JUNE 25, 2010

Panel speculates on river's future

By Andy Steinke, Dells Events

Four people intimately tied to the Wisconsin River met at the H.H. Bennett Studio Wednesday to discuss how the river has changed since Bennett's time and what the future holds for it.

The panel discussion, hosted by the Stewards of the Dells of the Wisconsin River, included Department of Natural Resources state natural area Manager Steve Rodenkirk, Ho-Chunk Nation archeologist Jay Toth, Dells Boat Tours General Manager Dan Gavinski and Louis' Bluff landowner Mariana Weinhold.

Each talked about their area of expertise and voiced their concerns before opening the floor for questions in the hour-long session.

Two panelists, Rodenkirk and Gavinski, said they were surprised at how little the river has changed in 100 plus years.

They drew their conclusions from 15 pairs of pictures hanging on the walls. The pictures were taken by Bennett in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and area photographer Bill Pielsticker this past year.

The change that is most readily visible in the pictures of the Upper and Lower Dells is how the dam increased and decreased water levels and promoted the growth of vegetation when floods were tamed.

While the Upper Dells predictable deepened when the dam was installed 100 years ago, the water depth in the Lower Dells has begun to dwindle.

Pielsticker said he first noticed the 6- to 7-foot decline when he was looking at Hawk's Bill.

Gavinski said the problem has gotten so bad that some days the boat tours can only work 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Lower Dells, and that's because he works with the dam operators to open the gates and let more water through.w

"It's possible that someday there won't be big boats on the Lower Dells," he said.

Other panelists, and a few of the 40-plus attendees, offered their thoughts on what might be causing the river level to drop.

Pielsticker attributed it to sand dropping out by the dam instead of continuing downstream like it did before.

Linda Sweeney said perhaps a lack of rain is to blame, while Arlene Kanno said global warming might be the culprit.

The constant water heights in the Upper and Lower Dells created by the dam has caused vegetation to grow along the banks of the river, too.

Gavinski said he thought it has made the area even more scenic.

Weinhold said she wanted to stress the value of the entire river, not just the part in Wisconsin Dells, and suggested an ultimate vision of a Dells National Park. She said they need to preserve the river from Petenwell to Portage.

Weinhold said three things endanger the river: visual eyesores, water pollution and sound pollution.

She said the window of opportunity to protect the river is now since there is a decrease in developmental pressure due to the economy.

Rodenkirk, who was filling in for state natural area Director Tom Meyer, said his main concern for the future is invasive species. Plants like garlic mustard and fish like the Asian carp could have a long and lasting impact on the river's ecosystem.

Toth spent his time explaining his vision for Kingsley Bend, which is located along the river in Newport.

He said it is his goal to make the area look like it did in 1845, in pre-settlement times.

Toth said he is hoping to take out some trees near the river so the mounds at Kingsley Bend can be seen from the river once again.

Pielsticker's pictures of the Upper and Lower Dells, Mirror Lake, Devil's Lake and Skillet Creek will be on display at the Bennett Studio until Aug. 9