John Spangberg, DNR Water Regulations And Zoning Specialist
The ongoing drought has affected many people in many ways. As lakeshore property owners, many of you have been able to see the effects first hand, with many small lakes completely dry and others 4- 6 feet below normal levels. The new lakebed presents many opportunities and also a lot of responsibilities for you as the property owner.
That newly exposed lakebed adjacent to your lake lot is actually the property of the state of Wisconsin, held in trust for both present and future users of the lake. The adjacent property owner has rights and responsibilities. Those rights include exclusive use of that exposed lakebed; someone cannot come up and camp in front of your lake home. However, you cannot treat that lakebed as if it were your lake lot. Vegetation removal is limited to your 30 foot access corridor, although permits to remove excessive troublesome weed problems are available.
Manipulation of the lakebed; raking or grading it, removal of rocks or woody debris is illegal and not in the long term best interest of the lake and the critters that live there; all that “stuff” that is exposed may not look good to you, but it represents habitat for fish or for the insects that sustain the fish population. The less ‘stuff” there is on that lakebed the less habitat there is. So please leave all those things that are normally below the water and out of sight on the lakebed where they belong. The lake levels will come back and the lake critters need that habitat.
More complicated issues can present themselves to lake property owners as water levels drop. We receive calls almost daily from people who can no longer access water from their lake lot. Many of these folks are on back bays where several property owners may have lost access. The common question is can I dredge lake bottom to access the open water. Removal of more than 2 cubic yards of material from any lake requires a permit from the department prior to removal of that material.
There are several things that the Department must take into consideration when considering an application for dredging for access. Those include effect on fish and wildlife populations, navigation, natural scenic beauty, does the project cause pollution and what the net cumulative effect of that individual action may be; alterations made to a lake can have a huge effect when the water returns. I am working a case on a lake in Polk County, where overtime, removal of rock and cobble during periods of low water have had a very negative impact on walleye populations in that lake. With removal of just few rocks at a time, a majority of the rocky walleye spawning habitat has been removed and piled up on the shoreline. When the water returns, the spawning fish won’t.
So, while low water levels are an inconvenience at best, the water will come back, we want the lake to come back as a healthy ecosystem at the same time.