TOWN OF ROXBURY — One of the few comforts for Marc and Margie Watson is knowing they are not alone.
Homes have been moved to higher ground and some people have sold their property to the county. Other structures remain flooded and unlivable, surrounded by the unpredictable waters of a lake they thought would offer a respite filled with sunsets, early morning paddles, blooming water lilies and s’mores around fire pits with panoramic views of the rolling hills of northwestern Dane County.
Instead, for many, Fish Lake has been a source of frustration, tears and expensive upheaval.
The Watsons took their turn last week as they watched an excavator demolish the former Ganser Dance Hall, which they had converted over the last 19 years into a lakeside home.
This is where the Watsons, who had moved from Madison, raised their six children. The former dance floor made of maple hosted large family gatherings at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was a pool table, bay windows that offered up sweeping views of the lake, Marc’s collection of Hamm’s beer signs and the original bar from when the late Clayton Ganser ran the place.
The Watsons were forced to move out in April 2020 due to the encroaching water and a basement that was filling with water.
“This has been really hard on our family,” said Margie Watson, her eyes moist, her voice cracking. “It’s just God’s country up here. It’s so peaceful and beautiful. You kind of kept thinking the water would go down, but nope.”
Dane County’s lesser-known lakes
Talk of lakes in Dane County more often than not revolves around Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Wingra and Kegonsa. There have been great efforts over the years to improve water quality and, more recently, the flow of the Yahara River, which runs through four of the five bodies of water. But just east of Prairie du Sac near the Columbia County line sit a trio of smaller lakes, sans crowds, ski boats and the hum of city traffic.
However, water levels in the three lakes have been dramatically rising and falling over the past four decades.
To help address the issue, a special taxing district was created in 2003 to help pay for lake-related initiatives. A pumping program to lower the levels of the lakes began in 2006, and hundreds of tons of gravel have been dumped onto Fish Lake Road over the years. But despite the efforts, prolonged periods of above-average precipitation have overwhelmed pumping efforts. Parts of Fish Lake Road are submerged, and water has reached nearly the gutters of homes along the road as the lake has risen 10 feet over the last three years, in part because nearby Crystal Lake has topped its banks with the excess flowing into Fish Lake.
Some of those homes have been purchased by Dane County and are slated to be removed his summer, according to Laura Hicklin, director of the county’s Land & Water Resources Department. And, in the last month, Hicklin has brought together officials from the county, Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Geological Natural History Survey, the USDA Conservation Service, town of Roxbury officials and the town’s engineering company in an effort to better understand the issues and the potential solutions. The group met for the first time in May and has another meeting set for later this month.
“It’s about coming to a common understanding of how the water moves through the system and making sure landowners and units of government have the information they need to make informed decisions,” Hicklin said. “It’s about people having really sometimes difficult conversations about a range of options that are going to be hard to come to a consensus on.”
As an example, the town of Roxbury and the town of West Point in 2020 commissioned MSA to study a more than 1-mile-long gravity pipeline that would not require pumps and allow water to flow from Fish Lake to the Wisconsin River. MSA estimated that the project would cost about $5.8 million, but that price did not include legal fees or easement and land-acquisition costs that could involve more than 15 property owners.
It’s also unclear if the project would receive permits from the DNR and how it would be funded. The Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway have also expressed concerns about water quality issues from Fish Lake water entering the river.
“It’s a really tough situation,” Hicklin said. “I think what’s really tricky for this lake in particular is that for those who have been watching it long enough they’ve seen it fluctuate a lot. People can remember that it has gone down and they want to hope that it’s going to do that again. And it might.”
Property goes back decades
Trudi Marx Marquardt grew up on a farm on the lake’s western shoreline. Her parents bought the 160-acre property in 1949 and raised nine children in its brick farmhouse constructed in the early 1900s.
They sold 120 acres to the county in 2005 for the creation of the Mud Lake Wildlife Area, and Marquardt purchased 37 acres from her mother in 2015, 22 of which were under water. Of the remaining 15 acres, only about five acres remain dry. The silo is surrounded by water, the barnyard is now home to largemouth bass, and the farmhouse was moved in October onto a new foundation on higher ground. A new driveway, more than a quarter-mile long, was also needed and built by the county to provide access to the farm off Haas Road.
In April, Marquardt, 62, started a Facebook group, the Friends of Fish & Mud Lakes, to bring attention to the ongoing issues.
“We need attention to get action,” Marquardt said. “I’m sad about how much we have lost of our farm. It breaks my heart. I’ve lost my neighbors, I lost my road, we lost all the things we thought we’d have in retirement.”
For the Watsons, Marc Watson’s grandparents had a trailer on the lake just east of the dance hall. His parents purchased the trailer in the 1980s, and he and Margie bought the trailer in the 1990s.
They had a long friendship with Ganser, who died in April, which led them to purchase the former dance hall constructed in the 1930s, which had been closed for years. The Watsons paid $150,000 for the 6,300-square-foot building and 6-acre property and put another $200,000 into it over the years.
The Watsons had a water slide down an 8-foot bank, a garden plot, play structure and a spot near a cedar tree where they could pitch a tent and “camp” just feet from their home and the lake shore. The basement has been filled with water for months, and almost everything else is fully or partially submerged by water. Only about an acre of dry land remains.
The Watsons are hoping they can place a camper on the property once they find a permanent home and are no longer renting a house in nearby Prairie du Sac.
They received about $250,000 in insurance money but spent $37,000 last week to have their home hauled to a landfill. They salvaged the original bar, which could be installed into their garage, which was not attached to the house and sits on higher ground.
“A lot of hard work, sweat and tears went into the place,” Marc Watson, 59, said. “It’s kind of hard to see it go down.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.
"I’m sad about how much we have lost of our farm. It breaks my heart. I've lost my neighbors, I lost my road, we lost all the things we thought we'd have in retirement."
Trudi Marx Marquardt, 62, who grew up on a farm along Fish Lake