Photo of Common Loon with chick on its Back

Big Business Wipes Out 30% of Local Loon Population

This Fall I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the phenomena associated with living on a flowage with a dam. Conversations with neighbors were often supplanted by “when is the water level going to come up?” I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about living on a flowage.

The wilderness-loving part of me wishes that our flowage was totally natural, a pristine artifact of the last glacial retreat. When visitors praise the flowage as being “as close to Canada as you can get in Wisconsin”, I find myself explaining that our flowage is amazing, but it was created by the scions of industry for economic purposes and it is in a sense – artificial.

What made my ponderings this Fall so different? After all, our own former State governor, Tommy Thompson, labeled the Turtle Flambeau Flowage (TFF) “the crown jewel of Wisconsin” in 1992 when the State purchased 95% of the land surrounding the flowage in order to preserve it in its natural, untouched, state for eons to come.

What changed my thinking was the crime that big business, a gas and electric conglomerate (Big Energy for short. The company wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.) based in Minneapolis, had committed a crime against recreationalists in the Upper Mid-West, property owners who live on the banks of the TFF, and Northwoods wildlife. Yet Big Energy was apathetic about their actions, and pretended as if nothing ever happened.

The crime was committed in the summer of 2012. The evidence presented in this post proves that Big Energy was the perpetrator of the crime, and the victims are many.

The Crime Scene

Take a look at the photo gallery and maps that accompany this post in order to learn, exactly, where this event took place.

The huge TFF, the second largest body of fresh water in Wisconsin, was created for flood control in 1926. A dam was constructed on the Flambeau River and the waters of the flowage backed up behind it creating an impoundment that encompasses over 14,000+ acres of water and 1,000’s of forested or rock islands.

The TFF is a recreational paradise. Over the summer, thousands from the Mid-west states vacation here, fill the resorts,  boat, ski, swim, fish, canoe, and camp on the of islands which dot the flowage, or take excursions with guides in order to observe wildlife in their native habitat.

Five percent of the land surrounding the TFF is occupied by waterfront homeowners. On the TFF map in the photo gallery, the land surrounding the flowage in green is state-owned. Land that is colored white is private land. All navigable lakes and streams in Wisconsin are owned by the WDNR. These are marked in blue.

It’s Big Energy’s responsibility to manage the dam and the water level of the flowage.

That’s the problem. Big Energy’s priority in managing the dam is for profit generation through the creation and sale of electricity. Their priority conflicts with the priority of all other stakeholders who want the dam managed for acceptable water levels for recreational activities and the protection of the wildlife that consider the TFF to be their home.

Why aren’t dams in Wisconsin managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) whose priorities are people and wildlife? That’s a good question for which you will never get the same answer. My personal opinion is that, like most states, Wisconsin is broke. And managing all the dams in the state can be a very expensive undertaking. The WDNR already owns and manages all navigable water including lakes, streams, and flowages in the State. They just don’t own and manage dams.

The Crime 

So what was the crime that made those who use and live on the TFF victims during the summer of 2012?

It was Big Energy’s management of the water level, or better stated, lack of management of the water level, or even better stated Big Energy’s apathy towards people and wildlife that live on and use the TFF. The evidence will show that Big Energy’s actions during that summer were the exact opposite of what was needed in order to protect and sustain wildlife and people using the flowage.

People who intended to use the flowage for recreation often found that thought to be wishful thinking last summer.  Water levels were low for much of the summer. The wildlife and game fish experienced a worse situation.  Spring water levels were so low that game fish could not reach their spawning beds and were forced to re-absorb their eggs. Mid-summer water levels were so high that 30% of the nesting loons on the flowage lost their nests and eggs to flooding. The full impact of Big Energy’s actions will not be known until next spring when the year class of game fish can be measured. Whether the 26 pairs of nesting loons on the TFF will return from their wintering grounds in Florida is questionable due to the loss of their nests, which they use year after year.

In summary, the victims of Big Energy’s failure to manage water level highs and lows by either opening the dam further when it’s high and shutting it when it’s low, are vacationers, and property owners who use the flowage, as well as wildlife and game fish who live on or in the flowage.

The Evidence

Open the historical water level charts ——>here.<——– The charts will open in a new window (tab) so you can flip back-and-forth as you read.

On the chart labeled “TFF Spring Refill Elevations, 2011, 2012”, note the vertical line that indicates when loon incubation begins. In 2012, what was the water level trend? It was rising, rather sharply.

Loons know nothing of water level management. Their nests are always within 3″-6” of the shore. That is their habit. By the second week of May, they would be occupying their nest and preparing to lay their eggs.

