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DNR Orders Minimum Water Level for Forestville Millpond

The Friends of the Forestville Dam have convinced the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to order the County of Door to maintain a minimum water level at the millpond dam the county owns and operates at the Forestville Dam County Park along the Ahnapee River.

“The Friends are fairly happy with the DNR ruling, as the county cannot draw it down as they please anymore to the very low level without a public hearing and DNR approval,” said Robert Sijgers on behalf of the group. “It also gives the many recreational users more assurances that they won’t find a basin full of mud, as happened during the two-year drawdown.” 

The Friends of the Forestville Dam had petitioned the DNR for a minimum water level after having previously objected to the county’s drawdown of the millpond’s water level in November 2019, before refilling the 94-acre site in September 2021. 

As the owner-operator of the millpond dam, the county did the drawdown as a means to compact sediments and kill invasive aquatic vegetation, as well as get rid of undesirable fish species such as carp. But the drawdown was mired in controversy that included the Friends of the Forestville Dam suing the county. That suit was later dismissed by Door County Judge D. Todd Ehlers upon the millpond being filled again.

The Forestville Dam is owned and operated by the County of Door along the Ahnapee River in the Village of Forestville and features five spillways, or passages for surplus water. Photo by Kevin Boneske.

The aftereffects of that drawdown, such as the plant life growth that occurred on the millpond, have been criticized by the Friends of the Forestville Dam and others in the Forestville area.

“After the drawdown, cattails have taken over large parts of the millpond – approximately 20 acres of the 94-acre pond,” Sijgers said. “The island further upstream is not visible anymore, and the east side of the island is not accessible by canoe or kayak anymore. People who could look out from their house over the water see now only cattails. A sad result of a drawdown that we were told ‘would make us happy.’”

The county is currently in the process of having the drawdown evaluated to learn if it improved the lake’s overall health, as was the objective. The results from that evaluation are not expected to be available until 2024. 

The Forestville Village Board had also opposed the drawdown. Village President Terry McNulty said he wondered how many years it would take before the millpond returned to the condition before the drawdown for fishing and kayaking.

In support of a minimum water level, village officials favored a depth of at least three feet in the millpond, which is also the site where the Southern Door Fire Department (SDFD) has a dry hydrant. SDFD chief Rich Olson said the DNR’s order for a minimum water level at the millpond will ensure an adequate water supply for the department to fight large fires in the area.

The Friends of the Forestville Dam requested the minimum water level for the millpond be set at the dam’s normal, full-capacity level to protect the riparian rights of property owners who developed and purchased their properties based upon the historic level. They are also concerned about the potential for future drawdowns without required DNR oversight and public comment opportunities; the operability of the SDFD’s dry hydrant; and the environmental impacts of any future drawdowns.

The county’s request had been to set the minimum level at six inches below the normal, full-capacity level to account for seasonal variability, prevent confusion from the public, and allow for maintenance, such as cleaning the five spillway bays.

Impact of Order

The DNR’s order, issued Oct. 17 by water management specialist Jared Seidl, allows the county without a permit to be able to lower the water level at the dam to no more than six inches from the millpond’s normal, full-capacity level when the county does cleaning and maintenance of the dam.

Seidl said the water levels in the order are listed by feet above sea level and determined by the water height at the dam, with 592 feet the normal, full-capacity level, and 591.5 feet the allowed minimum level.

Except for drought conditions, when the water level would be allowed to fall more than six inches below the normal, full capacity to maintain a minimum flow of water along the Ahnapee River, or in the event there is an emergency situation such as a dam failure, Seidl said the county will have to obtain a permit from the DNR to draw down the millpond.

County Won’t Appeal DNR Order

County Facilities and Parks Director Wayne Spritka said the county supports the order and doesn’t plan to appeal. He said the required permit for a drawdown is the only thing the DNR’s order will change about the county’s operation of the dam.

Seidl said it would likely take about two to three months for the DNR to approve a drawdown after the county would request one, given the public notice period and subsequent hearing that would take place.

Though not all dams in the state require a permit to perform a drawdown, Seidl said the DNR agreed one should now be required for the Forestville Dam, because a minimum water level six inches below the millpond’s normal full capacity “protects the public rights in navigable waters, safety, life, health, property, property values and economic values.”

The DNR’s order states the minimum water level will remain in effect “indefinitely for the purpose of amending or rescinding this order in accordance with the public interest.”

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