Controversial Water Management Plan on Manitowish Chain Won't Change Until at Least 2023

Apr 26, 2021

The October flow through the Rest Lake Dam in Vilas County.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The controversial drawdown plan on the Manitowish Chain of lakes will continue for at least two more years under an extended agreement between the DNR and Xcel Energy.

The parties signed a memorandum of understanding that will keep the water-management plan in place through 2023.

Each October, water levels on the 10-lake chain are drawn down three and a half feet by releasing water through the Rest Lake Dam.

That protects permanent docks, boathouses, and seawalls from winter ice damage.

However, it also disrupts the natural flow of the Manitowish River by flooding it in the fall instead of the spring.

That plan will continue for at least two more years under a new memorandum of understanding.

“The MOU is an agreed-upon operating regime that took place between all of the stakeholders in an experimental fashion that kind of dictates when the drawdowns will begin, how far they will draw down, and then when the refill is to begin,” said the DNR Secretary’s Director for northern Wisconsin, James Yach.

Part of the reason it won’t change is because it hasn’t been tested during a low-water year yet.

“For almost the entire duration of this experimental period, we’ve had high water levels throughout the North. So this operation regime that’s identified in the memorandum of understanding between the parties has never been exercised in a low water year, when the water is scarce. That’s the other thing, too. We don’t have a really good data set to base anything off of because we don’t have an example for low water,” Yach said.

A similar drawdown plan has been in place since the 1930s.

Many property-owners on the Manitowish Chain support it, while environmentalists and people living on the Manitowish River have issues with the pattern.

Yach says those people will be heard over the next few years.

“We’re going to be starting a series of meetings over the course of the next couple of years to talk about more substantive issues that relate to the Rest Lake MOU, so we’re looking forward to that,” Yach said.