Lake Onalaska is a 7,688 acre body of water created when Lock and Dam #7 inundated former backwater areas of the upper Mississippi River in 1937. The entire Lake is within the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and all of the shorelands surrounding the Lake are owned by federal agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). The Lake Onalaska Protection and Rehabilitation District is an association of property owners whose land adjoins the federal shorelands, formed under Wisconsin Statutes, to play a role in the planning and management of the Lake's resources (more info.). Lake Onalaska has abundant fish resources, is an important refueling stop for large numbers of long-distance migrating waterfowl and other birds in spring and fall, and provides diverse human recreational interests.
Mississippi River Flyway Cam on Sommers Chute delta in Lake Onalaska
All of the issues with our lake are linked together:
Sedimentation: sandbar shoaling at inflow locations and silt dropout throught the lake have caused Lake Onalaska to lose about 3/4 of its volume since its creation in 1937. Shallowing waters impact fish as well as deepwater-foraging waterfowl species like canvasback.
Access: Shoaling from sedimentation and excessive nutrient-fueled vegetation growth hamper access waterways throughout the lake. Vegetation cutting in the access travel routes temporarily helps.
Poor water quality
Excessive external nitrogen and phosphorus inputs produce an overabundance of vegetation, choking access waterways, and depleting oxygen when the vegetation decays. Most of the excessive nutrients are from agricultural runoff. High phosphorus levels increase the probability of toxic blue-green algae blooms. Recent dramatic expansion of a native wild rice variant further chokes navigation channels and crowds out submerged aquatic vegetation upon which waterfowl and fish depend.
Low Oxygen: oxygen levels go to zero in still areas during summer evenings, impacting fish and invertebrates. Also in low flow areas during winter.
High Turbidity reduces light penetration, affecting submerged aquatic vegetation and fish.
Lake District Annual Meeting, September 2, 2021
The Lake District held its annual membership meeting in the City of Onalaska council meeting room on September 2, 2021. Covid-19 precautions were observed, including wearing masks and social distancing. Agenda items and presentations included:
- Elections: Mark Tierney, Connie Welch, and Barbara Friell were re-elected to commissioner positions.
- 2021 budget
- Biology, history, and expansion of wild rice in Lake Onalaska,
- Extent of aquatic vegetation coverage of the Lake in 2021
- A new fundraising initiative for projects and vegetation harvesting
- Progress report on the sedimentation input initiative that is extremely important for the future of Lake Onalaska
For further details about the 2021 annual meeting see the annual meeting pages.
2021: Extensive vegetation coverage
The lack of high water events this summer allowed for more extensive aquatic vegetation growth in Lake Onalaska than has been seen for a number of years. Free-floating plant (FFP) surface mats, comprised of filamentous green algae and duckweed trapped in rooted submerged vegetation, covered extensive areas of the periphery of the lake, blocking sunlight from underlying rooted, submerged plants. This causes very low dissolved oxygen in the water under the FFP mats, particularly in the evening, which can preclude use of those areas by fish. The Wisconsin DNR acquired a time series of satellite imagery during July and August to study the growth of the FFP mats. In addition, wild rice (presumably Zizania aquatica, although the genetics may be uncertain) continued its aggressive expansion in 2021, moving well out into areas that were previously open water.
Fundraising for Weed-Cutting in Travel Routes
The Lake District is kicking off a fundraising drive to support weed-cutting to maintain the "travel routes" that allow access from boat landings and shoreline areas to deepwater areas of Lake Onalaska and the main channel of the Mississippi River. The funds will be used to pay a contractor tocut and remove vegetation.Please help our weed-cutting efforts with a donation through PayPal:
Donations by check can be mailed to:
BMO Harris Bank attn: Maggie Kanz 1300 Rose Street
La Crosse, WI 54603 Reference: "Lake Onalaska Weed Cutting Donation", account# xxxxx3889
Cutting vegetation to improve access was approved by a USFWS Compatibility Determination in 2019, for travel corridors within certain mapped areas of Lake Onalaska.
