GREEN LAKE – The surface of the state’s deepest natural lake was flat last week as Capt. Marty Valasek slowly piloted the 60-foot Escapade dinner boat 150 yards off Green Lake’s shoreline.
The sky was hazy, bluegill anglers dotted the lake and a few fishermen used 2-foot-long wooden jig sticks to try and catch cisco, a species similar to a whitefish that needs deep, cold water to survive. Green Lake is ideal habitat for the cisco and its cold-water running mate, the lake trout, two fish found in only a small percentage of the state’s more than 15,000 lakes.
“It attracts a lot of people to the area,” said Valasek, the former Green Lake School District superintendent. “It’s a very clean lake, and we’re trying to preserve that. It’s a real gem for us.”
The 236-foot-deep lake, with 27 miles of mostly developed shoreline, may be unique, but it also could be a model for the rest of the state.
Officials here are working on a plan to improve the water quality of the 7,920-acre lake, which is fed by a 107-square-mile watershed, 57 percent of which is agricultural land.
But while Dane County has been undertaking a similar plan for years to improve lakes Mendota, Wingra, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, the social leanings are vastly different.
Dane County is the liberal heart of the state and contrasts with Green Lake County, where 20 percent more voted for Republican Mitt Romney than Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Gov. Scott Walker received 67.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 gubernatorial election here, and it was in nearby Ripon where the Republican Party was founded by anti-slavery Whigs in 1854.
“You have people from out of state living on the lake, you have conservative farmers upstream, so I think that is more representative of what many of the lakes around the state are dealing with,” said Stephanie Prellwitz, executive director of the non-profit Green Lake Association. “If we can figure out how to do it in Green Lake, we can make strides in Wisconsin’s other 15,000 lakes.”
In 2014, the state Department of Natural Resources listed Green Lake as “impaired” because the lake, with increased weed and algae and a narrow band of low dissolved oxygen from phosphorus, failed to meet optimal water quality standards. Fishing, swimming, water skiing and other recreational uses are still viable but leaders in the area want to tackle the problem before it gets out of hand, Prellwitz said.
In 2013, the GLA with other lake stakeholders developed a lake management plan to assess water quality challenges and conservation strategies. This year, the organization is funding a phosphorus prioritization plan that is being conducted by the non-profit Delta Institute, a Chicago-based environmental research group.
The GLA has also been awarded more than $377,000 in grants for a farm demonstration project in the Fond du Lac County portion of the watershed. The project is designed to show area farmers how to reduce run-off, improve soil conditions, positively affect water downstream and improve their bottom lines. In addition, two research assistants from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison began collecting data on the lake this past summer and will continue their work through the fall.
“We can do a whole lot more by coordinating, and that’s why I think Green Lake is such a great model,” said Paul Robbins, the Nelson Institute’s director. “This lake is not going to change without the cooperation of some very hard-working people in the agriculture and dairy communities, who are facing extremely complex economic and political conditions.”
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Adding to that complexity is the lake itself. Because of its size and depth, changes to Green Lake will take decades. The lake’s retention time (the time it takes to refill with new water) is 21 years. By comparison, the retention time for Lake Winnebago, the state’s largest inland lake at 131,939 acres and 21 feet at its deepest point, is about seven months, Prellwitz said.
Other issues include Green Lake’s watershed that covers parts of Green Lake, Fond du Lac and Winnebago counties and climate change. The time the lake is covered by ice is shorter than it was in the 1800s, and, in the past 30 years, the area has experienced more rainfalls of three inches or more that flush nutrients, pollutants, debris and sediment into the lake.
Weather data from a monitoring station in Ripon showed no three-inch rainfalls in the 1950s and only one each in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s, there have been at least three each decade, including torrential rains in 2007 and 2008 that caused widespread flooding.
“It’s a combination of everything,” said Dennis Walker, 75, who in 1953 caught what was then a state record 34.5 pound lake trout from Green Lake. “It’s also the people around the lake that cause a lot of pollution. Nobody talks about that (lawn chemicals).”
Mike Norton has been a lifelong fishing guide on the lake and, when the water isn’t frozen, uses a 45-foot boat to take out clients who fish for a variety of species. He’s also a member of a cold-water fish advisory committee designed to increase the lake trout population. In 2009, Norton and his clients boated 800 lake trout. In 2014, the catch was 200 fish, and this year (the season closed Sept. 30) was about the same.
Norton’s family has guided on the lake for more than 100 years and Mike Norton is a fourth-generation guide who has a vested interest in the lake’s health.
“The farmers — they’re going to be the solution,” Norton said. “It’s not that important to them, this lake. What’s important to them is their bottom line. But at some point what matters will be the big picture.”
The lake originated in a valley formed by a pre-glacial river. When the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, they deposited terminal moraines across the western end of the valley that impounded the water and created the lake. White settlers began to arrive in the mid-1800s and by the late 1800s the lake was one of the largest vacation destinations west of Niagara Falls.
Today, the lake is rimmed by a mix of cottages and estates, marshland, sandstone bluffs and a few resorts. They include the Heidel House, which traces its roots to the 1890s, and the Green Lake Conference Center, a year-round Christian conference center located on 900 acres on the lake’s northwest side.
Kent DeLucenay, 67, has lived on the lake for the past 15 years and is a GLA member. There had been concerns about pollution in the lake prior to the DNR naming it impaired, but the 2014 announcement served as a wake-up call for those who not only live on the lake but rely on its water and beauty for a livelihood.
“We really are committed to restoring the lake, not just preserving it,” DeLucenay said. “These initiatives are important because they give us a scientific basis for understanding what the needs of the lake are. That will guide the action plan in the months and years to come.”