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How Much Can a Lake Take?

By Mike Engleson, Executive Director, Wisconsin Lakes

Carrying Capacity, from, Lake Tides Volume 46 Number 4 and The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership.

 

If youíve spent any amount of time on a lake in Wisconsin the last few years, youíve probably noticed an increase in traffic. Some days your lake might remind you of an L.A. freeway at rush hour.  

So, what happens when the number of watercraft on a single lake gets too big? Just like an overcrowded highway, an overcrowded lake starts to cause problems - environmental degradation to the lake, property damage, safety concerns, and even a diminishment of aesthetic quality. After all, itís not always fun being in a crowd.

The threshold where the number of watercraft on a lake starts causing a problem is called its recreational carrying capacity. Wisconsin Lakes became interested in the concept as weíve developed our Recreational Impacts Initiative (see page six of Lake Tides Vol. 46, No. 3). If we could determine a lakeís carrying capacity and how close to (or how far over) capacity it currently is, that could help inform steps to take to mitigate the impacts.

Carrying capacity assessments in Wisconsin are rather rare. Lake Ripley did one in 2003 (you can read about it at https://bit.ly/3nQsw8n), and Wisconsin Lakes is working to develop materials and a protocol to help lakes in the state do something similar

Fortunately, you can determine a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation with this two-step process. First, figure out how much acreage your lake has for full-speed boating by subtracting all the areas that are designated slow-no-wake. Then, apply this rule of thumb: boats that generally donít move around all that much, like fishing boats, get 10 acres each. Boats that travel big distances fast, like waterski boats, get 30 acres each. That means a lake with 300 acres of full speed water could handle 30 fishing boats or 10 waterski boats at a time, giving the lake a capacity of 10-30 boats depending on what they are doing.

Studies like the one Lake Ripley did get a little more complicated in that they look at the types of activities happening on the lake being assessed and narrow down that range for boat numbers based on those activities (the Ripley study estimated a carrying capacity for the lake of 14-17 boats for 260-300 acres of usable water).

Those rules of thumb also donít account for newer watercraft or the enhanced wakes created these days, so our back-of-the-envelope calculation is pretty imprecise. Still, it might give you a sense for whether your lake is at or near a capacity crisis, and in a future column, weíll look at some management options when your lake is looking a bit too much like an L.A. freeway

Carrying capacity assessments in Wisconsin are rather rare. Lake Ripley did one in 2003, and Wisconsin Lakes is working to develop materials and a protocol to help lakes in the state do something similar.

Three Lakes Waterfront Association

PO Box 145

Three Lakes Wi 54562

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