Water levels in FERC hands after DNR supports hike

Recommendation to be sent Thursday

Leader Photo by Greg Mellis DNR members give presentations and answer questions during Wednesday’s water meeting in Shawano.

Leader Photo by Greg Mellis Shawano Area Waterways Management board members attend Wednesday’s Department of Natural Resources water meeting in Shawano. From left, Jeff Puissant, Tim Day, state Sen. Robert Cowles and Tony Zielinski.

Water levels on the Wolf River, channel and Shawano Lake are now solely in the hands of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said it would support raising those levels during the non-winter months.

The DNR previously said it had no objections to higher water levels, but a new recommendation to FERC expected to be sent Thursday will more explicitly state the department is in support of raising the levels.

The DNR held a meeting Wednesday at the Shawano County Courthouse with several board members of Shawano Area Waterways Management (SAWM), officials from Shawano County, the city of Shawano and the village of Cecil, and representatives from Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, which operates the Shawano dam.

The dam was mandated by FERC last month to reduce its target elevation from 802.9 feet mean sea level (msl) to 802.5 feet msl, resulting in a difference of more than four inches in the water level for the river, channel and lake.

Officials at SAWM say water levels are 5-6 inches below normal, though other estimates have placed that closer to 8-10 inches.

Boaters have been urged to use caution navigating the Wolf River and channel and the lower water levels have resulted in multiple reports of damage to boats since the new level went into effect.

“We’re in a situation where there are health and safety concerns and the risk of injury and death,” said SAWM board member Tony Zielinski.

“This is a very serious issue,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before we’re going to have to explain why we didn’t raise (the water level) quickly and somebody got hurt.”

In addition to health and safety concerns, there’s also an economic impact, noted Shawano County Administrative Coordinator Brent Miller, who said the lower water level was dampening tourism.

“Right now we generate about $67 million in sales tax annually (from summer recreation),” he said. “A lot of businesses are supported entirely by these summer months.”

DNR officials also heard an impassioned plea from Shawano County Supervisor Gene Hoppe, who represents the town of Wescott.

“Every day is costing us money,” he said. “It’s costing us time in the zone where everybody’s going on vacation. Please don’t hesitate. Let’s get going on this.”

Cheryl Laatsch, DNR program coordinator and liaison to FERC, said the recommendation would urge quick action to raise the water level at the dam.

“We would support that the action plan of raising it to 802.9 would happen effective immediately,” she said.

“We’ll make it as clear as we possibly can to them that this is critical to get done ASAP,” added Jean Romback-Bartels, DNR secretary’s director for Northeast Wisconsin.

The recommendation the DNR will send to FERC calls for raising the water level to 802.9 during the non-winter months and lowering it to 802.5 when the waterways are frozen over.

The meeting was also attended by State Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, who has been pushing for a resolution to the water levels issue.

“There seems to be a consensus among most people that we’ve got to fix this thing now,” Cowles said. “Every agency has a little bureaucracy and we see the bureaucracy here in the DNR. FERC has another bureaucracy. We’ve got to somehow cut through that so we don’t lose this season.”

Cowles has also contacted U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s office in hopes of putting additional pressure on the federal agency to act.

Shawn Puzen of Mead & Hunt, a consulting firm working with Eagle Creek, said it’s unclear how long it will take FERC to react.

However, he said, Eagle Creek was waiting for FERC to respond to comments provided during a 30-day input period on the issue by June 10.

“My hope is we can come to some resolution going forward here to meet that June 10 response,” Puzen said.

He also said Eagle Creek is asking FERC for an expedited review of the matter.

Cowles said water levels should rise quickly once FERC makes a decision.

“We’re getting all the information to FERC and waiting for them to react,” he said. “Once they react, the water should go up immediately.”

An additional complication in all this is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking at updating floodplain maps.

“They’re thinking of starting the process of mapping the entire Wolf River watershed next year,” said Meg Galloway, the DNR’s chief of dams and floodplain section.

She said it could take seven to 10 years before any changes in floodplain actually take effect.

“That could be a long way off,” Galloway said.

The current water level situation stems from a complaint made to FERC about high water levels back in May 2015.

Eagle Creek subsequently acknowledged in a letter to FERC that the dam did exceed headwater elevations on three occasions in 2013 and 2014 due to above-average amounts of precipitation.

Dam operations were automated in 2016, resulting in more consistent water levels.

FERC mandated Eagle Creek to lower its target level to 802.5 feet msl after the 2015 complaint, but the dam won a temporary variance from FERC, allowing it to operate at its previous higher level until a study could be completed showing the higher level was not causing any problems.

That variance has since expired, and FERC ordered Eagle Creek last month to return to a target elevation of 802.5 feet msl, at least for the time being.

The dam had been operating at 802.9 feet for about 30 years before the 2015 complaint.