The Lower Fox River begins at the north end of Lake Winnebago, it flows through Neenah, Menasha, Appleton and later through Green Bay to reach its destination, Lake Michigan. The Lower Fox River empties a drainage basin of 6,349 square miles, with an annual flow of 1.063 trillion gallons, at an average flow of 4,390 cubic feet per second it could fill Lambeau Field to capacity roughly four and a half times per day. The river is currently running between 8k and 11k cubic feet per second (about the size of a basketball or large chicken).
There are nine dams along the Lower Fox River operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District with another four privately owned dams. The oldest of the Chicago District operated dams is the Little Kaukauna which was constructed in 1926, the oldest of the dams the Upper Appleton being built in 1940. With careful use of the dams the water level of Lake Winnebago can be controlled to a thousandth of an inch.
“Water levels in the lake and river flow are determined by local stakeholders, while the Army Corps controls the majority of the dams its really the people who determine what we do,” Luke Bartal, Maintenance and Dam Operator.
While there are private dams on the Lower Fox River owned by power companies and a paper mill that make regulating the levels a bit trickier as they are free to regulate their dams as they choose, a good working relationship has developed in order to keep things flowing smoothly. Daily calls are made to keep everyone in the loop about changes that need to be made or anticipated openings and closures of any of the dams. “They aren’t shy about calling at 2 am in the winter when there is a situation that comes up,” Luke continued.
In October there is an annual meeting where Lake levels and plans for the upcoming year are discussed. Everyone gets a say, it’s a very democratic system where the majority rules. Luke explained, “There is always someone with a strong opinion or two, but most people agree about what needs to happen. It’s all handled very democratically.” At the end of the day the dams are there to help people and limit the flooding risk they are exposed to.
“The great part of my job is seeing the smiling faces of the public when they thank you for the job we are doing and keeping the water levels where they are needed and keeping everyone safe. That appreciation is great,” finished Luke.
Lake and dam levels can be found at Lake Winnebago (army.mil). And stay tuned to the USACE Chicago webpage and social media for more great stories and pictures.