Officials disagree how money should be spent to protect Delavan Lake
DELAVAN--How do you keep a lake healthy?
If any community should know, it's the town of Delavan.
Since the 1960s, town and city officials and local residents have been working to keep Delavan Lake healthy, both for homeowners and for the tourism trade that helps drive the local economy.
But in recent years, the philosophy of who should handle lake management issues—and how they should be handled—has changed. Those changes aren't linked to science but to how local officials think money should be spent.
Between 1989 and 1992, millions of dollars were sunk into the lake to eliminate rough fish and phosphorus-induced algae that made the lake muddy and green. Wetlands with retention ponds were developed north of the lake to help treat water and retain sediment.
The clean-up effort, which a Department of Natural Resources official once described as "probably the largest, most comprehensive lake rehabilitation project in the world,” has been successful in many ways.
In the years since, the Delavan Lake inlet and Brown's Channel were dredged.
Here's what everybody agrees on now: The watershed is the key to the future health of the lake.
The watershed is all the fields, valleys, streams and rivers that flow into a lake.
Delavan Lake is about 2,072 acres, but its watershed is 26,000 acres—about twice the size of the watershed for Geneva Lake.
Size isn't the only thing that matters for Delavan Lake.
Unlike many other lakes in the area, Delavan Lake is not spring fed. Most of the water comes from surface runoff, and that makes the water susceptible to what's happening in the watershed.
In 2009, the Delavan Lake Sanitary District contacted the Kettle Moraine Land Trust to get help reducing pollutants in the lake.
The trust was started in 2000, when the Lauderdale Lakes Improvement Association wanted to continue preserving Island Woods. That led to other land preservation projects, and the group eventually renamed itself the Kettle Moraine Land Trust to better represent the area it covered.
The land trust was the kind of organization that could work across political boundaries because it had no vested interest in any special interest group or municipalities.
A short-term consultant was hired to help educate the land trust and the sanitary district board “on the science of all of this,” said Jerry Petersen, board president for the land trust.
Together, they learned about strategies to improve the health of a watershed and other things they could do to improve lake health.
A five-year plan was drafted, including a list of concerns ranked in order of importance. Those areas of concern were the properties within the watershed most likely to contribute pollutants to the lake.
In addition, a new non-profit, the Delavan Lake Watershed Initiative Network was formed.
The agreement with the Delavan Lake Sanitary District was that the Delavan Lake Watershed Initiative Network would be funded from year to year.
That was 2009.
In March 2010, the trust hired Maggie Zoellner to oversee the work of the watershed network and other trust projects. Within two months, she had written and received a $200,000 federal grant that was part of a larger project to protect the Mississippi River Basin.
In the next two years, the money was used for nine projects designed to keep run-off out of Delavan Lake. They ranged from stabilizing grades to developing nutrient management plans for farmers.
For Delavan Lake, the projects resulted in:
-- 1,122 fewer pounds of nitrogen per year.
-- 403 fewer pounds of phosphorus per year.
-- 163 fewer tons of sediment per year.
For Jackson Creek, the numbers were less dramatic but still significant. Consider, one pound of phosphorus can cause as much as 500 pounds of algae.
Before the results were published, the Delavan Lake Sanitary District had stopped funding the Watershed Initiative Network. In November 2011, elected officials in the town of Delavan began expressing concern over WIN's approach, Petersen said. The make-up of the sanitary district board had changed, too.
Mary Knipper, current president of the Wisconsin Lakes Association and part-president of the Delavan Lake Improvement Association, said “things were going really well.”
Those "things" included making connections between all of the stakeholders in the lake's future, including all the municipalities in the watershed, the UW Extension and other government agencies connected with land and water resources; prioritizing the work that needed to be done in the watershed so they could do the most good, public information efforts to help people understand how the watershed impacts lake health and winning a highly competitive federal grant.
Only two locations in Wisconsin were able to secure a grant, and that was a coup for the organization, Knipper said.
Knipper, who is now vice president of the Kettle Moraine Land Trust Board, said a watershed plan is crucial to the health of the lake. Whatever efforts are being made in the lake must “run concurrently” with the watershed plan.
It appeared, at first, that local officials wanted to move away from those efforts.
Town of Delavan Chairman Ryan Simons, a real estate agent, was one of the officials who favored moving away from the land trust.
He said the land trust “spent $180,000 setting up WIN (Watershed Initiative Network),” and it hadn't done anything to improve the quality of the lake.
When asked about the report listing the reduction of chemicals and sediment in the lake, he said he'd want to see how those numbers were calculated. The report in question was prepared by the land trust report in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Services.
Simons is disappointed, too, that the money spent with the Kettle Moraine Land Trust meant funding was cut for lake monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We don't have data for those two years, and that's really a loss,” Simons said.
Simons said his issue isn't with the watershed approach but how the money was spent and who made the decision to spend it. The money in question isn't the federal grant, but the $180,000 used to set up the watershed network.
Now, town officials are retaining Peter Berini, a specialist who has helped them in the past with projects to identify which areas of the watershed are the highest priority and which can give them “the biggest bang for their buck.”
One of the many things that might help the lake are housing developments with properly placed and planned detention and retention ponds.
"We've been looking at conservation subdivisions,” Simons said. “Those could be a huge benefit.
The Sho-deen Group's plans to build more than 600 homes on an estimated 285 acres northwest of the Delavan Lake Inlet is an example. The subdivision would help the lake by taking farmland out of production, reducing the amount of sediment and chemicals flowing into the lake, Simons said.