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Reservoirs levels in northern Wisconsin drop as drought conditions continue

The banks of the Rainbow Reservoir. Water levels have dropped in recent months exposed tree roots and lake bottom.
Stephanie Boismenue
The banks of the Rainbow Reservoir. Water levels have dropped in recent months exposed tree roots and lake bottom.

Some reservoirs in Northern Wisconsin are seeing water levels drop due to the drought.

As WXPR reported Monday, nearly 80% of the state is experiencing drought conditions.

This spring brought heavy rains and rapid snowmelt that quickly filled reservoirs in the Northwoods, but since that early wet spring, conditions have been mostly dry.

Since June 1st, Rhinelander’s had a precipitation deficit of 4.27 inches. Overall for the year, it’s down about three inches.

Peter Hansen is the Executive Officer of operations and dam safety for the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company, the group that manages that flow.

He says the reservoir isn’t near historic lows, but it is quite a change from this spring.

“Even this spring we had locations, we had one location up in Lincoln County, where the flow was the second highest in history. So we went from that to you from May 1st on just nothing, nothing of any benefits. So it's interesting how it plays out, but it just shows how fast conditions can dry up,” said Hansen.

The drought is having a direct impact on reservoirs like the Rainbow near Lake Tomahawk in Oneida County. It’s one of five manmade reservoirs WVIC manages.

It’s dropped nearly 10 feet in the last three months.

Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company

“Those reservoirs have been struggling. Some of them are down under 50% of capacity. And the base flows in the Wisconsin River are just low here in July and August. So we've been having to supplement really like more than 50% of the flow that's needed in the river,” said Hansen.

WVIC is federally required to maintain a certain level of flow on the Wisconsin River.

It has initiated drought contingency plans.

No operational changes have been made yet, but that could change as soon as this week.

Hansen says major rainfall is needed to make improvements in the reservoirs and even then, they likely won’t see much change until fall.

“Right now, the grass needs moisture. It kind of soaks everything in. We just don't see a lot of runoff. We'll need at least average to above-average rain in September/October to help things a little bit. But when I look at the forecast, at least the next couple of weeks up to at least Labor Day, we are looking dry and water levels will remain down,” said Hansen.

Hansen warns people boating on the reservoirs to be cautious.

“Even when they're full, they can provide some maybe hazards that other lakes wouldn't have. Because in essence, we flooded the timber areas and so, being down like we are, there's definitely maybe more risk for damage to a boat,” said Hansen.

You can view water levels on the WVIC’s website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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