FRIENDSHIP — Linda Moonan’s fishing boat was covered and parked on its trailer alongside her garage.
Larry Swaziek hasn’t fished for bluegills from his pontoon boat while Betsy Vannettie still eats on her screen porch overlooking the lake but with a compromised view.
Weeds and algae are prolific, some bays are dry and in many cases, docks are unusable due to only inches of water or no water at all. Thick, black muck lines the shore.
“The water is supposed to be right here, but you can’t enjoy it,” said Vannettie, 69, as she pointed from her dock down to a dry area covered in vegetation, sand and mud. “It just kind of ruins everything. The entire summer is gone.”
On 115-acre Friendship Lake, frustration is high, the mood foul and the water levels too low for many of the lake’s 110 property owners. The fix, they say, is easy.
And Chuck Pheiffer agrees. He’s frustrated, too.
Pheiffer, 68, owns the hydroelectric dam that not only produces electricity but controls the lake’s water levels. Pheiffer has been trying to sell the dam for the past five years and has made little progress. But now he’s getting attention.
The lower water level makes it safer for Pheiffer to operate his dam and reduces his liability in the case of a major rain storm, he says. It also has created controversy here that is forcing some to speak up and urge Adams County to buy the dam from Pheiffer.
“For five years, everyone has been ignoring the situation,” said Pheiffer, sporting a Pink Floyd T-shirt. “In some respects, (lowering the water levels) was a way of showing them the fact that they were taking their water for granted and I did not have to keep it up there. There are some unhappy people up here.”
Pheiffer, who wants to retire from the dam business, has owned the dam for three decades and says the lake is still usable for swimmers, kayakers and anglers. However, much of the lake is clogged with weeds and algae, and launching a kayak in most places would require wading through knee deep muck.
Pheiffer is critical of power boaters and of the Friendship Lake District, which turned down an offer to buy the dam and in the past has used cutters to keep weeds at bay. However, this year, the Lake District has been unable to launch the machines due to the low water levels.
The deepest part of the lake is near Pheiffer’s dam and a village-owned public boat ramp and beach on the lake’s western end. The low water levels are less noticeable there, but signs have been posted at the boat ramp warning boaters to launch at their own risk. The swimming area is only knee deep within the roped boundary. Swimming outside the area is difficult due to an overabundance of weeds.
“All he’s doing is driving people to Castle Rock (Lake),” said Tom Liddell, who brought his two young granddaughters to the beach because he didn’t have time to go elsewhere. “I wish it would be a little deeper so they wouldn’t have to play in the green stuff. It’s a sad, sad shame.”
Further east and along the north and south shores, access is virtually impossible for most property owners. But despite the conditions, Pheiffer does not appear to be violating any laws.
According to Joe Behlen, a water management engineer for the state Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin Rapids, some lakes in the state have rules governing the minimum level. There is no minimum lake level requirement for Friendship Lake, which is technically an impoundment created by the damming of Little Roche-A-Cri Creek.
Wally Sedlar, Adams County Land and Water Conservation Department conservationist, said he is in the process of gathering information about the dam’s condition and is looking for someone to do an appraisal of the dam so the County Board or anyone else interested in buying the dam can know the cost of improvements and what it would take to operate the dam. But for now, Pheiffer has control of the dam and how it’s operated.
“He has certain parameters he has to comply with and he’s within them as of right now,” Sedlar said. “We’re trying to work together as a group and try to come up with a resolution that everybody is able to live with.”
Pheiffer said a dam failure analysis, required by the DNR, would cost about $11,000 while the dam itself probably needs about $50,000 in improvements for concrete work and upgrades to modernize the generator. Pheiffer offered to sell the dam in 2010 to the Lake District for what would have equaled about $200,000 but was turned down. He is now asking $1.2 million for the property that abuts Highway 13.
“I went to the Lake District first because I felt they are the ones who should own it because they are the ones who are difficult to please,” Pheiffer said. “Unfortunately, the ones that are difficult to please also don’t want to spend their money. They would like the county to take it over and spend everyone’s money to make their life perfect.”
Swaziek, Lake District secretary, has lived on the lake since 2012 after moving from Belleville in southern Dane County. He lives next door to Vannettie on the far northeastern side of the lake. The low lake levels have been persistent since spring and it’s unlikely a study of the dam would be completed and a decision by the county board made prior to the end of the boating season.
“It’s not moving as fast as we’d like to see,” Swaziek said. “Chuck is at a time of his life when he wants to sell the dam and move on and he’s putting the pressure on us.”
Adams County owns nine dams, many of them built in the late 1960s and early 1970s for development and recreational purposes. The Friendship Lake dam was built in 1857 for a mill operation. It was sold in 1926 to Wisconsin Power & Light and three years later the power company replaced the dam with a modern powerhouse. The village purchased the dam in the early 1960s for $1 and in 1985 sold it for $1,000 to Pheiffer who had operated but not owned other dams in the area.
However, the DNR now contends that Pheiffer was not granted a permit to operate the dam because the village in 1985 mistakenly sold the dam to a private citizen. Over half of the state’s dams are privately owned but in this particular case, the sale of the dam to a private citizen by the village was prohibited under state statute, said Meg Galloway, the DNR’s chief of dams and flood plains.
The village contends it is not the permit holder. Galloway said the best route would likely be not through the court system but to work with Pheiffer on a plan to transfer ownership to a government entity like the county that would include issuing a permit. In addition, the DNR will likely go through a process in the coming months to set a minimum level for the lake but it may not guarantee higher levels than those of this year.
“We have to weigh the interests of everyone,” Galloway said. “I do think that (Pheiffer) is being sincere that it makes it easier to operate the dam, but it’s obviously causing a situation for the homeowners. It’s very complicated and messy.”
Pheiffer grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and became interested in alternative energy in the 1970s. He found his way to Wisconsin where he began operating the now-removed White Creek dam south of Adams before taking over the Friendship Lake dam.
Pheiffer spent years repairing automated musical instruments and has been heavily involved with the Adams Theater, a non-profit organization that with Pheiffer’s help has digitized the old movie theater. His dam generates about 14,400 kilowatt hours of power a month that is sold to Alliant Energy, which has a substation next door to the dam.
“I like electrical stuff,” Pheiffer said as he showed off his generator and turbine inside the dam’s powerhouse. “It runs very quietly, and it’s been running almost non-stop for 30 years.”
But Pheiffer’s quiet operation has turned vocal for many who live on the lake. They have strung up banners around Friendship and Adams and attached bumper stickers to their vehicles that ask to “Save Friendship Lake.” A petition drive is also underway to persuade county officials to buy the dam from Pheiffer.
Moonan, who is on the Lake District board, is concerned about her property value and the value of others around the lake if the conditions continue. That could mean less property tax money collected for the towns of Preston and Adams, the village of Friendship and the Adams-Friendship School District.
Moonan and her husband moved here in 2006 from northern Illinois after looking at properties in Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. An aerial photo taken a few years ago that now hangs in their home shows their pontoon boat tied alongside their dock. Last week, the boat remained in storage and the 30-foot pier surrounded by muck, algae and only a few inches of water near the end of the dock.
“He is causing a tremendous amount of friction with this,” Moonan said of Pheiffer. “We found the perfect little house on the perfect little lake, and it was heaven until it turned to hell.”