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The fight continues: slimy water, dam disagreements, and politics on Dead Pike Lake

Ben Meyer/WXPR
The view of Dead Pike Lake from Gale Wolf's property.

Gale Wolf’s strongest lake memories date to 1961.

“The lake at that time was absolutely gorgeous,” he remembered, sitting in a waterfront cabin built that year.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Gale Wolf, 90, has had a home on Dead Pike Lake since 1961.

Wolf has been here on Dead Pike Lake for six decades, seeing 60 years of change, according to him.

The 90-year-old Wolf used to put in a pier. But he doesn’t anymore, and it’s not because of age.

“Who’s going to use the beach?” he asked. “It was wonderful. It’s heartbreaking to see it now.”

Wolf says his property value has fallen $120,000, largely due to a smelly, slimy substance called iron floc in the lake’s water. Lake-wide assessed values have dropped $1.2 million because of the floc, according to Wolf.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Iron floc on Dead Pike Lake.

The reddish-orange iron floc is common in Dead Pike Lake. It’s created when iron dissolved in groundwater is exposed to air, oxidizes, and attracts bacteria. The process is natural, but the results are unsightly.

About 77 percent of the lake’s water seeps in from iron-rich groundwater, with only 23 percent flowing in on the surface, according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

But Wolf says it wasn’t always like that, pointing his finger at a state-owned neighbor.

“The [water on the marsh] is an elevation which is pushing the groundwater through to Dead Pike Lake,” Wolf said. “This is where our problem stems from.”

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Powell Marsh State Wildlife Area, whose ditch-and-dike structure was created by the DNR in the 1950s, lies just upstream of Dead Pike Lake.

Just upstream from the lake is the expansive Powell Marsh State Wildlife Area, which the DNR created in the 1950s by installing water control structures and 14 miles of ditches and dikes.

Lake proponents say the water pressure in the manufactured wetland forces groundwater, rich in iron, into Dead Pike Lake.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Water control structures and 14 miles of ditches are designed to create wildlife habitat at Powell Marsh.

Rip out the infrastructure, return the marsh to its natural form, and Dead Pike Lake will be saved, they say.

“This lake represents an opportunity for people to get a sense of what a pristine northern Wisconsin lake still can look like. But they’re polluting it,” said Wolf. “Our own Department of Natural Resources has contributed significantly to environmental damage and to the loss of property rights for the citizenry that’s here.”

People like Wolf reference a 2011 management plan by Barr Engineering, which cooperated with the Dead Pike Lake Association to create the document. The plan calls it “obvious” that man-made structures in the marsh “are directly responsible” for the iron issue.

That management plan was never approved by the DNR. Furthermore, 2002 USGS modeling found removing structures in the marsh would actually increase the share of groundwater coming into Dead Pike Lake.

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Gale Wolf
The sheen of iron floc on Dead Pike Lake's shoreline, as seen in summer 2021.

Some scientists say the accusation that the DNR is “polluting” Dead Pike Lake goes too far.

“It’s just the area, in my opinion. The geology, it’s high in iron. You find it in that area. In similar streams and lakes, you’ll find the same phenomena [of iron floc presence] occurring,” said Jim Kreitlow.

Kreitlow is a retired DNR water resources biologist. He worked for the agency for 31 years and his efforts on Dead Pike Lake spanned two decades.

Kreitlow says iron-rich groundwater is an inescapable feature of parts of western Vilas County. That type of groundwater naturally leads to more floc.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Gale Wolf gestures to a map of the Manitowish Waters area. Wolf's hand is on Powell Marsh and Dead Pike Lake is just north.

Instead of accepting their fate, Dead Pike Lake proponents like Gale Wolf would rather affix their gaze on deconstructing Powell Marsh.

But that may be a stretch.

The next best solution, in their eyes, is building a dam to raise the water level of Dead Pike Lake. The extra water would create downward pressure, blocking some iron-rich groundwater from seeping in.

The dam idea has drawn the attention of prominent Republicans. U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, then a state Senator, once testified on the topic before the Natural Resources Board. This year, dam supporters successfully lobbied Republicans to earmark $125,000 for the dam in the state biennial budget.

Everything’s set for the Town of Manitowish Waters to build and own the dam, said James Yach, the DNR Secretary’s Director for northern Wisconsin.

“All of the regulatory requirements for the construction of the dam have been submitted. They’ve been approved,” Yach said. “They’re basically ready to go.”

Kreitlow, the former DNR scientist, said a dam can’t solve the iron issue, but it probably will help a bit.

The DNR believed all along the Town of Manitowish Waters would own the dam. After all, the town had said it would do so on the permit applications.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Manitowish Waters Town Chair John Hanson.

“We ultimately agreed to [own it last year] just to keep the project going,” said Manitowish Waters Town Chair John Hanson.

But this year, the town changed course, with Hanson insisting the DNR take ownership. Dam ownership brings with it costs, responsibilities, and potential legal liability.

“If they say, you still got to own it, then we’ve got a problem. We’re not going to own it,” Hanson said. “It’s on principle. It’s on the fact that [the DNR] controls 12 dams above it anyway.”

Last week, the town board backed Hanson with a unanimous vote, breaking off negotiations with the DNR over dam ownership.

For its part, the DNR has stood firm, saying it will let the dam plan expire and cancel the permits before owning the dam itself.

“Because of the private property inholdings that are on the lake, because of the grant eligibility and financial concerns that the Department is not eligible for, it was deemed that the township would need to own this,” Yach said.

In fact, said Yach, the DNR would have never agreed to recommend a dam if it knew Manitowish Waters seek to offload ownership.

But Hanson and the town have now gone the political route again, lobbying legislators to compel the DNR to own the dam or, better yet, get rid of those miles of ditches and dikes forming Powell Marsh. The ultimate fate of the plans remains unclear.

Wisconsin DNR
A map of the area including Powell Marsh and Dead Pike Lake.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the decades-long fight over Dead Pike Lake is its scope.

In just the last five years, the DNR has allocated $254,000 to spending on various studies and projects regarding the lake, not including thousands of staff working hours.

But the 300-acre lake is sparsely populated.

There are roughly 20 private properties on Dead Pike Lake.

According to Gale Wolf, his family is one of just three living there year-round.