By the end of incubation in the first week of July, what happened to the water level? It rose eight inches since incubation began, thereby flooding the loon’s nests and causing the newly laid eggs to float away. The water level reached it highest point for that summer, and they began to drop off sharply.

Could something have been done to prevent the flooding of loon nests? Yes.  On the chart labeled “Trend of Flowage Discharge Rate”, how much water was Big Energy letting through the dam in May? Three hundred cubic feet per second (cps) was passing through the dam for the entire month even though the water level was rising rapidly beginning on May 1. Loon incubation began in the second week of May.

How much water was being let through the dam in June? A little over three hundred cubic feet per second for most of the month, even though the water level had reached its highest point of the summer. Bit Energy did not open the dam further to increase the outflow of water until mid-June. But by then it was too late. Loon incubation was done. Nests and eggs had already washed away.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the “TFF Spring Refill Elevations, 2011, 2012” chart again. But this time, let’s look at the graph line for 2011. The water level started out higher in early May. It was at the same level when loon incubation began the second week of May. And then it declined for the remainder of the summer. Loon nesting and incubation was accomplished successfully.

Two friends of mine live on the flowage and studied the aftermath (the physical evidence) of the mis-manged water level’s adverse impact on loon nesting. They are both WDNR research biologist. Since Big Energy’s management of the dam did not accomplish fool pool by April 20th, these two biologist saw the loon nesting devastation coming long before anyone else. So they set up twenty trail cameras at selected nests to observe how serious the problem would be.

They commented, “when you spend eight hours a day studying loons, you gain a strong appreciation for the effort these birds put into each nest attempt.” A loon will attempt to nest three times per season before they discard their eggs. The more these two researchers saw, the more they cursed the dam and Big Energy’s reckless management of the water level. The devastation was photographed. Thirty percent of nests on mainland or island shores were flooded, with eggs floating. Nests located on floating bogs fared better since floating bogs rise with rising water levels.

What should Big Energy have done to prevent the events of 2012? Increased outflow at the dam in the beginning of May when the water level began to rise sharply. The sharp rise in water level was caused entirely by rain. So what was taking place was pretty obvious to everyone, except Big Energy, who either didn’t care or didn’t believe there was cause for alarm.

The Plaintiff’s Position

The Turtle Flambeau Flowage and Trude Lake Property Owners Association (TFFTL) was established in 1990 for the purpose of representing property owners on conservation issues affecting the TFF. They are a local association comprised of those who own homes and private property adjacent to the flowage and Trude Lake, which connects to the TFF via a boat channel. The TFFTL is not a legal body. Their interest is in seeing that the flowage is managed properly for all stakeholders. Stakeholders are tourists, property owners, the State of Wisconsin, fish and wildlife. Their goals promote smart/good conservation practices that protect both people, resources, and wildlife.

The WDNR, TFFTL, and Big Energy have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place that specifies how water levels will be managed at the dam by Big Energy. It’s a conservative approach that seeks to strike a balance between Big Energy’s business needs, the property owner’s recreational needs, and the needs of the fish and wildlife that live in and around the flowage.

The WDNR serves in an advisory role but generally sides with the views and recommendations of the TFFTL. However, even though they are a State department, they have no administrative power over Big Energy.

All parties agreed to the MOU. The MOU is not a legal document and it does not include punishment for parties who violate the agreement. The full text of the MOU is available —>HERE<—.

Since the agreement’s inception, Big Energy has violated the terms of the agreement many times. When this happens, the WDNR and the TFFTL meet with Big Energy and try and resolve the issue for the present and future concerns of all parties to the agreement.  Neither the WDNR nor the TFFTL can force Big Energy into strict observation of the MOU.

According to the MOU, the flowage water level on April 20th must be at “full pool”. Full pool is 1,572 feet above sea level, as measured at the dam. This didn’t happen in April 2012. The TFFTL argued that the reason that full pool was not attained was because Big Power let too much water out of the TFF during their winter draw-down the previous season. Furthermore, they were lax in their assessment of spring rainfall, and did nothing, such as decreasing the outflow of water at the dam, in order to attain full pool by April 20th. In short, Big Energy’s management practices failed to reach set goals as stated in the MOU.

By not attaining full pool on April 20th, there was insufficient water in the flowage to support game fish spawning activities. The fish could not get to their shallow spawning sites. When this happens, game fish absorb their eggs and do not spawn at all. That adversely affects the total fish population beginning with the next year’s fingerlings.

The Defendant’s Position 

Big Energy sells electrical power to Wisconsin and portions of seven other states; 5.3 million customers in all. They applied for and received a FERC license that entitled them to manage the TFF water level at the dam, which outlets water into the Flambeau River. Although the Flambeau dam does not generate power for Big Energy, Big Energy also owns several power generating dams downstream from the Flambeau dam. 

