Residents concerned about Turtle Lake’s future

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Kevin Hoffman
Thursday, December 8, 2011
— Richard Roman has grown accustomed to Turtle Lake’s fluctuating water levels—an inch here, two inches there.

That was until this year when Roman said the channel outside his lakefront home lost nearly a foot of water. Now, several residents are looking for answers, fearful the lake’s receding shoreline will threaten recreation and property values if nobody takes action.

“It’s kind of shocking to see the water drop that fast and have no idea why,” Roman said. “I’m kind of hoping it’s just a natural fluctuation, but I’m not too pleased.”

Roman, a retired engineer from Chicago’s western suburbs, purchased his lot along Turtle Lake nearly 30 years ago. It’s become a summer home where Roman and his wife spend the holidays with more than a dozen children and grandchildren.

Those trips include taking a boat or jet skis on the lake. But earlier this year, Roman had to pull his boat out of the lake because the water was rapidly dropping at his dock.

Homeowners along the north channel are calling on the town to take action, claiming part of the problem is a breach along Turtle Creek that’s sucking water out of the lake. The town has not yet acted, and the state Department of Natural Resources says it has no authority to order the town board to address the issue.

“It was down in the spring, even with all the snow and ice (that melted),” said another resident who lives along the channel. “That’s when we discovered this is an issue again.”

The lingering problem

Turtle Lake’s diminishing water level has been an issue for at least nine years. Letters from the DNR indicate it could have begun sometime in the mid 1990s.

The ongoing concern prompted the state department’s staff to take part in a public hearing in October along with town leaders. Residents attended, but organizers didn’t allow open discussion, instead asking questions to be submitted in writing.

Michelle Schneider, water management director with the DNR, told more than 20 residents the state has regulatory oversight on the dam, but the dam is in compliance. Town officials indicated they didn’t want spent tens of thousands of dollars reacting to an issue that might be a natural occurrence.

Residents seemed interested in one solution: Developing a lake district that would impose a tax to raise money for improvements.

That would require residents to present a petition to the town board. There also would have to be an agreement between the district and town establishing oversight and maintenance responsibilities.

The ‘new’ Turtle Creek

Turtle Lake is fed by springs and has no inlet. Its outlet is Turtle Creek, and Turtle Lake Road—doubling as the dam—is several hundred feet south of the lake. Marsh fills the acres between the south shore of the lake and Turtle Lake Road.

More than a decade ago, water breached the banks of Turtle Creek downstream from the lake just north of Turtle Lake Road and carved a new path to the west. The creek is mostly dry and muddy where it crosses under the road because its water has been redirected elsewhere.

About 70 yards to the west, where the creek now passes under the road, a second culvert gushes water at a rate some estimate is about 330 gallons per minute, said James D’Antuono, southeast Fox Basin water leader with the DNR.

Another culvert farther west at an agriculture ditch also is spilling water from the north.

Residents blame the breach for Turtle Lake’s depleting levels, and they point to the gushing culvert as evidence. DNR officials are not so sure.

D’Antuono said it’s difficult and costly to determine where that water is coming from.

It could be the lake. It could be groundwater.

“We don’t know enough about what’s out there to determine that,” Schneider said. “My gut instinct—from what I’ve seen and where (the breach) is—is that it doesn’t have that much influence on the lake.”

DNR officials previously said the distance between the breach and the lake make it less likely the problems near the dam could significantly impact water levels.

“Say for a minute those culverts were not there and water started flowing over the dam,” D’Antuono said. “We don’t know that there would be much difference at all. I don’t know if anyone knows that would reflood the lake to the level (residents) would like.

“One of the problems the town has, and one of the things we talked about, is nobody has real good data.”

Looking for answers

Frank and Katy Palormo, who live near Roman on the channel’s shore, are the most active residents in pressuring the town and state to address the issue.

The two began their efforts in 2007, reviewing documents and speaking with residents. Some are supportive, while others side with the town.

At one point, the Palormos hired a Madison attorney to help in their research. After thousands of dollars in legal fees, the attorney withdrew, citing a personal conflict with the DNR, Katy Palormo said.

Through open records laws, the Palormos acquired stacks of documents related to Turtle Lake. A letter from the DNR to the township in 2002 indicates the culverts beneath Turtle Lake Road were placed “6 to 12 inches lower than the crest of the spillway of the dam.” That could cause water to drop as low as the elevation of the invert at the culvert, the department wrote.

Another letter, dated July 2011, said the Turtle Lake Improvement Association applied for a permit to construct a berm to block the flow of water through the breach. The DNR asked the lake association for more details before approving the project, but the lake association responded by withdrawing the application.

Someone did try to take matters into their own hands by illegally placing 106 sandbags at the breach. The DNR removed them and investigated the matter without ever finding out who did it.

The DNR in its 2011 letter highlight three courses of action for the township:

-- Abandon the dam while removing the spillway to restore the stream.

-- Transfer the dam to a “responsibly entity with taxing authority.”

-- Hire a consultant to submit plans for dam reconstruction.

All three would have sufficed, Katy Palormo said. Nothing has yet been done.

“It’s been devastating,” Katy Palormo said. “The people we trusted—the lake association, the town board members—appear not to be playing straight with us. It’s not just about the access to this lake; it’s about the overall quality of the lake.

Finding a fix

Richmond Township residents want their lake restored to its “normal” levels, but there’s no clear fix to making that happen. Especially since nobody really know what normal means.

Town Chairman Wayne Redenius said during October’s meeting that above-average precipitation over the last few years led to higher water levels. With a “drought” this year, the lake began to drop, he said.

DNR officials agreed with Redenius’ theory that Turtle Lake might just be conforming to Mother Nature’s unpredictability. During his trip to Richmond Township in late November, Roman said, the water already had crept up about 4 inches.

“Turtle Lake dropped down to what might be a normal dry cycle,” D’Antuono said.

He compared the dramatic changes to a Waukesha County lake, where water levels jumped so high they crept over residential docks.

“These lakes fluctuate seasonally. Now it’s in a position where it’s kind of reversed the other way.”

It’s unclear what’s next for residents or the lake’s condition. The town could spend the money to fix the breach or address the culverts. It also could wait and see if water levels rebound like some DNR officials think they might.

Either way, residents just want their lake back.

“This is everything we worked for,” Katy Palormo said.

Last updated: 7:09 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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