Advocates: High water on Koshkonong could hurt wetlands, wildlife habitat
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KOSHKONONG On a given weekend, a motorist's view from the Interstate 90/39 bridge at Newville reveals a flotilla of boats where the Rock River empties from the southern mouth of Lake Koshkonong.
For a passerby, it's hard to imagine a secluded, serene spot anywhere on the lake.
Yet it's a different world six miles east on the lake's other end, in the soupy wetlands of Koshkonong State Wildlife Area where the Rock River flows into the 10,500-acre lake.
There a person on foot or in a kayak can see eagles, pelicans, herons and several species of migratory ducks, including canvasback and blue-winged teal. Add fingerling fish, deer, wild turkeys, turtles and dozens of varieties of marsh plants, cattails and lowland trees.
"It's a jungle," said Penny Shackelford, secretary of the Lake Koshkonong Wetland Association, a coalition of lake area residents and duck hunt clubs at the lake.
The group's mission is to protect that wildlife, and Koshkonong State Wildlife Area is just part of the 4,000 acres of public and private marshes that surround Lake Koshkonong.
Half of the lake's 27 miles of shoreline are considered undeveloped wetlands, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Those wetlands and the hunt clubs and wildlife areas located in them are why Shackelford's group has teamed with the Wisconsin DNR to try to fend off a lawsuit by the Rock-Koshkonong Lake District in which the district seeks to raise lake levels.
Lake Koshkonong was once a cattail marsh with the Rock River running through it. It was transformed into a shallow reservoir lake when it was dammed in the 1850s, but the area's flat topography has never changed, Shackelford explained.
"People don't understand what seven or eight inches more water can do in our type of riparian system where you've got a broad, flat floodplain area," she said. "A couple inches of water spreads out a long way. It might make your pier shorter in good times, but in bad times, it's going to make water in your yard, or worse."
Shackelford highlighted findings that led to the DNR's 2005 decision that higher water levels could harm wetlands near Lake Koshkonong.
"What the wetlands need every once in a while is a dry year so that marsh plants can renew themselves. If they (the lake district) raise the water year after year, on average, the outlying marshes will stay so wet that they can't keep trees upright or regenerate vegetation," said Shackelford.
Wetland vegetation provides habitat for waterfowl, and it serves as a buffer for erosion and runoff and a protected environment for fish to grow and eventually populate Lake Koshkonong, according to DNR findings and a 2005 study by the wetland association.
The lake district argues in papers filed with the state Supreme Court that the DNR overreached its authority by basing a lake levels decision on its impact on wetlands. Some of the marsh areas in question are privately owned and have higher elevations, which the lake district believes should separate them from the lake's floodplain.
State environmental groups support the DNR's decision.
One such group, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, urged the state Supreme Court in court papers to uphold the decision, writing that the lake district's argument reflects a "broad and undefined range of tangential economic impacts" and doesn't take into account the impact of higher lake levels on other groups along the lake.
Most people Shackelford associates with enjoy wildlife on the lake—the birds, the cattails, the braided wetlands. They like to putter around in small boats to fish and enjoy nature in quiet.
"I don't know what other people like or care about," she said. "Maybe some people just like to rip around in a boat and don't care what they see."
Some recreational boaters say they understand the limits of the lake and seem content to live with them.
Steve Startz of Fort Atkinson has boated on the lake his whole life and said he's used to it getting shallow in the summer.
On a Friday afternoon, he was knee deep off Thibeau Point on the south end of Lake Koshkonong, towing his boat clear of a sand bar as his family waited in the boat. He said it's inconvenient, but for him it's an inevitable part of the season.
"Sure, it'd be nice to have the lake another half-foot or a foot deeper in the summer, but it is what it is," Stortz said. "You boat here long enough, and you just deal with it. You learn where you can take a boat and where you can't."
Adding 7.2 inches to the lake when it reaches summer low-water targets would add an estimated 44 acres to the lake, according to court papers.
Shackelford said her association fears those added acres of water could eat away shore protection and in time turn hundreds if not thousands of acres of wetland into open water.
She said there are other ways to improve boating access. She pointed to the lake district's and the DNR's plan for potential pilot dredges on Lake Koshkonong that could improve boat access to parts of the lake and protect sensitive shore wetlands.
Shackelford has the following suggestion for anyone who has problems accessing the shallowest parts of Lake Koshkonong:
"If you have a boat that doesn't work on Lake Koshkonong, you need a different boat. You don't need to change the lake."