Property owners and interested members of the public as well as elected officials attended the informational meeting about the Buffalo Lake dam repair and enhancement that was held Saturday at Montello High School after the Buffalo Lake Association meeting.  Before the DNR began its presentation of the environmental impact study, some people studied maps of the project.  Drawdown begins September 11.  Written comments will be taken until 4:30 August 31.  Send them to Brent Binder Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources PO Box 7921 Madison, WI 53707-7921 or email to Brent.Binder@Wisconsin.gov. (Photo by Kathleen McGwin)

Buffalo Lake dam repair project on schedule

By Kathleen McGwin

The DNR held a meeting about the Buffalo Lake dam repair project in conjunction with the Buffalo Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District annual meeting on Saturday at the Montello High School.  The drawdown of Buffalo Lake necessary for the $9 million project that will repair the spillway, lock gates, and dredge bank road as well as provide enhanced recreational facilities will begin on September 11.

Jim Tomasko, Wildlife Technician with the DNR, said that the boat launch on Sunset Drive (the dredge bank road) will be open starting August 30 until September 11 during daylight hours only and only to accommodate lake home owners with removal of their boats.  Only vehicles removing boats will be allowed to use the road and it will be open only from Montello Street to the boat launch, he said.  He also said that homeowners may keep their piers in the water during the drawdown if they choose to do so.

The Environmental Analysis completed as part of the project says that the drawdown will take approximately 24 days and refilling the lake will begin in spring of 2014.  A temporary water bladder system will be used to direct the flow of the Fox River to the lock channel or primary spillway as work progresses.

A fish ladder will be included in the replacement of the spillway and lock gates will also be replaced.

The single ramp at the boat launch will be replaced with a double ramp including a six-foot launch pier down the center.  The proposed launch will more than double the size of the present launch. 

Eighteen species of fish were identified during the environmental impact study.  Fish in Buffalo Lake are northern pike, largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, channel catfish, black crappie, white sucker, redhorse, rock bass, pumpkinseed, common carp, bullhead, walleye, musky, golden shiner, common shiner, bowfin and lake chubsucker. 

Thirty species of fresh water mussels including a dozen species on the Natural Heritage Inventory are present in the Fox River basin.  Mussels, the report says, help stabilize river bottoms, serve as natural water filters, help keep waterways clean, provide excellent spawning habitat for fish and serve as food for fish, birds and some mammals.  Twenty different kinds of fresh water mussels were found during a survey of Buffalo Lake out of the 28 that could have been present. There were no invasive non-native mussels found, the DNR said when asked.  The number of species found in Buffalo Lake shows a good diversity of mussels. 

The report includes the fish consumption advisory for Buffalo Lake fish (which is part of the state wide advisory which can be found at http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/eh/Fish/index.htm) and says that advisories due to mercury apply to Buffalo Lake.

• Women up to age 45 and children under age 15 may safely eat:
1 meal per week of black crappie, bluegill and sunfish, bullheads, inland trout and yellow perch
1 meal per month of bass, catfish, pike, walleye, and all other species
6 meals per year of carp
Do not eat muskies

• All men 15 and older and women 45 and older may eat:
Unrestricted bullheads and inland trout
1 meal per week of bass, black crappie, bluegill and sunfish, cattish, pike, walleye, yellow perch and all other species
1 meal per month of muskies
6 meals per year of carp

Endangered resources identified for Buffalo Lake and within a one mile buffer of the lake include black-crowned night heron, Karner blue butterflies, southern sedge meadow communities, slender glass lizard, one-flowered broomrape, downy willow-herb, black tern, Forster’s tern, emergent marsh communities, pugnose shiner, migratory bird concentration site, brittle prickly-pear cactus, and small white lady’s slipper.  There is no expected negative effect on these resources.  Page Creek Marsh, a state natural area, may experience a change in water level during the draw down.

The drawdown will shift the lake back to its original river system and will provide foraging, resting and nesting places for waterfowl.  During the drawdown, the mudflats will be attractive to migrating birds and will provide food sources for some mammals like raccoons, opossum, skunks and badgers.  Eagles, ospreys and other birds may find attractive food sources available during the drawdown.  Some plant species like Bidens (a species of flowering plant) and smartweed may grow and attract more waterfowl. 

The drawdown, the report says, is expected to provide benefits to the habitat and health of the fishery.  Most fish, it says, will remain in the system, swimming upstream.  The majority of the fish should remain in the area although isolated fish kills could occur if impoundments of water separate from the main channel.  There should not be any need to restock the lake and there should be habitat gains and improvements to the system.  Full recovery of fisheries from a full drawdown on other lakes, the report says, has taken three to five years. With the addition of the fish passage, there will be potential for walleye, sturgeon and flathead catfish to move through the system. That will, however, also allow carp to move in.  Mitigation measures may be taken to avoid loss of mussel species populations. 

During the 1968-1970 drawdown of Buffalo Lake, depth increased by two inches at Packwaukee to fourteen inches at Endeavor due to consolidation of bottom organic matter.  Where the lakebed is exposed to air, the report says that conservatively, an improved lake depth of one foot is expected.  One to six inches of depth could be gained where the lakebed is wet.  Weather conditions will affect the outcome.

Brent Binder, Natural Resources Engineer with the Bureau of Facilities and Lands in the DNR provided a copy of the power point used at the presentation.  In part, it said:

• Homeowners were again encouraged to apply for permits if they wish to do shoreline work during the draw down.  The bed of a flowage usually is privately owned (differs from natural lakes) Work may include shoreline erosion control including riprap repair or replacement or biological methods.  It is the owner’s responsibility to apply for and obtain the correct permits before doing any work.  Most shoreline structures require permits except most piers, wharves, boat lifts and swimming rafts but permits may be required depending on size. 

• Homeowners must check with the water management specialist before doing any dredging on their property. 

• No vehicles may be operated on the exposed lakebed without a permit.

• Even if the bed is publicly owned, only the riparian owner has the right to walk in the exposed bed in the riparian’s zone of interest

• Soft sediment and quicksand are possible on the exposed lake bottom and people are advised of the safety concerns with these conditions. 


History 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 Representatives Joan Ballweg and 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.  The State Legislature approved $9 million dollars for the project in the 2011-2013 budget.  

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.

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 projected schedule of the present dredge bank road and dam project is as follows:
• Begin drawdown 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.

Bill Lewis, President of the Buffalo Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District thanked everyone who has been involved in this project.   He also noted that there were still two outstanding agreements that needed to be signed for the project to move forward.  They are with the City of Montello and Marquette County.  There will be another public meeting in late September where the final design will be available for viewing.  For more information, go to www.buffalolakedistrict.org.