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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Where’d my lake go?

Residents of the Pike River Flowage wonder how much lower the lake’s water level can drop

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 9/8/21

PIKE RIVER FLOWAGE— For the couple dozen residents who live in this corner of Vermilion Lake Township, a funny thing happened this summer— their “lake” disappeared. Months of …

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Where’d my lake go?

Residents of the Pike River Flowage wonder how much lower the lake’s water level can drop

Posted

PIKE RIVER FLOWAGE— For the couple dozen residents who live in this corner of Vermilion Lake Township, a funny thing happened this summer— their “lake” disappeared. Months of worsening drought have literally dried up much of this 214-acre artificial lake, formed as the backup behind the Pike River dam. The flowage is currently down about five feet below its typical level, leaving docks high and dry and, in some cases, hundreds of feet from the water’s edge.
The flowage’s water levels have been subject to ups and downs for years. In fact, it was the irregular nature of the Pike River’s flow that ultimately doomed the city of Tower’s hopes of generating reliable electricity from the Pike River dam, which the city built in 1912 but soon abandoned.
Much later, discharge from U.S. Steel’s Minntac tailings basin maintained more consistent water levels on the flowage for a number of years, but also elevated levels of sulfate and other pollutants. When the state’s Pollution Control Agency required U.S. Steel to reduce its discharges into the Pike River watershed, the flowage began to exhibit a more natural variation in its water levels again.
Even so, this year is unprecedented, at least in recent memory. “We’ve been here 40 years and we’ve never seen it this low,” said Corky Eloranta, who lives on the flowage with her husband Jack. The flowage was low during droughts in 2007 and 2013, but Eloranta said this year is clearly worse.
Eloranta sees this year’s water level as cyclical and “part of nature.”
But her neighbor, Prisca Cushman, sees the current situation as an emergency and she wants the Department of Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the dam, to take stop-gap measures to help slow the loss of water coming from a central sluiceway located near the bottom of the dam. The sluiceway used to house the turbine that was supposed to generate electricity, but the turbine is long gone and water from the flowage continues to pour out of what is now a gaping hole near the bottom of the dam. Cushman, who has owned a residence on the flowage for nearly 20 years, said she’s calculated the current outflow of water from the sluiceway and fears the flowage could be almost entirely drained by October without a dramatic reversal in the current drought conditions. Cushman is a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, so her calculations could well be accurate.
Much of the flowage has traditionally been no more than about six feet deep, so the loss of so much water has already diminished the surface area of the water body by about fifty percent, Cushman estimates. Much of the remaining surface area is down to about 1-2 feet in depth, so any significant additional drop in the water level could leave water largely limited to the original streambed, which Cushman said is probably around five feet deep in most locations right now.
And given the extended forecast, which shows the same pattern of below-normal precipitation that has fueled the current drought, Cushman sees little reason to expect that most of the rest of the flowage won’t be dry within a matter of weeks.
Drought is clearly the primary factor behind the current circumstances, although Cushman sees the condition of the dam as another contributor to the problem. A 2011 DNR assessment of dams across the state listed the Pike River dam in “poor condition,” although no action was taken as a result.
When water is plentiful, the dam can continue to maintain average water levels, but there’s little to no inflow currently. Cushman said the Pike River above the flowage has all but stopped flowing, so there’s little new water being added even as existing water continues to flow from the sluiceway in the dam. It’s like a bathtub with a slow leak in the drain once the spigot is turned off. The eventual outcome is relatively predictable.
The situation has affected residents around the flowage, who haven’t had boat access for months this summer. Cushman, who runs an occasional B&B out of her “former” lake home, said she stopped advertising it earlier this summer when it became difficult to even launch a canoe from her dock. Now, it’s a long trudge through rocks and mud to reach the water.
Cushman said she’s also worried about the flowage’s substantial fish population, which is currently trapped between the dam at the north end of the flowage and the rapids on the southwest side, where the Pike River normally enters the flowage. Without substantial recovery before winter, Cushman fears the flowage’s fish, mostly crappies, bluegills, suckers, small northern pike and a few walleye, will freeze out entirely, which would be a blow to many anglers, who have made the flowage an ice-fishing hotspot in recent years.
“It’s never been this bad before,” said Cushman. “I’m fearing this is too much for the lake this year. I think [DNR] fisheries should be paying attention.”
Eloranta is more sanguine, noting that the flowage has managed to rebound quickly in the past, particularly in the fall when the trees shut down for winter, sharply reducing their demand for moisture. “I’ve seen it fill back up in barely 48 hours in the past,” recalls Eloranta.
Time will tell.

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