When is a lake a river?

Apr 4, 2014 | Citizen Advocacy, Local Groups

When browsing our Local Groups page you may notice several organizations with “Lake” in their name. Why, you may ask, is the RIVER Alliance of Wisconsin consorting with lake and reservoir groups? It’s a question worth asking, and the answer’s actually a pretty easy one.

These “lakes” are not actually natural lakes—they are impoundments, or bodies of water that are formed by a dam on a river. We more commonly call them “flowages,” a distinctly Wisconsin term with a more melodic ring to it than impoundment. (Let’s be honest, that word is a tough one to get behind. You’ve never heard of a “Friends of the Impoundment” group, have you?)

To further clarify and dissect our terminology here, reservoirs are technically different than impoundments (the former having the objective of storing water—for drinking, or more commonly in Wisconsin, hydropower production). Many of our largest lakes in Wisconsin are impoundments: Pepin, Petenwell, Castle Rock, Turtle-Flambeau, Wisconsin, Onalaska, DuBay, Chippewa, Willow, Wissota, St. Croix, and many more.

Impoundments, by their very nature occurring on river systems, suffer from many of the same problems that our free-running rivers do. (Impoundments also create a host of issues that do not affect free-running rivers, but that’s for another time.) Perhaps the biggest challenge shared by impoundments and free-running rivers is the difficulty of linking cause to effect in large, linear watersheds. Pollution that occurs high up in the headwaters of a watershed often manifests itself as an algae bloom, miles downstream in an impoundment. When the polluter doesn’t see the effects of his pollution, and those who witness the downstream algae bloom don’t see who or what is causing it upstream, solutions are difficult. And complicated.

We river rats understand the complicated nature of river management issues, and the importance of “looking upstream” to find perpetrators, partners, and solutions. It’s for this reason we roll up our sleeves with lake groups (yes, we’ll grant them that word; “impoundment” only conjures up images of a towed car and a ticket) on river systems—to see what solutions we can find together, looking upstream.