Shawano dam water level decision delayed

FERC opens 15-day public comment period for input

After public safety concerns led to an urgent call for action to raise the water level at the Shawano dam, the federal agency overseeing the dam Wednesday opened a 15-day public input period on whether the level should be raised.

The dam was mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month to reduce its target elevation from 802.9 feet mean sea level (msl) to 802.5 feet msl, resulting in a difference of more than 4 inches in the water level for the river, channel and lake.

Officials at Shawano Area Waterways Management say water levels are 5-6 inches below normal, though other estimates have placed that closer to 8-10 inches.

Boaters have been urged to use caution navigating the Wolf River and channel and the lower water levels have resulted in multiple reports of damage to boats and near-injury since the new level went into effect.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held a meeting last week SAWM board members officials from Shawano County, the city of Shawano and the village of Cecil, and representatives from Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, which operates the Shawano dam.

The DNR agreed to support raising the water level and make a recommendation to FERC that the level at the dam be raised to 802.9 msl during the non-winter months.

Eagle Creek made a similar request and asked FERC for an expedited review process.

Expectations for many who left the DNR meeting last week was that there would be fast action on the issue.

“I’m shocked,” said SAWM board member Tony Zielinski. “Given the public safety element, I would have thought they would have raised the water back to its historical level immediately.”

SAWM is requesting that FERC raise the water level while the 15-day input period is going on, but has had no response yet to that request.

Zielinski said SAWM learned after the fact that a public input period would be required, something that wasn’t mentioned at last week’s meeting.

“Why didn’t the DNR bring it up?” he said.

Eagle Creek is asking for a temporary amendment that would allow the dam to operate at a target elevation of 802.9 msl until Nov. 15.

A request for a permanent amendment could have extended the public input period for as much as two months.

As it is, the 15-day window delays any potential action on water levels by FERC until just before the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

“I’m surprised this hasn’t been taken as seriously as it should have been,” Zielinski said. “I’m frustrated.”

Zielinski said public safety concerns were made clear by SAWM member, local community leaders and state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, who also pushed for fast action at last week’s meeting.

“What if somebody’s son or daughter is injured or involved in a fatality knowing we could have raised the water level weeks ago?” he said. “Who’s liable for that?”

The current water level situation stems from a complaint made to FERC about high water levels back in May 2015.

Eagle Creek subsequently acknowledged in a letter to FERC that the dam did exceed headwater elevations on three occasions in 2013 and 2014 due to above-average amounts of precipitation.

Dam operations were automated in 2016, resulting in more consistent water levels.

FERC mandated Eagle Creek to lower its target level to 802.5 feet msl after the 2015 complaint, but the dam won a temporary variance from FERC, allowing it to operate at its previous higher level until a study could be completed showing the higher level was not causing any problems.

That variance has since expired, and FERC ordered Eagle Creek last month to return to a target elevation of 802.5 feet msl, at least for the time being.

The dam had been operating at 802.9 feet for about 30 years before the 2015 complaint.

ONLINE

For information on the Shawano dam FERC case and instructions for submitting comments, go to https://elibrary.ferc.gov/idmws/file_list.asp?accession_num=20180612-3047.