MONTICELLO — A local conservation nonprofit last week set out to evaluate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan for moderating Lake Freeman's water levels.

The Shafer & Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corp. appointed three members to a task force to study the Abnormal Low Flow plan mandated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to determine the SFLECC's position on it, as well as to examine further options for SFLECC to bring about an immediate rise in Lake Freeman water levels and to maintain the water levels without wide and sudden 

Lake Freeman had fallen to about 19 inches below normal this summer as Northern Indiana Public Service Co., owner of the Oakdale Dam, complied with the mandate to release water from the dam to protect riverbeds with endangered mussels.

The lower water levels caused headaches for lake residents and are credited for the area's sluggish tourist season. One area business owner said he had to lay off four employees as a result of less business.

However, the organization believes the abnormally low water levels created more than just an economic problem for Lake Freeman residents and Lake businesses alone.

If long term, drought-like conditions recur, the economic affects would become more pronounced, in the organization's view, and could eventually lead to lower property values and reduced property tax collections.

Board members named to the Task Force were Board President John Koppelmann and Directors Lee Kreul and John Engler. The Board also authorized the ad hoc task force to bring in others knowledgeable about biological science, hydrology and engineering.

Just after the task force formed, however, heavy rain over the Tippecanoe River watershed and a malfunction on the Norway dam just below Lake Shafer — several miles upstream of Lake Freeman — brought Lake Freeman's levels above normal summer depth, according to the organization. The higher lake levels allowed access to Lake Freeman for boaters via ramps and boat lifts, and removal of watercraft for seasonal storage.

“The rise in the levels of Lake Freeman has removed one immediate concern for the various users of Lake Freeman, property owners, visitors and businesses," Koppelmann said in a press release. “However, our SFLECC Board members, staff and others are still very much concerned that the type of near-drought weather conditions that originally reduced flows from upstream and triggered the actions of USFWS ... also created a host of other economic problems. The situation is very likely to return, if not again this year, then annually for years to come.”

The organization agrees that the endangered mussels below the Oakdale dam should be protected. "But the ALF plan for managing the flows from Oakdale dam that is being offered by the USFWS would appear to be over generous in providing habitat for endangered mussels in the lower Tippecanoe river in time of drought," Joe Roach, SFLECC Executive Director, said.

"What we want to know is exactly how will the ALF plan impact water levels on Lake Freeman?”

Roach said that SFLECC has other questions about the USFWS methodology and conclusions in formulating its plan.

The SFLECC Task Force has also met with legal council to discuss and explore the possibility of legal actions.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 22 issued a temporary variance from former guidelines to allow NIPSCO to begin operating Oakdale Dam under the Abnormal Low Flow plan.

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