Wild Rice Lake In Vilas County

Wisconsin Lake Districts Step Up to Fuel Watershed Restoration and Water Protection

50 years ago, Wisconsin researchers were wrapping up a statewide study exploring the economic potential of lake-based tourism to revitalize sagging rural economies. One slice of the research investigated the human institutions needed to ramp up and sustain lake care, as more lake-based tourism meant new environmental strains. Researchers warned that the current model of relying on citizen volunteers and fundraising for lake management could quickly become unsustainable and proposed a new form of local government called lake districts.

In the legislative session following the study’s publication, Wisconsin passed a new lake management law that included enabling statutes for lake stakeholders to create inland lake protection and rehabilitation districts. The researchers also convinced lawmakers that just passing the law was insufficient to successfully launch the lake districts. Money was included to fund new extension positions to assist citizen volunteers and local governments to navigate the process of establishing the districts and get off to a successful start. The State of Wisconsin also began providing a cost-share program to assist lake districts to carry out feasibility studies and implementation projects that benefited the public. 

This relationship between state government, extension, and local lake groups is the central kernel of the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, one of the longest running experiments in collaborative natural resource management in North America. 

Eric Olson now serves as the Director of Extension Lakes, the third person to hold the role since 1974. “The Lakes Partnership has proven durable and robust”, Eric notes. “Today there are over 250 lake districts, as well as 500-plus lake associations, and the state grant program has grown to over $6.5 million annually”. Throughout, the state has committed to an extension role to aid local lake management efforts and provide training and answers around the formation and operation of lake districts. 

Extension Lakes Team on Zoom

The Extension Lakes Team meeting on Zoom – their new normal in 2020.

Extension Lakes now has eight staff based in the College of Natural Resources at UW Stevens Point. In addition to providing answers around lake districts and management, the Extension Lakes team carries out statewide training and quality assurance for volunteer lake water monitoring (through the Citizens Lake Monitoring Network, CLMN) and aquatic invasive species prevention (through Clean Boats/Clean Waters, CBCW). They also organize and carry out the Lake Leaders Institute, a leadership development program that is presently engaged with its 13th crew of participants. 

Several “classic” extension tools shape the program’s outreach efforts: a free quarterly newsletter, Lake Tides, is mailed out to over 20,000 subscribers to provide timely updates on lake issues as well as general interest stories about lake ecology and management. Extension Lakes takes a lead role in organizing the annual Lakes and Rivers Convention, bringing together over 500 lake stakeholders, researchers, managers, and educators to share solutions and grow their network. In partnership with the UW Stevens Point, the program maintains a comprehensive web resource that provides answers to just about every lake related question under the sun. 

Even against the headwinds of a global pandemic, Extension Lakes and the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership have successfully advanced the cause of cooperative lake care. The in-person conference went live and fully online in April 2020 and March 2021, reaching nearly 2000 people over the course of two, three-day meetings. Lucky Crew 13 of Lake Leaders was initially scheduled to start in May 2020; instead, the group met by Zoom several times over the winter in anticipation of their first in-person training on the shores of Green Lake next month. The CLMN and CBCW training moved online with limited in-person contacts to deliver monitoring equipment. 

The formation of lake districts has also persisted during the pandemic. Ever since the original lake management law was passed in 1974, folks on Beaver Dam Lake in the southeast part of Wisconsin have debated whether a district would help them restore and manage the 6,700 acre lake and its watershed. In order to form the district, they needed to gather signatures representing 50% of the property owners in the proposed area that would be included in its jurisdiction. The primary power of a lake district in Wisconsin is to levy taxes in order to raise the funds needed for lake care, so people signing the petition are essentially agreeing to raise their own taxes in order to benefit the lake. The petition process at Beaver Dam Lake entailed convincing more than 500 people to sign on to this concept. They crossed that threshold just before the pandemic hit, and in March 2020 the Jefferson County Board formalized the creation of the Beaver Dam Lake District

Stay! Hancock Lake, Waushara County by Ben Mott

The winner of the 2021 The Wisconsin Lakes and Rivers Partnership Photography Contest in the People Enjoying Lakes and Rivers category. This image is called Stay! and is of Hancock Lake in Waushara County by Ben Mott. Check out all the 2021 image winners on Facebook. The featured image of the article is of Wild Rice Lake by Bob Kovar and is also a 2021 Honorable Mention.

The new lake district is now on a more stable financial footing to collaborate with two similar entities in Dodge County, the Fox Lake Inland Lake Protection & Rehabilitation District and the Lake Sinissippi Improvement District. The shoreland property owners on these three lakes are providing important support, including funding, for the Dodge County Healthy Soil Healthy Water Alliance. This group seeks to find common ground between the 8,000 riparian landowners and 2,000 farmers and producers in the county. These efforts have also included cost-sharing for cover crops and promotion of the Wisconsin Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program to shoreland owners, an effort to protect water quality and habitat in the riparian zone. 

Most lake districts and lake associations have moved their regular meetings to a virtual format with an unexpected benefit of allowing long-distance participation by seasonal residents. Extension Lakes has also found silver linings to moving everything online; most of the presentations made at the last two conventions were recorded and can be viewed anytime on YouTube. Eric’s team at Stevens Point has made the most of their online resources: “We now have a searchable database of many year’s worth of conference presentations including the videos from 2020 and 2021, and our entire Lake Tides newsletter catalogue is archived and searchable. Taken together, we have amassed a diverse educational library that’s freely available to anyone seeking to better understand lake and watershed management.”

Search the online database of Lakes and Rivers Convention presentations here. Search nearly 50 years of Lake Tides articles here

Eric Olson, Director of Extension Lakes, UW-Madison Division of Extension

Headshot of Eric OlsonEric Olson grew up in St. Cloud Minnesota and had formative canoeing and swimming experiences on the shores of Lake Sagatagan at St. John’s University. After working in urban forestry in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, he moved to Madison for graduate studies in urban and regional planning. He became involved with the UW Stevens Point College of Natural Resources (CNR) through a watershed planning project in northwestern Wisconsin and was subsequently hired by the CNR to teach land use planning and ecosystem management courses. For over 10 years he has been the director and lakes outreach specialist for Extension Lakes, a statewide public education effort based in the CNR.

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