However, Big Energy’s ability to manage the dam and the TFF water level have been in question since the day that they took over. Big Energy’s own logo claims a “responsibility for nature” but their management style has demonstrated that nature is a low priority with power generation, their balance sheet, and private businesses on the Flambeau River having a much higher priority.

As a final note to the defendant’s position, I want to explain how Minneapolis-based Big Energy controls the dam and water level. They have a man on-site who lives here year round. He communicates  back-and-forth with the department in Minneapolis that is responsible for doing the “number crunching” in order to determine how much water should be going through the dam.

Once that number is known, the man on-site at the dam manually turns iron wheels which open and shut the three gates at the dam. Big Energy already knows what volume of water passes through the dam for each additional centimeter that the gates are opened. Those numbers are constants.

At the Minneapolis-based headquarters, there are many factors which enter into the formula for determining water level trends. Of major importance are the inflows from the rivers and streams which feed into the TFF. Look at the map of the TFF. On the north are the Turtle and Little Turtle Rivers as well as Four Mile Creek to the west. To the east is the upper portion of the Flambeau River which is fed by the Manitowish River and the Bear River. To the south is Otter Creek. These inflows are calculated based on current rains and the levels of the rivers and creeks.

Evaporation and rainfall are tracked and calculated. No water is removed from the TFF by irrigation or human use. As a matter of fact, it’s against the law to remove water from the TFF. As I stated earlier, the outflow from the TFF is known. The only outflow is at the dam.

Managing all these factors for a 14,000+ acre impoundment is a tough job. But a successful result is achievable. Global Warming has made these calculations more unpredictable as storms become more severe and less frequent.

Jury Deliberations 

The jury deliberated the following issues.

In a perfect world, the water level of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage should remain at full pool (1572’) from April 20th until October 31. Those dates encompass the prime recreational season when the TFF is used by tourist and property owners. Consistent water levels during this period also provide for ideal habitat for fish and wildlife.

Big Energy draws down the water level of the Flowage beginning in mid-July and ending by late October.  The purpose of the draw-down is to make room in the flowage for spring runoff due to melting snow and ice. This specific draw-down schedule removes water from the flowage when it is needed most by nesting birds, vacationers, and landowners. August is the most popular vacation month of the year per the AAA. The heaviest use of the TFF by vacationers occurs in August. Therefore, it makes no sense to implement a draw-down when water in the flowage is needed most.  A draw-down can be accomplished at any time, even when there is ice on the flowage. None of the TFF stakeholders understand Big Energy’s current draw-down schedule.

To see what a draw-down on the TFF really looks like, check out this —>VIDEO CLIP<—.

The minimum volume of water that is allowed to pass through the dam is 300 cps (cubic feet per second). Big Energy has determined that this is how much water is needed in order to sufficiently “feed” the Flambeau River below the dam. Big Energy has demonstrated a habit of opening the dam further in early to mid summer and raising the outflow to as much as 700 cps when the flowage is not at full pool. This act adversely affects vacationers, wildlife, and homeowners. Big Energy claims that more water is needed downstream by businesses adjacent to the Flambeau River. However, other stakeholders feel that these unnecessary procedures are responsible for wildly fluctuating water levels in the TFF which adversely affects spawning fish, nesting birds, homeowners attempts to use their waterfront docks and boats, and the activities of tourists and locals who wish to use the flowage for recreation.

Concerning the 2012 violation of the MOU, Big Energy should have anticipated light early season rains and temporarily lowered the outflow at the dam in order to account for that. It was no secret that the rest of the country was in severe drought.  Lowering the outflow would have increased the water level in the TFF in order to support game fish spawning in shallow spawning areas thus preventing the habitat failure that took place.

When normal rainfall finally arrived in mid-May, the water level of the TFF rose too quickly. Big Energy did nothing about this. Eventually, 30% of the nesting loons on the TFF failed at nesting and in most cases, nests were flooded and destroyed along with the eggs in the nest.  This situation might not have occurred if the water level at the time of loon incubation was higher. Since loons build their nests  within 3″-6” of the shoreline, their nests would have been built further inland thus protecting the nest when the water line rose higher. This situation could have been avoided had Big Energy “held on to” more water early in the season instead of letting it pass through the dam.

The impact of this calamity will not be known until next spring when “our” loons return from their winter grounds off the coast of Florida. Loons return to the same next year after year. Since 30% of those nests have been destroyed, it is not known how the TFF loon population will react in the spring. Since loons will attempt to nest three times before they give up, some loons may have moved to higher ground to re-nest as the water level of the TFF rose.

