Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Volunteers play key role in maintaining healthy Wisconsin lakes


Cambridge, Wis. — Anglers interested in learning more about lake and water quality in the areas that they live and fish can do so by participating in one of the state’s 225 lake management districts.

By doing so, sportsmen can also contribute to the health of lakes and wetlands in their area.

Lake district volunteers work to monitor and improve water quality. They also help others better understand their lakes.

The Lake Ripley Lake Management District (LRLMD), in Jefferson County, has held pontoon outings for local school students since 2015 and this year sponsored an outing on the lake for local residents.

Lisa Griffin, LRLMD manager, said that as with many lakes the biggest concern is the amount of phosphorous that enters Lake Ripley.

“Too much phosphorous spurs algae growth and impacts recreational use on the lake,” she said.

Though phosphorous reduction is a major effort, Griffin said that so too “is keeping invasive species out of the lake and stopping their spread to other lakes.”

Many boats trailer between Lake Ripley and Madison lakes.

Lake Ripley, at 423 acres, was formed by a glacier.

The watershed feeding the lake covers 8 square miles, or about 5,100 acres. According to Griffin, it takes about 2.8 years from the time that water enters the lake at its inlet to then leave at its outlet on the opposite side.

Thirty-nine species of fish have been documented. The state’s record 11-pound, 3-ounce largemouth bass was caught from the lake Oct. 12, 1940, by Robert Milkowski.

Invasive species include the common carp, Eurasian water milfoil, hybrid milfoil (a hybrid of Eurasian water milfoil and northern water milfoil), curly-leaf pondweed, zebra mussels, Chinese mystery snails, phragmites, and purple loosestrife.

Phragmites and loosestrife have been targeted and reduced.

Educational efforts

Griffin, manager since 2014, believes the pontoon outings are valuable for students and local residents. Students get to monitor stream flow near the inlet for water quality and visit the district’s upstream 110-acre preserve to understand how what is done on the land affects the lake.

The district also makes prairie plants available to lakeshore residents to help reduce sediment flowing into the lake, and encourages the use of rain gardens.

During the outing, 12 lakeshore residents divided onto three pontoon boats and each then visited three different lake monitoring stations.

Paul Garrison, retired DNR researcher, showed how scientists examine lake sediments. Garrison worked for 39 years in research and has experience sampling Lake Ripley.

Garrison used a “torpedo” to drop a plastic tube down to the marl bottom and obtain a core sample to understand how the lake’s ecology has changed during the past 150 years.

Garrison summarized a general timeline around the lake, starting when the original land surveys first began in 1835. The lake was originally called Lake Dow, named after an early settler.

Settlement began in the 1840s and by the early 1900s the lake became a popular summer resort area. Two large hotels and three smaller hotels, along with many cottages, were popular with visitors from Chicago.

In the 1940s, agriculture became more mechanized, with larger tractors plowing more cropland. Following World War II, former ammunition factories turned to producing fertilizer.

Several wetlands were drained and small streams were channelized. Phosphorous and sediments increased tremendously.

By the 1990s the lake became a priority watershed, which funded lake studies.

A lake plan was created that included plugging some of the drainage ditches, repairing ditch banks, and stabilizing shorelines.

Studies in other lakes proved that many algae blooms were caused by phosphorous.

“Priority watersheds have had a positive impact on the lake. The lake’s water quality now is really better than it has been,” Garrison said. “The lake is aging, as the things that humans do around the lake has an adverse impact on water quality.”

Nutrients and sediments speed up the natural “aging” process of lakes.

Patricia Cicero, water resources management specialist for the Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department, conducts aquatic plant surveys, water quality monitoring, and shoreland habitat assessments.

She demonstrated how she uses a special rake to take samples of submergent vegetation using a grid system in lakes.

“There are more than 300 points that we go to on Lake Ripley, determining how many plants and what species they are,” Cicero said. The lake holds about 31 species of plants.

Only about 3 percent of the plants are the invasive Eurasian water milfoil that can cause problems for boaters and anglers.

Some of the native species include sago pondweed, Fries’ pondweed, flat-stemmed pondweed, wild celery, white-water crowfoot, bladderwort, white water lily, and spatterdock lily.

Cicero said that besides providing food for waterfowl, deer and muskrats, shelter and spawning grounds for fish, vegetation takes nutrients out of the water and reduces the amount of algae.

“Plants also help with water clarity and reduce sediment in the water. They provide lots of benefits,” Cicero said.

She cautions lake homeowners who want to clear out vegetation in front of their cottages. Doing so could open space to be filled in by invasive species.

Lake Ripley District

John Molinaro, Lake Ripley Management District board chair, has been involved with the lake for 30 years and the district since it was formed in 1990.

The district began, Molinaro recalls, when residents noticed Eurasian water milfoil in the lake and people literally couldn’t back their boats off their pier.

To try to do something, they raised $45,000 to buy a used lake weed cutter and dump truck. He and other volunteers ran the harvester.

“I had never done anything like that before, but I enjoyed it and it led to the formation of the lake district,” Molinaro said. “We’re in the business of cleaning up the lake, and we’ll only tax what is absolutely necessary to do that.”

The district has been able to get donations and grants that helped to buy 110 acres to protect the lake inlet, and keep silt and nutrients from entering the lake.

Currently, the DNR is selling a wetland between LRLMD land and Lake Ripley; they are raising money to buy those 40 acres.

“This has caused a stir, because a local resident originally donated that land to the DNR to protect the lake,” Molinaro said. “Basically, the DNR is taking land that was given to them for nothing and now selling it to raise money.”

Molinaro said that lake bottom core samples show where sediment increased markedly when white settlers entered the area, but since the district has been in existence the sediment has leveled out and has not increased.

“With increased lake use, it is positive that it is not going backwards,” he said.

Molinaro enjoys fishing and has increased his knowledge by being involved in the district, such as discovering and reading A Sand County Almanac, and meeting environmental people from all over the state through UW-Extension Lakes.

Molinaro said they are trying to do everything they can to make the lake better, though he is now seeing resistance from the legislature and DNR on environmental protections.

Statewide lake districts

Eric Olson, director of UW-Extension Lakes, provides support, resources, and training for lake district volunteers.

Lake districts are local units of government, and only Minnesota and Michigan have similar organizations. In the 1960s Wisconsin recognized that lakes had local economic development potential. By having the ability to tax all local residents, districts can raise money for lake protection and improvement programs that benefits everybody in the region.

Additional funds come from highway taxes on gasoline sold for use on boats, which is funneled to DNR for water resources projects.

Olson said that lake associations had existed for more than 100 years, but they were struggling until legislation in 1974 recognized lake districts, and the important role they can play. The districts meet once a year in Stevens Point for a conference

“A lot of newer districts are forming because of the presence of aquatic invasive species,” Olson said.

For many lakes the challenge is prevention, keeping invasive species out of the lake, or management of species that are already present.

Other concerns are lakes that are formed by dams, and districts can deal with dam repair and replacement, and excessive nutrients such as phosphorous.

“Under the Healthy Lakes Program, shoreland property owners can help to be part of the solution with buffers and storm-water diversion practices, as well as farmers who can do watershed-friendly farming to reduce phosphorous,” Olson said.

Lake districts have a board of commissioners that make decisions. Some commissioners are elected, another is appointed by a local government, and another appointed by the county. They must hold an annual meeting to set a budget.

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