When the rains stopped, the lake was gone

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Marinas and shops are left high and dry until Wisconsin isthmus is rebuilt and the water returns

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The emptying of Wisconsin’s Lake Delton in June has left many of the marine business owners who relied on it scrambling to make ends meet.

On June 9, the isthmus that separated Lake Delton and the Wisconsin River washed away. The dirt and sand had become so saturated by torrential rains in May and June that it simply was unable to hold.

It only took a couple of hours for the lake’s estimated 75 million gallons of water to escape, taking boats and even a couple houses with it and leaving fish flopping in the mud.

Steve Zowin, who’s owned Lake Delton Watersports marina for 29 seasons, said business is off 75 percent.

“My rental business is probably zero on the lake,” said Zowin, who was on the lake towing boats to safety when the rupture occurred.

Lake Delton Watersports service shop is generating some business, but nothing like a normal summer. Zowin also owns a concession stand at Mirror Lake, 45 minutes north of their marina. He has sent many of his pontoon boats, fishing boats, canoes and kayaks to that lake for rental.

Their new boat sales are almost non-existent.

“You think they will just fill that in and we will have our lake back, but it’s not that simple,” Zowin said. “Even if everything is normal next year, we still expect to be digging out of this for a few years.”

“By the time I got the call, it was gone,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen, whose district includes Lake Delton. “There’s nothing uglier than the bottom of a lake. There are different colors of gray and black muck, a few boats they couldn’t get off the lake and a few stumps. I’d seen the bottoms of lakes, but nothing this big.”

Tommy Diehl spent that Monday morning’s predawn hours trying to reinforce Dell Creek Dam, which holds back enough water to create Wisconsin’s Lake Delton.

Joined by many of his employees from Tommy Bartlett’s Show and Exploratory, Diehl figured they’d stacked as many sandbags as they could. He sent the employees home around sunrise, but Diehl stuck around as the level of Lake Delton continued to rise.

The water, however, never reached the newly piled dam reinforcements — which turned out to be a bad thing.

“I knew we were in big trouble as there was no stopping it,” Diehl said. “It would take time to work its way back to the lake, and once it did it would take the lake. That’s exactly what happened.”

Rebuilding a lake
Everyone from Gov. James Doyle’s office to the state legislature to local business proprietors are determined to bring back the lake.

The rupture initiated a redirection in the flow of Dell Creek, which still wants to pour through the breach into the Wisconsin River. Workers are already redirecting the water back toward the dam. Once that happens, engineers can begin to restore and fortify the county road and the berm.

“If we can’t come to an answer on this thing and solve it in a timely matter, perhaps we in state government can’t solve anything,” Olsen said.

Diehl, who represents local businesses on the four-man leadership team charged with figuring out how to restore the lake, says plans for rebuilding the road and strengthening the berm should be completed by mid-July. Construction could begin shortly after Labor Day. The state hopes to have the road open by Thanksgiving.

Refilling the lake will take a little longer.

“If I’m a betting person, I think at the end of February they close the gates and, depending on the winter runoff, it could be filled up in 45 days,” Diehl said.

Created in the mid-1920s by the damming of Dells Creek, Lake Delton encompassed about 250 acres, with an average depth of eight feet. In the 80 years since its creation, tourists from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minnesota turned the lake into a vacation hot spot.

Nearly 3 million people visited the area last year, pumping about $1 billion into the Badger State’s economy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue.

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