The Verdict

Big Energy took no action to raise the water level of the TFF in order to meet the full pool requirements by April 20th. On the contrary, the data shows that they increased the outflow at the dam in April thereby lowering the level of the flowage. (Guilty)

Big Energy took no action to halt the rapidly rising water level in early May in order to protect loon incubation and nesting. This could have been accomplished by opening the dam further to increase the outflow. Big Energy did not increase the outflow at the dam until late June, which was too late to protect nesting loons. (Guilty)

Big Energy never did bring the TFF water level to full pool in 2012. Instead, they opened the dam further in early July to increase the outflow to over 700 cps. (Guilty)

Since Big Energy is accountable to no one (even though all those affected by their mindless actions purchase over-priced electricity from them), the WDNR and TFFTL should continue to work together to pressure Big Energy into adopting a conservation mindset if they wish to continue managing a public natural resource as if it were their own private pond.

Sentencing

This article recounts a true story. The events, discussions, and debates actually did take place, and continue to take place. However, no trial before a jury ever took place. The trial setting for this article was used to illustrate what should have taken place, given the crime. And it was used in an attempt to simplify, for the reader, what is a very complex story with a wide range of characters.

FAQ

Let’s pester this issue a bit before we leave the subject.

Aren’t there two desires for the water level on the TFF that are in conflict with each other? The property owners and recreationalists want the water level high to support their activities. And the conservationist want to keep the water level low so as to not interrupt loon nesting.

Not Really. When full pool is attained by April 20th, as required by the MOU, the loon incubation period has not started. The loons will nest within 3”-6” of the shoreline with the water level being at 1572’ (fool pool). If there is one thing that Big Energy will do correctly without failure, they will never let the water level exceed 1572’. They feel that water levels that exceed full pool put the integrity of the dam in jeopardy. So the water level at the end of loon incubation will be the same as at the beginning of incubation.

If the water level has not reached full pool and Big Energy lets more water pass through the dam in mid-June in order to protect loon nesting, which makes it even less likely that full pool will be attained, wouldn’t the stakeholders complain that they want more water for recreational activities?

The stakeholders are not ignorant and selfish. Conservation first, fun comes second. Much communication takes place between Big Energy and the stakeholders who live and play on the TFF. I have called Big Energy myself about specific issues. Big Energy meets with the WDNR and the TFFTL frequently. If they recognized a need to protect loon incubation by increasing the outflow at the dam, they would receive no argument from the other stakeholders. The loon population is highly regarded and a source of enjoyment and pride. No one wants to harm or kill common loons.

A Love of Loons

The haunting, melancholy call of the common loon has long enchanted those who love to be near the water. Their call can be a wobbly, liquid chortle, or an eerie yodel, sounding almost unearthly especially when it ripples through the quiet wilderness or echoes across a tranquil lake. The loon is known as “the spirit of the wilderness”.

Loons are listed first in the North American bird field guides because they are the most primitive bird, having existed long before humans.

Loons are not only a beautiful bird to watch on the water, they are swimming and fishing machines. They swim with their black bill  always parallel to the water. They swim low in the water because their bones are heavy for diving. They can vanish underwater to find fish without leaving a ripple on the surface. They can remain underwater for up to three minutes and can dive as deep as 200 feet.  Their large webbed feet and legs are set back of their body making them poor walkers. But their feet serve as propellers underwater allowing them to reach speeds close to 75 mph. When they take to flight from the water, they run across the surface of the water for up to a quarter of a mile before becoming airborne.

Loons are sexually mature by age three and obtain their own breeding territory by age five. The female usually lays two eggs, which the parents-to-be taking turns incubating the eggs for 30-32 days. Loons are considered to be very territorial; they aggressively defend their nests and young. They live to be approximately 25 years of age in the wild.

Loon chicks are precocial, they leave the nest within two days of hatch, swim behind the adults or ride on their backs. The parents feed them nearly exclusively for the first eight weeks.

They migrate to the Gulf of Mexico in October or November and return to their birth territory in April and early May. They are known to nest within 30 miles of where they were born, if not in the same exact nest of their birth. They are the only bird known to do this.

They are a remarkable wilderness bird. The good news is that their populations are on the rise according to LoonWatch, a program of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute who protects loons through education and monitoring.

 

 

References

Article Posted 2/21/2011 “What Is a Flowage?

Article Posted 1/17/2011 “The Dynamics of Wisconsin’s Turtle Flambeau Flowage

Photo Gallery Posted 2/7/2013 “Loon vs. Big Business Gallery

Video Clip Posted 2/7/2013 “Turtle Flambeau Flowage Water Level Fluctuations”

TFF Water Level Charts Posted 2/7/2013 “Turtle Flambeau Flowage Water Level Fluctuations”

MOU Posted 2/7/2013 “Memorandum of Understanding

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