Lake Delton is seen Wednesday in Lake Delton, Wis. Efforts to refill the lake are set to begin this month. The man-made lake vanished in June after heavy storms eroded the lake's shoreline, allowing the lake to rush out through the breach to the Wisconsin River.
The three dozen or so resort and restaurant owners that ring this south-central Wisconsin tourist village's namesake lake have been wringing their hands since heavy rains blew out a section of shoreline in June. The lake rushed through the breach and vanished, taking their livelihoods with it.
Now, after nearly six months of engineering and construction work, state officials say they're ready to start refilling the lake -- perhaps as early as this week.
"We cannot wait," said 49-year-old Dawn Baker, co-owner of the Sunset Bay Resort on Lake Delton. "It was sad. It was hard every day just looking at our beautiful lake being gone, having to explain to people over and over that yes, they're going to fill it next summer. It's going to be fine."
William J. Newman, a Chicago building contractor, built Lake Delton in the mid-1920s to attract tourists to Kilbourn City, which later became known as Wisconsin Dells. The village of Lake Delton just to the south of Wisconsin Dells incorporated in 1954.
Today, the area touts itself as the Water Park Capital of the World. It's grown into a mecca of water parks, amusement parks, resorts, condos and restaurants that draws tourists from around the upper Midwest. Visitors spent more than a billion dollars in the area last year alone.
One of the biggest selling points was Lake Delton, a 264-acre pool of dark blue water fed by Mirror Lake just to the north. Lake Delton has served as a venue for water ski shows, a haven for fisherman and a postcard-perfect backdrop for condos and resorts.
That all changed June 9 when a series of storms flooded much of southern Wisconsin and the Midwest for weeks. Workers raced to sandbag a dam that separates Lake Delton from the Wisconsin River, hoping to save several baseball fields behind it from flooding, village trustee Tom Diehl said.
The dam held, but may have doomed the lake. With nowhere to go, swelling waters ate away at a section of sandy shoreline between the lake and the river. The water eventually washed the earth away, creating a 700-foot channel.
The lake poured through the breach, taking part of a highway and five shoreline homes with it. Video of the houses breaking apart and floating away was broadcast around the world.
Tourists hoping for paddleboat rides and sunsets over the water were left with a giant mud pit. Turnstiles stopped spinning.
Baker, co-owner of Sunset Bay Resort, estimates she lost 40 percent of her normal summer revenue. Joe Eck, marketing director for the Wilderness on the Lake resort, said that hotel took a 25 percent hit. Diehl, who runs the iconic Tommy Bartlett water ski show, estimates he lost 90 percent of his normal business.
"It was a long summer," Diehl said.
Andy Morton, state Department of Natural Resources lower Wisconsin River basin supervisor, estimates the lake should fill by May.
The state Department of Transportation began planning what has become a $5.1 million fix-it project in the days after the storms. Contractors built a new dam in front of the breach to stop the creek that feeds Lake Delton from Mirror Lake from rushing through the chasm. They filled in a section of the breach, reinforced it with a clay wall and laid 650 feet of new county highway across the top.
Meanwhile, workers renovated the Lake Delton dam, improving its spillways and gates to allow more water to pass through. Diehl said the dam should now be able to withstand a 1,000-year storm.
All that's left is for the lake itself to return.
State and local officials plan to close the Mirror Lake and Lake Delton dams perhaps as early as Wednesday to trap carp in standing ponds on Lake Delton's basin. They will apply a toxic chemical to the fish, wiping them out so more desirable species will have a better chance to survive when they're restocked this summer.
Then they will open the Mirror Lake dam, but keep the Lake Delton dam closed, allowing Dell Creek to again fill Lake Delton.
Resort owners already are looking forward to spring.
Eck, of Wilderness on the Lake, said his company plans to promote refill watching to attract winter guests. The resort also plans to invite every June 9, 2008, guest to stay on that date in 2009 for free.
"It's an ideal thing for a family to come back and say, 'Wow, what a difference a year later,"' Eck said.
Right now, though, the lake is still a bleak sight. Scrub brush has taken over the basin, and a recent dusting of snow left it looking like Alaskan tundra.
But state transportation officials opened the new section of highway last week, allowing vehicles to circle the lake for the first time since June and giving merchants hope.
"I want to drive over it so bad. I think I'll go back and forth several times," Sunset Bay Resort's Baker said. "It's just the beginning of the end. The lake is going to be full."