Increasing Annual Flow Impacting Lake Onalaska
At the November 19, 2020 Lake District meeting, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist Jon Hendrickson gave an excellent presentation entitled "Altered hydrology: Effects on Pool 7" in which he described some of the impacts of the Upper Mississippi's ever-increasing annual flow volumes. The higher flow rates are accelerating geomorphic change, increasing sediment deposition, altering flow patterns and impacting the floodplain forests. Pool 7 is probably the most significant example to date. Full presentation: 20201119_Lake_Onalaska_PAS_Hendrickson.pdf
Lake District Annual Meeting, September 8, 2020
The Lake District held its annual membership meeting outdoors at the NASA Memorial Park Shelter adjacent to Mosey Landing on Brice Prairie on September 8, 2020. State statutes required an inperson meeting. Covid-19 precautions were observed, including wearing masks and social distancing. Turnout was lower than usual due to the setting and chilly 50 degree temperatures with light rain. Elections were held with Barbara Friell being re-elected, and Connie Welch voted into the seat formerly held by Jeff Reabe, who resigned at the end of his term. The District is moving forward with improving access by cutting vegetation in buoyed travel routes, and steps to create a lake management plan. Further details will be available in the draft meeting minutes and related links on the annual meeting pages.
Lake Planning Grant Submitted
The Lake Onalaska Protection and Rehabilitation District submitted an application for a Wisconsin Surface Waters grant for lake management planning in December 2019. The proposed project would describe the current status of Lake Onalaska and draft a comprehensive lake management plan. Existing data will be used to quantify lake loss from sedimentation; map submerged aquatic vegetation; inventory and identify gaps in monitoring data; summarize stakeholder and agency goals; clearly describe the management responsibilities of the complex overlapping local, state, and federal jurisdictions; and develop a management and information-sharing partnership framework. February 20 update: Surface water grant was not awarded.
More Aquatic Invasive Species Found on Lake Onalaska
In early October 2015, Water lettuce and water hyacinth were found rapidly spreading near the Brice Prairie shoreline after they were released from a garden pond. USFWS issued a news release about water lettuce on Pool 7. The Lake District has played a very active role in removing these species. For more information and a chronology of events see our invasive species page. No water lettuce or water hyacinth plants were reported during 2016.
In early June 2016, yellow flag iris, a restricted species in Wisconsin, was observed blooming in several isolated clumps near both Mosey Landing and Fred Funk landing on Brice Prairie. Lake District residents, USFWS and Wisconsin Rivers staff and other volunteers removed the plants. Yellow flag iris can spread widely through floating seeds and displaces native shoreland vegetation.
In 2020, invasive flowering rush spread its distribution into pools 7 and 8, with plants found on areas near the edge of Lake Onalaska.
Donate to the Lake District
The Lake Onalaska Protection and Rehabilitation District has the authority to levy a tax, but has only used that authority during two very early years of its existence. Since then it has relied on fundraising efforts. You can help our efforts by donations (please see the above link for weed-cutting donations):
Fred Funk Landing Reopened After Major Renovation
A grand re-opening celebration for the Fred Funk landing project was held on September 7, 2019. This landing provides access to the Mississippi River backwaters, including Lake Onalaska from Brice Prairie, adjacent to Swarthout Park. The renovations include installation of the following: two new boat ramps and adjacent asphalt surfaces, 2 new docks, LED light poles to increase visibility, ADA accessible sidewalks, 2 storm-water detention ponds, a 2 panel kiosk, a new entry sign (by Charlie Lipke) and new striping on the parking areas. An ADA accessible fishing platform will also be installed with funds provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The celebration was followed by a public pontoon tour rides, hosted by Schafer’s Marine Services, to see a demonstration of a travel corridor established by aquatic vegetation cutting and removal and marked by red and green navigation buoys. This method will be used to create future boat travel corridors on Lake Onalaska.
COE Revising Its Master Plan
The St. Paul District is updating the strategic land use and recreation management document that will guide the district"s comprehensive management and development of natural, recreational and cultural resources of the Upper Mississippi River basin for years to come. The master plan, while conceptual in nature, will serve as the vision for both environmental stewardship and recreation as the Corps continues to serve the public in the 21st Century. A series of public meetings were held over the summer of 2019. A revised draft plan is expected in early 2020. For more information see: www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Upper-Mississippi-River-Master-Plan/