Wednesday, June 11, 2014 | FEATURE
A primer: The story of lakes and dams
Costs and benefits of water resources
Gregg Westigard | Staff writer
POLK COUNTY – Polk County has 473 lakes and 44 dams listed by the DNR. At present, two lakes and dams are in the news. The future of the Clam Falls dam and flowage and the Big Blake Lake and dam are both active issues and very different. They show the differences in the county’s lakes and dams, the differences in property ownership and public usage, the differences in costs.
The Clam Falls dam is a 36-foot-high, 90-foot-wide concrete structure that once was used to generate electricity. About 22 private properties and two campgrounds with 96 spots are next to the 119-acre flowage behind the dam. There is no lake association.
The Big Blake Lake dam is an old logging dam, half of which is soil on logs and half is piled rocks. It is possibly 5 feet tall and 30 feet wide (guessed numbers) on a 208-acre lake. There are 235 property owners on Big Blake and a 50-unit campground. The lake is an official lake district.
The DNR lists 473 Polk County lakes on its website but that number includes 224 unnamed lakes and some very small bodies including springs. There are 249 named lakes, eight of which are larger than 500 acres. The five largest are Balsam, Bone, Wapogasset, Cedar and Big Round. The lakeshore properties generate a very large portion of the county’s property taxes.
The term, lakes, is a catchall for a wide variety of water bodies with a lot of different uses. The large lakes are ringed by homes and a draw for tourists. There are remote lakes in the parks and wildlife areas accessible only by foot and pristine. There are rivers, which are sometimes dammed to create flowages. There are ponds on private property.
Residents around some of the larger lakes create organizations to help preserve and improve the lakes. Those organizations include associations with varying degrees of involvement, formal lake districts with taxing authority and sanitary districts that provide sewer and water services.
Wisconsin has enacted a Shoreland Protection Program to maintain and protect the state’s water resources and allowed the counties to establish more restrictive zoning standards. Polk County is now in the process of revising its shoreland regulations in an ordinance rewrite that is being reviewed by the public this summer.
The DNR lists 44 dams in Polk County. They vary in size from the power dam at St. Croix Falls to small earthen dams with ponds on private property. Two dams are now used to produce electricity. Polk County owns two dams at Atlas and Kennedy Parks. The DNR owns dams in Joel Marsh and Straight Lake Park. The towns and villages of Amery, Balsam Lake, Clam Falls, Milltown and Osceola all own dams. The earthen dam in the village of Balsam Lake, a former power dam, creates the impoundment or flowage of Balsam Lake, at 1,901 acres, the largest body of water in the county.
Dams were once built for commercial purposes including logging, milling and power. The Black Brook and St. Croix Falls dams are the only “working” dams left. The others create the impoundments that give the public and private owners their lakes and wildlife areas.
The DNR regulates and inspects dams out of concern for the safety and protection of people and property downstream from the dams, not the preservation of waterfront properties behind the dams. It rates dams according to the downstream hazard if a dam fails. Each dam has a rating and an inspection plan. Those plans vary from intense for a structure like St. Croix Falls to private monitoring by the property owner for low-risk dams.
Dams do fail. A private dam broke in northern Burnett County in the late 1990s and washed out Hwy. 35. A DNR dam under reconstruction in Straight Lake Wildlife Area failed and washed out property a mile down the Straight River. A dam on a pond east of Milltown caused a rush of water that closed roads for a day and almost reached Half Moon Lake.
The costs, the benefits, the risks
Each dam has an expense to keep it safe and solid. Except for the two dams now generating electricity, the benefit from the existing dams is to the property owners behind the dams. The risk of dam failures is downstream.
Dam owners and the public decide if the expense is worth the benefit to those upstream and the protection from risk of those downstream. At present, interested parties are looking at this cost/benefit balance at Clam Falls and Big Blake.