake, stocking of game fish took place.  In 1972, the Marquette Tribune reported that Mike Primising of the DNR said, “There are thousands and thousands of northern and although they were stocked as tiny fry last year, they already average 17 inches.”  The DNR started the stocking with a waterflea, necessary for the bottom of the food chain.

People at Saturday’s meeting asked if the DNR would be stocking fish after the lake is refilled.  The DNR answered that fish should naturally come back into the lake as it is filled and that some will stay in the area in the river that will be at its natural pre-dam level.  As to activity on the land that is exposed during the drawdown, more information will be available at the September meeting of the Buffalo Lake District.

Apply for shoreline permits soon

DNR Conservation Warden Judi Nigbor strongly emphasized the importance of applying for permits if property owners want to make shoreline improvements during the lake drawdown.

“Permitting doesn’t happen overnight,” Nigbor said, and urged owners to make application for permits as soon as possible if they want to make changes on their shoreline.  “And remember, you can’t just go in and do what you want to do.  You need to apply for a permit.”

Responding to several audience members who expressed negative feelings about the timing or other aspects of the project, Nigbor said, “The community chose to do this.  We’ve been talking about this for two years.  We chose this plan.  You may have to sacrifice a little to get where we want to go.”

She also said that people have to accept that Buffalo Lake will never be a Big Green Lake and she urged people to call her if they have questions or concerns.  “The DNR is not a bull in a China shop,” she said. “We want feedback and to talk this through.”

More Information coming

Lake District members expressed disappointment that they were not notified sooner about the meeting.  Discussion was held on mailing out information to all 720 Lake District members, but some people encouraged using emailed updates.  Miller said that the DNR will do a mailing if the Lake District supplies labels with addresses.  Representatives of the Lake District said that the website at www.buffalolakedistrict.org will have the Power Point that was used at Saturday’s meeting available.  When some people complained that the information on the website is out of date, they were told that the problems will be corrected. 

At September’s Lake District meeting, Miller said he would have an answer to whether the boat landing on the dredge bank road could be temporarily used to remove boats from the water before the drawdown since many boats will be coming out around the same time.  He will also find out if the DNR believes any wells will be affected by the drawdown, although he said he believed that they would not be. 

Many county, town and city officials were present at the meeting.  Highway Commissioner Brendon Rhinehart said that the county will be doing some work at the County C boat landing during the drawdown.  Montello Mayor Jeremy Kral wanted to make it clear that water levels are set according to sea level, not according to the depth of the lake.  Some people asked if the dam could be rebuilt to raise the water level, but the levels are set by the courts and it would take 100% of property owners to agree to raise the level in order to apply for that change said Miller.  The level today is what was set by the courts and is what will be maintained with the new work.  One person said the water used to be higher when, in fact, it was clarified, that the water level is the same, but the bottom moves up as sediment collects in impound lakes like Buffalo.

For more information, go to www.buffalolakedistrict.org.