Now being just a river rat, I am not a hydrologist by any stretch of the imagination. However, it doesn’t take a scientist to know something is fishy here on the Manitowish River in Iron County. It’s a ghost town here with no sturgeon, breeding duck pairs, or even river rats to be found.
Back in the day the Manitowish River was the place to be in the spring when it flooded its banks and created over 1600 acres of wetlands or as I like to call them – home. These wetlands would persist through spring and slowly dry out through August or September.
Today it is a different story. It turns out that Excel Energy and the landowners on Rest Lake, a dammed lake upstream in Vilas County, have decided that it was a good idea to draw down the lake in the fall to protect their piers from being damaged by the ice. I guess it is out of the question that they remove their docks from the water come winter like the rest of northern Wisconsin. Therefore, in the spring as soon as the ice is 75% off the lake, they shut down the flow of the river by cranking the dam damn near closed to refill the lake as quickly as possible during the spring runoff event, precisely the time us wildlife are trying to make whoopee downstream in the wetland. I spoke to a few of my friends to ask them how this impacted their mojo.
The word on the stream is that the fish get stranded in small pools of water where they are busy spawning when the water is suddenly shut off. Today there are less than a dozen female sturgeon around and they don’t feel much like spawning these days. Our feathered friends from shoreland birds to waterfowl are here one day and gone the next, forced to find another wetland to call home.
As for us river rats, it’s a dire situation in the fall. We like to build our homes in the wetland in preparation for winter when unbeknownst to us the folks upstream are drawing down Rest Lake sending an unnatural pulse of water through the system. We build our homes in what we think is a wetland protected from the elements. When they are done drawing down the lake and close the dam, we come to find out that our homes are left high and dry. In a Wisconsin winter that means frozen…. frozen dead.
This battle has been raging for a while now. The Wisconsin DNR and the USGS is gathering data this year in hopes of being able to mandate Excel to be a bit more considerate (of us wildlife) in its management of the dam. Come on WDNR and USGS, lend us a hand here already.