For years, Russ Hefty has argued against keeping Lake Mendota's water level artificially high.
In the past year, Hefty has had assistance from a higher power - Mother Nature. "This drought, in my view, was an opportunity to show what would happen if we operated the lakes at lower levels," says Hefty, conservation resource supervisor for Madison's Parks Division.
In five of the past eight months, precipitation has been well below historic averages, according to the state's Climatology Office. The amount of water flowing into Lake Mendota is about half of the 30-year average, says Susan Josheff of the Department of Natural Resource's south central region.
Lower water levels can make things difficult for boaters by necessitating longer piers and dredging of channels to keep them passable. Low water also hinders northern pike spawning. The drought has raised alarm in many Great Lakes communities.
But Hefty sees a bright side. "Part of the cycle of nature is the natural ups and downs. There are always winners and losers," he says. "The low water last year...really enhanced the wetland plantings we've been trying to grow up in Cherokee Marsh."
Fortifying marshes reduces silt and agricultural runoff into the lakes, provides more habitat for waterfowl, and prevents lakefront erosion.
Hefty says a year of heavy rainfall could easily wipe out all the gains from the drought. The debate over how high water levels should be maintained will continue. But some are coming to see the benefit of lower levels. Last year, the Yahara Lakes Advisory Group was evenly split on the issue, with half the 22-member group recommending (PDF) to keep Mendota close to its summer minimum of 849.6 feet above sea level, rather than the 850.1 maximum.
Hefty prefers to let nature decide. "Humans want to keep things at a steady state, but there always were cycles in nature," he says. "Nature is dynamic, and we don't have as much control as we think."
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Yahara Lakes Advisory Group was evenly split over recommendations to keep Lake Mendota at its summer minimum level.]