When the lake you live on is a seepage lake, one without an inlet or outlet, it loses water either by evaporation or through the ground, but every drop of rain makes it a little bit higher, like adding water from a faucet to a full bowl.
The situation is playing out in real time now on Pigeon Lake, a seepage lake just west of Drummond in Bayfield County. After years of drought, the lake level had dropped so much that by 2007 bare ground appeared on the west end, dividing the lake into two bodies of water.
But since 2014 the lake level has rebounded. After a major Father’s Day rain in June 2018 dropped more than 16 inches in 18 hours, portions of nearby roads were submerged and several homes around the lake were flooded. This year the flooding has worsened.
One idea being considered to resolve the Pigeon Lake flooding is pumping water out into another watershed. This solution would require approval from many government agencies and would come with a high price tag — if it ever happens.
At the Friday, June 21, Northwest Wisconsin Lakes Conference, two women from Pigeon Lake — Mary Hayes and Trish Bantle — talked about lake flooding in a seminar titled “Dealing with Lake High Water Levels.”
The two ladies were joined by Bill Huelsman from the Gilmore Lake Association in Washburn County. Gilmore Lake also experiences periodic flooding because its outlet flows into a narrow section of the Totogatic River with high banks, causing water to back up into the lake after heavy rains.
“Latest status, the water has risen another five feet since late last year,” Hayes said about Pigeon Lake. “County Highway N and the west end of Pigeon Lake Road were closed on the 21st of May after they raised N last fall and added a culvert and rip rap. Two more homes are uninhabitable. One is inaccessible totally and five more are threatened.”
On the good news front, Bantle said County Highway N was scheduled to be open last Thursday.
Hayes added large white pines that had bordered the lakes are now under water and are being threatened. After a recent 2½-inch rainfall, the lake level rose five inches more.
“Every rainfall we feel it,” Hayes said, “and we physically see it on the lake.”
Low point in the forest
Pigeon Lake is a low point that is surrounded by 5,000 acres of national forest. All the recent rainfall has saturated the ground and caused runoff to drain into the lake.
Three agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — “informally” are considering the option of pumping water out of the lake 1.5 miles to the southwest to Shuneberg Springs, a small body of water that feeds Shuneberg Creek, a class 2 trout stream.
Hayes said before a diversion can be considered a serious option there must be an expensive environmental impact study.
If a diversion were ever approved, it would pump water out at pace determined not to disturb the springs, or about 1.5 cubic feet per second. At that rate it would take months to have any noticeable impact on the Pigeon Lake level.
Bantle said as water is pumped out of the lake it would initially be replaced/recharged by saturated ground water in the surrounding forest, further delaying the impact to the lake.
In the early 2000s, the City of Shell Lake in Washburn County built a diversion system to remove high water from Shell Lake, another seepage lake that similarly had high water that flooded homes. Hayes said it took five to seven years for the Shell Lake project to be completed, including obtaining all the permits necessary to divert water into a trout stream that empties into the Yellow River.
The nearly two-mile Shell Lake system cost $1.7 million, with the federal government picking up $750,000 and local taxpayers paying the remainder.
Unlike Shell Lake, which has many lake residents, Pigeon Lake has only about 40 property owners who would bear the burden of the expensive infrastructure necessary for pumping, Hayes said. She added if the Pigeon Lake residents have to wait five years and rains continue to be heavy, many lake homes would become uninhabitable.
As of now, the two women said some people are considering either moving their homes or lifting them up.
The lake already has risen well over eight feet since 2014. If it rises another 6½ feet, water will spill over into the neighboring watershed, resulting in most homes being destroyed.
Hayes said she believes the recent large rain events are a product of climate change, and that more large rain events are likely.
But Bantle has seen short windows of time during which the lake level has recently receded a few inches and believes the lake might naturally recede if the rains are not so intense.
Since last fall, Hayes said, Bayfield County has spent $350,000 to raise county roads above flood levels. If the lake level continues to rise, the county is looking at building a bridge and eventually spending more than $1 million.
But Hayes believes a better long-term investment would be building the diversion pipe.
Where’s the money?
So far the women said there is no federal funding coming to the rescue. In April an application for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mitigation funds was denied because the lake is not officially considered part of a flood zone.
“We need to send them a photo,” Bantle said.
“What that meant for homeowners is that each would have to apply separately and each would have to have three separate flood events they could document and show losses for (with) detailed documentation of those losses,” Hayes said.
Bantle said the county can show three different occasions when local roads were raised because of flooding and FEMA may accept that as documentation.
Hayes said she has turned to every state and federal agency for help, but so far no long-term solution has been offered. Part of the problem, she said, is that government agencies are used to dealing with periodic flooding, but not with long-term flooding of the sort occurring at Pigeon Lake.