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Receding waters baffling yet pleasing

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Neil Johnson
August 2, 2012

— As waters continue to recede at Clear Lake, long-lost shorelines are emerging and beachgoers are returning in force.

There's even talk about the possibility of a 3-year-old slow/no wake order at the lake being lifted.

No one, not even a crew of student geologists commissioned to look into the lake's hydrology, is quite sure what caused Clear Lake to surge eight feet over its banks in 2008 and 2009.

And now that the lake level has dropped steadily in the last year, people at the lake north of Milton are equally baffled.

They're also pleased.

"It's beautiful to finally have the beach back," said Blackhawk Campground staff member Pam Osmond.

Osmond dug her feet into newly spread sand at the campground's swimming beach on Clear Lake's south end.

Just three years ago, the beach was completely covered by feet of water and barricaded by sandbags after months of heavy precipitation saturated the water table surrounding the lake.

Yet this year, thanks in part to weeks of drought, water levels at the lake have dropped so much that the campground has had to bring in extra truckloads of sand to add to the beach.

Staff have moved back the beach's roped swimming area and twice added beach chairs as more than 50 feet of shoreline has emerged, Osmond said.

"It's nice to have giggles, squeals, sandcastles and the smell of suntan lotion again. It's been a long time since we've had that out here," Osmond said.

Gail Nordlof, a member of the Clear Lake Improvement Association, and a volunteer lake monitor, said she recently took depth measurements at Clear Lake. At its deepest area, Nordlof said the lake has fallen from 21 feet last spring to 17 feet late last month.

Nordlof said the lake's still about two feet higher than normal.

"It's still high water, but it's certainly an improvement," she said.

Clear Lake's surge peaked in 2009 and for months swamped three lakefront properties and their septic systems under shallow standing water on the lake's east side. The surge also caused serious groundwater infiltration to the basements of a handful of other lakefront homes.

Nordlof said most of the shallow standing water has dissipated as the lake has dropped, and groundwater seepage is no longer a threat to most lakefront residences.

Meanwhile, a contractor has removed two of the three wrecked homes along the lake. The third property, which apparently is now abandoned, is no longer under water.

The contractor and the town of Milton are in the midst of negotiations over removal of the third property. It's not clear if the parcel later could be redeveloped for residential use.

A consortium of students are studying what could have caused Clear Lake's levels to jump, whether the phenomenon has happened in the past and whether it could happen again.

Susan Swanson, a professor at Beloit College, spearheaded a grant-funded study that included fieldwork at the lake in July. She said Clear Lake and nearby Mud Lake, Grass Lake and Duck Lake are the only lakes in the region where extreme flooding in 2008 and 2009 was so slow to dissipate.

"So we know that precipitation levels alone are not the reason for the flooding. Other lakes in the area didn't do this," Swanson said.

She said a team of a half-dozen students from several colleges took core samples of the lakebed and surrounding land and probed how the lake might drain and recharge itself. The students plan to publicly release findings next spring.

As waters continue to drop, some are eager to see boating return to form at the lake.

The town of Milton set a slow/no wake ordinance at the lake association's request to protect property following the lake's unprecedented surge.

Mike Smith, Blackhawk Campground marketing manager, said some residents would like to see slow/no wake repealed.

"Some people want to see things opened up a little," he said.

Nordlof said the association likely won't push to repeal slow/no wake until next year, because waters at the lake continue to linger just above normal levels.

Town of Milton Police Chief Thomas Kunkel said regardless of lake levels, the town will maintain a ban for small personal watercraft on all weekends and holidays.


 

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