Lake Delton's rebirth begins

Published online: Apr 22, 2009 News Meg Jones
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Lake Delton - The four pontoon boats moored at the dock outside Lake Delton Watersports; the once-again aptly named Lakeside Motel; the millions of minnows dumped into the ice tea-colored water Monday morning - they're all signs of the rebirth of a water body that vanished in a flash.

Lake Delton has returned.

Wet again and almost to its normal summer level, the lake popular among vacationers, anglers and boaters has bounced back.

"It's like a feeling of renewal," said Kathy Zowin, who owns Lake Delton Watersports with her husband.

Lake Delton Version 2.0, though, appears to be improved. No more nasty carp wrecking the habitat for native fish species. An expanded and sturdier dam can handle double the amount of water that created a chasm last June which emptied the lake in an hour. Public boat landings were enlarged with more parking and bathrooms.

And the Original Wisconsin Ducks drivers have added information about the catastrophe to their spiel on local history, as the breach has become part of the area's lore.

With water levels only a foot below normal, Lake Delton looks like it did before the June 9, 2008, breach emptied millions of gallons of water into the nearby Wisconsin River. The lake was allowed to partly fill starting in December after the portion of County Highway A that washed away was rebuilt. Then three weeks ago, the refilling resumed, with the natural flow of water emptying from Mirror Lake into Dell Creek and then Lake Delton.

"We haven't had to manipulate the flows from Mirror Lake," said Meg Galloway, chief of dams and floodplains for the Department of Natural Resources. "We've always been very confident the lake would be filled in time for Memorial Day, and it appears it will be filled well before that."

From Zowin's office at Lake Delton Watersports, she could see the lake rising rapidly - sometimes it looked as if it rose a foot a day. A measuring pole she and her husband put in the water showed the quick progress.

The Zowins were hit hard by the loss of the lake. With 85% of their business coming from watercraft rentals, the Zowins' income, like the water in the lake, rapidly slowed to a trickle. Their service department no longer serviced boats owned by those who lived on Lake Delton, three-quarters of whom decided to have them shrink-wrapped and stored for the rest of the season.

"We've never winterized boats in June before," said Zowin, who added that it was disheartening to see an empty parking lot on Saturdays last summer.

Christine Nowak, who has owned Lakeside Motel for two decades, lost 70% of her customers after the lake disappeared, forcing her to return deposits from reservations made months in advance. Most of the people who rent her condos and cabins come for two to three weeks, many of them to fish in Lake Delton.

Customers calling this year all ask whether the lake is back.

When Nowak tells them "yes," some make reservations. So far, business has not returned to pre-breach levels. Yet Nowak is hopeful, particularly because once again, there's water instead of a huge sandbar next to her motel.

"Let's go forward and forget about last year," she said.

Original Wisconsin Ducks began trips Thursday, in time to attract families still on Easter break. The Ducks were forced to alter the route of the one-hour land-and-water tour after the breach, as the amphibious crafts normally motored through Lake Delton after splashing out of the Wisconsin River.

Matt Oeftger, a Duck driver for 14 years, drove slowly past the now-filled-in chasm Monday afternoon. Loads of riprap now blanket the sides of the land where fish, houses, docks and boats washed away in June. He stopped the vehicle next to the dam before motoring into Lake Delton and described for passengers what happened and the massive rebuilding effort.

"The biggest curiosity is the lake filling. They don't get the concept that it fills that quickly," said Oeftger, assistant manager at Original Wisconsin Ducks. "You tell them five houses did wash down the river and there's this sense of disbelief."

Though anglers will have to be patient while the lake's ecosystem gets a reboot, one of the first steps in restocking the lake came Monday, when millions of golden shiners and fathead minnows were dumped into Lake Delton. They're destined to be forage fish for the walleyes, large and small mouth bass, bluegills, black crappies and channel catfish that will be stocked starting in June.

Dave Gollon, of Dodgeville's Gollon Bait & Fish Farm, opened a spigot on his truck and watched as many as 9 million tiny silver fish flowed into the water at the public boat landing where many tourists flocked last summer to take pictures of the exposed sandy bottom.

The truckload of minnows is the first of many that will stock the lake with forage fish. Organizers of the Lake Delton Fish Restoration Fund will return to stock the lake with walleyes - about 9,000, or the equivalent of roughly 35 fish per acre - on June 9, the anniversary of the breach.

Because the DNR has no budget for fish stocking, the effort is being done with private donations from sportsmen's groups and others, including as much as $40,000 from Leinenkugel's. Authorities estimated it will cost $200,000 to restore Lake Delton's fishery.

The sport fish won't be big enough to keep, because of statewide size limits, for several years, said Scott Stewart, DNR regional fisheries supervisors. "It'll take them three to four years before they're catchable size," said Stewart.

A carp eradication project in December was successful in removing the non-native fish. And with the lake restored almost to the way it was, Stewart said, conditions are very good for rebuilding the fish population.

"All those fish will have all kinds of food. Plus there's no predators," he said. "Everybody is excited at how fast this has gone."

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