Dam good safety improvements

Contractors from Janke Construction work to complete the Princeton Lock doors. submitted photo

by Joe Schulz

In order to adjust seasonal water levels on Lake Puckaway, for decades operators of the Princeton Dam were forced to walk out onto the concrete spillway to install wooden flashboards in the spring and remove them in the fall.

The boards would add 18 inches to the top of the dam, and raise the water level on Lake Puckaway by roughly 11 inches for the summer months.

But this year, flashboards will no longer be necessary, as the Wisconsin DNR’s $1.7 million Princeton Lock and Dam renovation will be complete by the end of June, according to DNR Facilities and Land Engineer Brent Binder.

The project replaced the dam’s flashboard system by installing a concrete cap on the top of the spillway, which Binder noted will raise the water level on Lake Puckaway to summer levels year-round.

In addition, the project includes placing riprap downstream of the dam to reduce hydraulic currents, the construction of a fish passage, the removal of trees and brush adjacent to the dam and maintenance on the Princeton Lock.

According to a 2016 DNR document, the renovation was necessary to reduce safety risks associated with the seasonal installation and removal of flashboards. 

Beyond increasing safety, the renovation aims to stabilize water levels for the residents of the Lake Puckaway Association and help the DNR implement future water quality and fisheries improvement.

Binder noted the project was started because of a near-drowning in 2012, when someone slipped while removing flashboards to lower the water level for the winter season.

“Fortunately [the dam operator] didn’t drown, but that was enough for us to look at the risk and determine that installing those flashboards every spring and taking them off every fall was not good,” Binder said. “That’s when we requested the funding to change the operation of the structure. That was the basis for our project.”

Now, roughly eight years later, the spillway and fish passage are completed and the entire project is set to wrap five months ahead of schedule.

Contractors still have to finish maintenance on the Princeton Lock, which includes replacing the lock’s gates and motors.

An aerial view of the Wisconsin DNR’s Princeton Lock and dam renovation. submitted photo

“As they finish up the project, they’ll be re-landscaping the site, repaving a portion of the parking area and road that enters the site that may have been damaged or worn during construction,” Binder said.

While the project is nearing completion, it’s been a long time coming for the Lake Puckaway Protection and Rehabilitation District (LPPRD), according to Paul Gettelman, the organization’s former chairman.

The LPPRD worked cooperatively with the DNR for more than  25 years in the operation of the Princeton Dam, assisting in spring to put the flashboards on to raise the water level, and in the fall to lower the water level.

“In the past when we were going to put the boards on we would open the lock gates to relieve the water pressure when putting on the boards,” Gettelman said. “Same was true when we removed them. This was done with DNR approval.”

He noted the LPPRD was active in getting the reconstruction moved forward.

“For 25 years, the [LPPRD] had been trying to get a new dam put in so we could eliminate working with the boards,” Gettelman said.

The spillway’s new concrete cap does just that, while stabilizing water levels on Lake Puckaway.

According to LPPRD Chairman Kurt McCulloch, the annual addition of flashboards would cause a bit of a stir in the communities surrounding the lake.

“We had to get the water down 15 inches to put the boards on; and on the lake side, everybody would see the water go down,” McCulloch said. “And then on the east side of the dam, when we let the water out, they got a rush of water; and then they would be lacking water once the boards went on because the flow was injured.”

With the renovated dam, that issue is eliminated.

“Now the water is the water, the flow rate is going to be the same,” McCulloch said. “[The dam] regulates the water level to an extent, but there’s really no controlling the water level because it’s going to be a fixed-crest dam.”

After years of hoping for a new dam, Gettelman’s been watching the project closely, posting photos and updates on Lake Puckaway’s Facebook page. He noted the relatively mild winter helped the project stay ahead of schedule.

Beyond being blessed by the weather, he added Janke Construction, the project’s general contractor, has done an outstanding job renovating the dam.

“They didn’t stop for anything — it didn’t matter if they were getting rain, sleet, snow or ice — they kept working at this project,” Gettlemam said. “It’s almost like they started and they knew they could get this done right away.”