Geneva Lake is, by at least a measure of two, the largest lake in Walworth County. It is a deep lake, it is a clear lake, it is a lake that hosts the most expensive resort properties in the entire Midwest. This is what we know. Unfortunately this fall, we also know that the lake is down. It’s not just down in the way that it might normally be in the fall; it’s down below anywhere I’ve ever seen it before. When a lake is 144 or so feet deep, a foot off the top isn’t a big deal, except when it is. Right now, on Geneva Lake, the missing foot of water is about to become a really, really big deal.
The drought of this past summer is to blame, but that’s nature and nature is mostly infallible. At some point during this summer, Governor Walker made the obvious decision to declare a Drought Emergency. This is important to note. The theory goes that a drought is hardest on farmers, and so when such an emergency is declared it allows farmers to divert water from water ways (rivers, streams) and to use that water for irrigation. It’s a nice idea. Trout fisherman lost their minds over this decree, but agriculture is a larger industry and a more important one that trout fishing, at least to most, so the decision was understood.
The White River flows out of the East end of Geneva, pulling excess water off Geneva Lake and over the dam operated by the Geneva Lake Level Corporation. This dam is key to avoid any potential flooding of the Geneva shoreline, even if that threat is wildly remote. During this summer, during that horrible drought, the White River was in trouble. The water levels were low, the fish endangered, the kayak aficionados displeased. I mention the drought regulations above as a possible reason that the White River was lacking even more of its water, but that’s just supposition on my part.
At some point during our torrid July the DNR approached those gate keepers at the GLLC and asked that the dam be set to release a certain flow of water over that dam- water intended to replenish that water missing from the White River. When I say they “asked”, I meant to say they demanded it. The GLCC and friends, (The Geneva Lake Association, and to some degree, later, the Geneva Lake Conservancy) requested time to study the affect of this water loss on Geneva Lake. They asked nicely. Rumor has it that the DNR instead rejected their request for thoughtful consideration and ordered the dam opened immediately or a $1000 per day fine might be imposed. The dam was opened, the water released, the White River pleased. Geneva owners didn’t notice the low water all that much over the summer, but today when you combine a large purposeful loss of water with late summer drought and evaporation, the lake today is perhaps a
foot lower than we’d all like it to be. This is a bit of a problem.
But that’s what we already know, that the lake is low, not so low that the lake is impaired but low enough that some owners have had difficulty removing boats from shallow water lifts, and low enough that I’m betting several association and condominium boatslips that are shallow even during rainy years are now rendered useless. The impact of this water loss is an impact on the economy of lakefront owners, and it doesn’t appear to represent some ecological or environmental issue, but even so. With a lake surrounded by power players as Geneva is, you can expect a backlash and that backlash is growing. There are high level meetings taking place, appeals being considered, and legal action on the horizon. The DNR doesn’t shy from a fight, but when a small-ish river is usurping our clean water, there’s bound to be a battle over this precious commodity.
What of the White River? This river is, after all, the cause of most of this consternation. The lake would be lower because of the drought, as most lakes are, but perhaps 6″ lower and not 11″ lower. We’d understand an act of God, but an act of a governmental authority is bound to be questioned. The White River is a small river that flows from Geneva Lake through town and then out into the Knobs before joining some other river system that I don’t care about a ways to the East. If the White River were a trout steam, I’d know more about it, but it’s a stream that hosts mostly suckers and probably some carp and maybe a bass or a northern pike or two. I’m betting on bluegills in some of the stretches too. This river is far from a fishing hotspot, instead it’s just a river that flows over some land and then dumps into something else. As rivers go, it isn’t much of one. On pure merit, Van Slyke Creek in Fontana and Southwick Creek in Williams Bay are more noble, as they host at lease some native trout.
The DNR finding from this summer, the one that apparently caused the spillway to be opened to shed some more of our refreshing water, stated that, “the fish observed between Center Street and Burger King were found to be stressed”. Now, if we’re counting on bucolic descriptions of a river in order to increase our ympathies it should be noted that adding a fast food restaurant into the geographic description of any river doesn’t help drive home that emotion. The fish in that shallow little span of water were stressed. They said this as if it somehow had something to do with the water levels. As if it somehow had to do with the drought or the heat or the withering combination of both.
The truth is that these fish are stressed because they’re so close to Geneva but yet they are not in it. You’d be stressed too if you lived your short life within ear shot of Geneva Lake but never had the occasion to swim in it. I understand these fish. They are stressed and this is sad, but aside from these fish developing salmonoid instincts and abilities to such a degree that they could propel themselves over the GLLC’s dam, there is nothing we can do to help them. We might bring a bottle of water now and then, water that we scooped out of Geneva and carried over to the river side, and we’ll dump that water on them from time to time but this is about all we can do. Fish being stressed is a shame, but at least we can understand the source of their mostly emotional distress.
The lake level on Geneva is a big deal, it is. But it isn’t catastrophic. We have plenty of water, and this rain that has cursed my new construction project is doing a fine job at adding some much needed replenishment to the lake. It has also helped fill up the White River, so perhaps the DNR will release their grip on us. If you’re a fan of the lake but not a fan of a deep winter then there is a rub. We need a lot of snow this winter to help fill in those few missing inches, so if you’re like me and you while away winter in a sort of walking coma, then you’ll need to full on embrace a white landscape. For now, let’s not worry so much. Personally, I’m working with my accountant to see if I can write off my contribution to the White River as a charitable donation.