The day the lake disappeared

Have you ever built a lake? William Newman did. When the construction company owner from Chicago moved to Delton, Wisconsin in 1926, he immediately bought all of the land along both sides of Dell Creek and set to work to create his lake. One year later, a 30-ft high dam and 1000-ft long dike blocked the flow of water from Dell Creek into the Wisconsin River and a tourist mecca was born.

By J. A. Fagan Publishing Co., Madison, Wis. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today, Lake Delton is home to resorts and summer homes, as well as the famous Tommy Bartlett water ski show. Tourism has boomed in the surrounding Wisconsin Dells area as well. Waterparks breed like rabbits and an ever-growing assortment of go-karts, outlet stores, restaurants and hotels almost obscures the scenic woods and river dells that first brought visitors to the area.

For nearly 100 years, Lake Delton has remained a central attraction in the Wisconsin Dells area – except for the year that the lake disappeared.

By Barry Bahler/FEMA (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Problems began in the early morning of June 9, 2008, when a 12-in rainstorm caused flash-flooding in the region. Local residents sandbagged the area surrounding Lake Delton dam, but the water soon raised high enough to begin flowing over the road further north and into the Wisconsin River. Within a few hours, the road and dike beneath collapsed, creating a channel for water to exit the lake. By the end of the day, Lake Delton had washed away, carrying with it three homes and a whole lot of fish.

Today, Lake Delton is back again and, perhaps, better than ever. Local, state and federal partners worked together to repair the road and dam in less than a year. Residents organized a clean-up campaign and removed four dumpsters worth of garbage from the lake bottom before it refilled. On June 9, 2009, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle cut the ribbon and Lake Delton was born again.

The story of Lake Delton vividly illustrates the profound impact of humans on the natural landscape, and is also a stark reminder of the power of water. Through hard-work and ingenuity, we humans have dramatically changed the world around us to make our lives more livable. Streams that once ran through Minneapolis and St. Paul have been converted to underground pipes, wetlands were drained and filled to make room for buildings and parks. Even in our less-developed areas, intricate networks of ditches, pipes, and weirs ensure that lake levels stay relatively stable and homes are protected from floods.

Phalen Creek in St. Paul flowing through Swede Hallow. Now, the creek only exists as a series of pipes below ground, running from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River. The Swede Hallow settlement is gone as well. (Learn more about Phalen Creek at Image from Minnesota Historical Society [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Crafty as we may be, much of our current water infrastructure was built decades ago when weather patterns were different than they are today. Here in Minnesota, “mega-rainstorms” are getting larger and more frequent. Yesterday’s engineers built roads and pipes to withstand yesterday’s 100-year storms, but today’s 100-year storms wreak havoc in communities across the state including Duluth, Whitewater, and the northern St. Croix basin. Of the 15 mega-storms recorded in Minnesota since 1866, more than half have happened in the past 16 years.

As local communities adjust to a changing climate, some are working proactively to reduce the risk of flooding and minimize the impact of future storms. A variety of public, private and non-profit entities including Metropolitan Council, Barr Engineering, Freshwater Society, and Alliance for Sustainability have organized workshops to help cities build climate resiliency. Ramsey-Washington Metro and South Washington Watershed Districts co-hosted a workshop for southern Washington County last fall, and South Washington WD published a Climate Resiliency Plan in March of this year. Minneapolis and St. Paul now have sustainability coordinators on staff, and several large suburban cities do as well. “Resilience and Sustainability” is also a theme in the new 2040 Washington County Comprehensive Plan; the goal is to develop the capacity to respond, adapt, and thrive under changing conditions including, but not limited to, climate change.

Snake River hydrograph
A graph shows water level in the Snake River shooting up from 3-feet to 15-feet in 24hrs after a large storm. South Washington Watershed District’s new Climate Resiliency Plan seeks to reduce flooding risk by identifying vulnerable locations and stormwater infrastructure.

Earlier this month, my family visited Wisconsin Dells, just like 1.5 million other people do each year. We watched the sun set over the sparkling waters of Lake Delton, swam in the lake, and enjoyed both the river and lake from one of the Original Wisconsin Ducks.

William Newman eventually went broke during the Great Depression, but his lake lives on as a dream destination.