Mallalieu supporters hope lake doesn't get forgotten in dam effort
NORTH HUDSON — There's something bittersweet to Jim Thomas about the memories of children who caught their first fish in Lake Mallalieu.
He beams, thinking of kids gingerly handling a panfish or bass plucked from the Willow River impoundment just above the St. Croix River. The smile fades, though, as he contemplates the future that, in more ways than one, is cloudier than ever on Lake Mallalieu.
"We're concerned," Thomas, a North Hudson resident, said last week. "We're not seeing fish surfacing."
Those concerns stem from the massive influx of sediment that he and others on the lake fear is choking out the aquatic habitat necessary for fish.
The sediment has been pouring into the lake since the Little Falls Lake dam was breached upriver in 2015. The breach, which drained Little Falls Lake, occurred because Department of Natural Resources officials were concerned the dam wouldn't be able to sustain a heavy flood event.
The effort to rebuild the dam and restore Little Falls Lake scored its biggest victory yet in February when Gov. Scott Walker came to Willow River State Park to announce $19 million in state bonding funds for the project as part of his budget.
The announcement drew praise from park officials and area lawmakers, but there are few people keeping a closer eye on the legislation than Thomas and other members of the Lake Mallalieu Association.
With every passing second, every flow of the current, more sediment finds its way into Lake Mallalieu.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey report, things have only gotten worse. The agency has been measuring suspended sediment in Lake Mallalieu since 2014. The number of tons in 2014 and 2015 was about 2,600.
When officials measured suspended sediment last year, they recorded 36,225 tons.
"Nobody had any idea of the magnitude of how vast this would be," said Thomas, who testified last month before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee about sediment in Lake Mallalieu.
He and other supporters of the dam project, including association member Warren Schneider, are hoping lawmakers can find a way to fund Lake Mallalieu cleanup as part of the effort, or at least approve a study of the sediment impact on aquatic life in the lake.
"Remediation of the downstream damage is essential," Schneider said. "Because Lake Mallalieu is a critical community resource."
In addition to fish habitat concerns, Thomas said upriver boat navigation has become impaired by mounds of muck that have built up. Recreation has begun to suffer, too.
It wasn't all that long ago Lake Mallalieu residents would spend the Fourth of July holiday frolicking on a sandbar at the mouth of the lake. As recently as 2015, neighbors would gather there after the annual boat parade and play round after round of volleyball, splashing around on the sandy deposit. It was a routine Thomas helped organize, but it's now one of many lake activities he fears could be history, thanks to the influx of sediment.
The spot where revelers once bumped volleyballs is now pile of muck that no one dares go near, he said.
"You can't even walk in it anymore," he said.
A delicate dance
Mallalieu supporters are being cautious not to push too hard, though, for remediation funds. It's a delicate dance — lobbying for lake cleanup, but not pushing it to the detriment of the overall funding request.
That's the last thing Thomas wants to derail.
Sen. Sheila Harsdorf said she understands that aspect. The River Falls Republican who, along with former Rep. Dean Knudson, led the effort at the Capitol for dam restoration funding in 2015, said DNR officials are taking a "first things first" approach to the project.
That means securing the $19 million and stabilizing the situation, Harsdorf said.
"It makes sense to wait until after the dam project is completed," she said of remediation efforts on Mallalieu.
The degree to which the DNR has Lake Mallalieu cleanup on it radar, however, doesn't appear certain.
Cameron Bump, a DNR parks and recreation specialist, said the department is aware of silt issues in the lake, but said what's there isn't completely attributable to the Little Falls Lake dam breach.
"It comes from the entire watershed," he said.
Of the suspended sediment noted in the report, Bump said much of that is transitory and will pass through the lake, since it's part of a riverine system. He said some piles of sediment building up in the lake will move on as stormwater impacts the braided network of the Willow River flowage above Lake Mallalieu.
Remediation plans for the lake aren't something Bump said he's aware of.
"At the current time, that's not part of the project," he said.
Thomas and Schneider said they'll continue to lobby lawmakers for Lake Mallalieu cleanup even after the dam project gets final legislative approval.
Harsdorf said prospects are encouraging in Madison for the $19 million dam project. Having Walker include it in his budget helped move the figurative ball closer to the end zone, she said.
That might yet mean convincing lawmakers who balk at the overall size of Walker's bonding request, "but I still feel optimistic that we will have the support that we need," Harsdorf said.
Thomas, who spent last week appealing to community access TV viewers and urged fellow lake association members to lobby lawmakers, said the effort — even if it requires more patience — will be worth it.
"I want to continue to watch children catch their first fish on Lake Mallalieu," he said.