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Businesses: Lower levels on Lake Koshkonong dry up their bottom line

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Neil Johnson
July 1, 2012

— It was a warm, sunny Friday afternoon at Anchor Inn in Newville. Pontoon boats puttered past on the Rock River, heading off beneath the Highway 59 bridge and out to the open waters of Lake Koshkonong.

Anchor Inn owner John Kinnett was tying off one of his 10 rental pontoons at the bar and grill's marina as clients loaded off and headed up to the bar's patio. In the background, loudspeakers were playing Bananarama's "Cruel Summer."

It's a fitting song.

For Kinnett and other businesses along Lake Koshkonong, it looks as though it will be a challenging summer for boat tourism. Already, waters on the lake have fallen to levels that usually don't come until late July or August. That's thanks to a run of dry weeks in the winter and spring.

It's just over a month into the boat season, but Kinnett is worried that the boating traffic which fuels about 40 percent of his summer business will start to taper as boaters who own fancy rigs and low-running hulls opt for deeper waters elsewhere. The water's getting that shallow, he said.

"We're to a point where we can't get some boats in the boat ramp. Soon, we're going to start losing the V-hull boats. That happens first. They'll go, and you won't see them again this year. They're gone," Kinnett said.

For Kinnett and other business owners on Lake Koshkonong, dry days and low water mean less boat traffic and a loss of potential tourism dollars.

It's no surprise that Kinnett and others who make their living on the lake support the Rock-Koshkonong Lake District's court fight to use Indianford Dam to raise lake levels 7.2 inches in the dry summer months.

The Rock-Koshkonong Lake District has spent about $500,000 to take its water-level fight all the way to the state Supreme Court, where it likely will receive a final decision later this year.

Lake district officials and others say the fight is worth the cost because the lake area sees thousands of tourists in summer weekends, and it's worth an assessed value of more than $500 million, according to court papers.

"This lake is the biggest tourist draw in Rock County, easily," said Chico Pope, who owns the Buckhorn Supper Club, which is on Charlie Bluff, a neighborhood on the south shore of Lake Koshkonong.

Yet many summers the lake gets so shallow that Pope has to extend his club's pier 300 feet to reach water deep enough for boating customers. Some summers, Pope said, the lake gets so low that his and other shoreline restaurants have people anchor their boats hundreds of feet out in the lake and wade in.

That lack of access can discourage boaters, Pope said.

"People just choose to go somewhere else to recreate," he said.

On a weekend afternoon at Theibau Point, a shallow, sandy area on the south shore of Lake Koshkonong, Fort Atkinson resident Ed Lehman had his sleek powerboat anchored while his family waded on a sandbar.

Lehman said lake levels were OK that day, but if they dropped just a few more inches, he probably wouldn't want to put his boat in at Koshkonong for the rest of the summer.

"I won't be able to drop it in here. I'll have to go up to Lake Winnebago, instead," Lehman said.

The lake district estimated in court papers that raising the maximum lake level from 776.3 feet to 777 feet would allow piers in some areas of the lake to be shortened by 80 to 160 feet.

That would increase property owners' ability to enjoy the lake and allow better emergency access, it argues.

Kinnett said that would be a godsend—the difference between people being able to boat and reach shore establishments and taking their boats and their business elsewhere.

"Let's look at this and be logical. Let's pump it up some," Kinnett said.

Opponents, including the DNR and a coalition of duck hunting clubs around the lake, say that the extra 7.2 inches of water would spread standing water out around the 4,000 acres of sensitive wetlands around the lake.

The groups hold that the extra water would increase erosion and damage wetland plants that are a habitat for dozens of varieties of fish and birds.

Pope said his supper club customers take all different stances on the lake level argument. But for better or worse, his livelihood is in part tied to people's access to the lake.

He said rulings by the DNR and lower courts seem impassive to his and other businesses' reality, and it stings.

"I just don't know if it's the fair, right way to look at it," Pope said.


 

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