Examining the Otter Lake Dam — part two
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a white paper on the Otter Lake Dam. Part one appeared on the Outdoors page Oct. 24.
Otter Lake in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s had the reputation of being the best walleye fishery in the area. Resorts catered to anglers from Illinois and Wisconsin. This is no longer true.
Twenty-one fisheries surveys have been conducted on Otter Lake, with the first being in 1921 and the last in 2004. Sixteen of these have been made since the construction of the dam and diversion. The 1921 survey was a brief two-day peek at fish populations. The 1925 survey was the first comprehensive survey and found 18 species. The 1955, 1960, and 1970 surveys found healthy, thriving, and diverse fish populations, which included northern pike, walleye, yellow perch, sauger, large and smallmouth bass, black crappie, and bluegill. One interesting species found was cisco or lake herring, which is a Great Lakes species. They were trapped there when lake levels receded centuries ago. After the 1977 survey they were not found again. The sauger is likewise gone from Otter Lake. The sixteen surveys done post dam construction were made primarily because of complaints of poor fishing. These were made in 1977-80, 1982, 1983, 1988, 1994, 1996-98, and 2000-04. These surveys showed the steelhead (rainbow trout), burbot, walleye, and lake sturgeon runs were virtually eliminated. The once abundant sucker runs up the Otter River were also impacted.
Otter Lake has a long history of fish stocking by the Fisheries Division-DNR, beginning in 1934 and the last occurring in 2012, involving three species. Walleye were the most frequently stocked in 23 of the 24 stocking events and 15 of those being from 1978 to 2012. Tiger musky and smallmouth bass were each stocked three times.
The only fish species that has increased tremendously since the dam construction are bullheads. Two removals were conducted with nets. The 1978 effort removed 18,548 pounds of bullhead and 1,752 pounds of suckers. The 1988 a removal covered 15 days and resulted in 3,800 pounds of bullheads removed. Subsequent surveys showed little or no impact to the bullhead population. The bullhead population remains dominant.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service out of Marquette, charged with sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes, expressed a concern they may have to treat the Otter River if the dam were removed, at an estimated cost of $50,000, with the funding coming from the US and Canadian governments, not local taxpayers. They indicated they did a treatment in the 1970s. A joint US and Canadian report covering the period 1958-1970 revealed only one juvenile sea lamprey was found during this time frame and was never chemically treated. The dam currently does not block sea lamprey. A 1998 DNR video monitoring of the fish ladder revealed seven lampreys were passed.
A 1991 Fisheries Division memo, which was based on the numerous fish surveys, stated ” to restore the fishery, the dam should be removed, as it has ruined fabulous spring and fall walleye runs and created an abundance of bullhead habitat, resulting in their becoming the dominant species.”
The dam construction did not meet one of the intended consequences of reducing flooding downstream of Otter Lake. Farms and roads annually flood similar to the pre-dam condition. The floods on Otter Lake are now higher than pre-dam and last longer.
A once vibrant fishery is now impaired, as stated above.
The dam and associated structures are in need of immediate repair. The cost of repairs was estimated at $171,000 in 2013 and does not include the cost of replacing the railing on the dam walkway. Seventy percent of this expense will be divided up among the 74 Otter Lake front property owners in the Special Assessment District (SAD), which is in addition to their annual property taxes. Portage Township and Houghton County taxpayers will also contribute 10 and and 20 percent respectively. The dam will need periodic repairs, with the expense again being mainly paid by Otter Lake residents in the SAD.
Dam removal will be expensive and in all likelihood exceed half a million dollars. Which raises the question of, who pays for this work?
To improve and restore the fishery in Otter Lake and the Otter River, the dam should be removed. Fisheries biologists, who opposed the initial construction, all agree. The dam needs to be replaced with a series of rock check dams, the first of which would restore the original level of Otter Lake. A river ecology expert from Minnesota, Luther Aadland, has looked at the Otter Lake Outlet Dam and feels a series of rock steps will work. These structures have been used in Michigan and other states with excellent results. This will also remove the added tax burden for the above cited taxpayers.
Fisheries Division-MDNR has a grant program which places major emphasis on dam removals. Local fisheries staff has indicated they will write a grant application targeted at removal of the Otter Lake Dam should the residents choose this option. This requires a one-time 10 percent local match, a better option to future and present tax payments.