In 2008, when it was proposed that three culvert pipes be replaced in a small creek that connects Birch Lake with Big Bearskin Lake in the Town of Cassian, lake property owners had little concern. After all, there were reassurances from Department of Natural Resource (DNR) personnel that water levels would remain the same, and the culvert replacement was only taking place to make the road above them safer.
But within a week of the culverts being replaced, Birch Lake dropped close to a foot, and a small lake that flowed into Birch from its east end almost dried up. This lake was home to an eagle’s nest and a popular place for ducks, geese and other wildlife to rear their young. The outlet creek where the culverts were placed was lowered so much several property owners could not use their boats and wildlife at this end also took a hit, including spawning fish and nesting birds.
As a concerned citizen, I listened to unrelenting stories of lake owners having to extend their docks, propellers wrecked on newly shallow rock piles and sand bars, and of wildlife disappearing where before it was plentiful. Many concerned property owners wanted to take matters into their own hands and plug the culverts, but lake property owners upstream were suddenly concerned with water levels in Big Bearskin. Now skepticism and mistrust were evident between these two organizations, where before camaraderie and cooperation were the name of the game.
Pleas, letters and lots of phone calls to various entities brought no answers or solutions to the problem, and as the years have passed, property owners have been forced to adjust to the lower water levels, but the grumbling never stopped. Yet, I have always been sorry that a better solution was not worked out; that a line of communication could not have been opened before and after these culverts were replaced.
As a supervisor in the Town of Little Rice, Senator Tiffany and his constituents there are also facing a culvert replacement that could drastically change a water flow situation in that township.
But legislators have been working diligently to improve relations between the DNR and the people of Wisconsin. And that includes the agency’s secretary, Cathy Stepp, who, when she was appointed by Governor Scott Walker in 2010 to head this agency, stated that she wanted to “streamline environmental permitting and encourage a focus on customer service.”
That opened the door for lawmakers to change several policies and they have been successful in many respects. One change has been that more power has been allowed for local governments to manage situations where culverts, and lake levels, are concerned.
Last Friday, Senator Tiffany gathered a contingency of DNR officials to tour three sites in the Lakeland area where culverts had been replaced in recent years. One of those sites was at Birch Lake; one was on Thompson Lake in Rhinelander and the third was a culvert that was replaced in Johnson Creek near Minocqua. Those who would be on the tour included Matt Moroney, deputy secretary of the DNR; David Siebert, bureau director of the DNR; Ken Johnson, administrator for the Division of Water; and John Gozdzialski, northern regional director of the DNR. Freeman Bennett, Oneida County highway commissioner, was also included. The group wanted to see first-hand how policies can affect natural resources.
“No two situations are alike and that, in a lot of ways, is why many of these policies have to be changed,” Tiffany said. “My concern is that there is a disconnect between the people in the field and those making or changing policies. It’s important for everyone to see how policies really work, or don’t, in the real world.”
Denny Thompson, an Oneida County supervisor and treasurer of the Friends of Birch lake Club, also met the group when they toured the culverts that so drastically changed Birch Lake. “I give all these guys lots of credit for coming out and looking at this,” he said. “I see it as a good example that maybe we can all work together instead of one agency having all the power.”
And Sen. Tiffany agrees. “I really appreciate that they took the time to come up here and look at these issues,” he said.
So, will there be solutions to the environments that have been so drastically changed by former policies which included culvert replacements? “I think the first step is getting everyone together to look at the problems,” said Tiffany. “But I’m feeling confident that solutions can be worked out. The important thing is everyone is now communicating.”