MONTICELLO — A popular White County tourist attraction and entertainment spot is being forced to stay docked for the foreseeable future because water levels on Lake Freeman have dropped between three to six feet during the past 30 days.
Because the water levels are so low, the vessel is unable to safety operate the lake.
According to the Shafer Freeman Lakes Environmental Conversation Corporation, water levels on Lake Freeman are dwindling each day as NIPSCO opens the Oakdale Dam to water the nesting grounds of endangered mussels several miles downstream in the Tippecanoe River.
The action, the group says, is being triggered by a lack of substantial rain this summer.
NIPSCO issued two Abnormal River Condition warnings in July and August, advising people of the lower lake levels and to be aware of submerged objects at or near the surface.
“Areas that were navigable before may not be now,” said John Koppelmann, SFLECC Lake Levels chairperson.
NIPSCO is acting according to mandates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by releasing water to help keep the bottom-dwelling mussels alive.
At the same time, the action is slowly killing business and tourism on Lake Freeman, preventing residents and vacationers from safely operating watercraft on Lake Freeman as once-submerged objects are now more exposed, either just below or above the surface.
“Our captains have a lifetime of experience with our vessel and an intimate knowledge of the lake,” Madam Carroll co-owner Chris Peters wrote Monday night on social media. “It is because of their knowledge and experience and the prudence of our team that we are being forced to make a difficult decision; however, (it is) one that will protect our vessel and the safety of our guests.”
He added that at the vessel’s usual docking location, the water level is down almost six feet, which prompted him and co-owner Chris Lehe to move the boat “significantly” into deeper water.
“Yes, (it’s) very noticeable at the dock,” Peters said. “We already have new gangways built.”
Peters said water levels are dropping as a result of a miscalculated mandate from USFWS to protect the endangered bottom-dwelling mussel.
“As a small business, we have done everything within our power to continue our operation without missing a beat,” Peters said. “(It is) a costly endeavor which followed an even harder blow to the business from the shutdown during quarantine.”
The Madam Carroll and practically every small local business not deemed “essential” had to close for several weeks, even months, because of the ongoing COVID-19 health emergency. Lake Freeman’s current water levels have left most lake property owners unable to use their boats, leaving them concerned about property values and damage to seawalls and buildings.
“Our vibrant, healthy and beautiful Lake Freeman, one of the drivers of our summer economy has been shut down,” stated Gabrielle Haygood, executive director of SFLECC. “Here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and our worst fears are coming true.”
Despite the constantly receding waters, the Madam Carroll — Indiana’s largest registered boat at 135 feet and weighing 300 tons — was able to operate by staying within the channel and navigating its deepest parts.
Lake Freeman is about 35 feet at its deepest point, Peters said, and runs an average of 20 feet to 25 feet in the channel. Peters added that the levels vary depending on which “end of the lake you’re in.”
“We need at least six (feet) of draft, or water, under the boat for the props and engine tubs to clear the lake bed,” he said. “But we need also need a margin of error of at least 10 to 15 more feet under (the Madam Carroll’s) stern since obstacles can still exist under the water line.”
He said taking the Madam Carroll out onto the lake now with continually shrinking water levels “would ultimately result in a catastrophe.”
“The Madam Carroll was not designed to rest on the lake bed. She was most certainly not designed to rest in the rocky river channel,” Peters said. “If action is not taken, continued discharge from the Oakdale Dam will destroy the boat.”
While the Madam Carroll won’t be cruising Lake Freeman anytime soon, Peters said the boat will still continue with its scheduled events and services dockside.
“Nothing is going to stop our business from continuing its operation,” Peters said. “We will move mountains, re-engineer and adapt accordingly so that this historic vessel and (people’s) ability to enjoy it will continue year-round. As a business, as a crew and as a community, we will continue to fight this absurd mandate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which has now disrupted and put an entire economy in jeopardy.”
Peters urges people to contact their lawmakers, as well as pointing to the bottom of their website home page (https://madamcarroll.com) for more information about the low lake level events.
“We have several irons in the fire, conversations taking place and meetings on the books to bring this overreach of government power to an end,” Peters said. “I can assure you someone has made a terrible mistake jeopardizing the legacy of our historic vessel and underestimating the resourcefulness of her owners.”
The Shafer Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corporation, a non-profit organization preserving and promoting Monticello’s two lakes for the public benefit, has spent more than $500,000 challenging the US Fish & Wildlife’s order and are now in the federal court process. There is a hearing scheduled Oct. 5 in the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
SFLECC members recently met with Congressman Jim Baird and U.S. Sen. Todd Young, as well as state and local legislators, to view the stumps, rocks and other objects now exposed in Lake Freeman due to the lower water levels.
“The situation just doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” said Gary Creigh, owner of Tall Timbers Marina. “So we’ve got to get some help on the state and federal level to get our waters figured out.”
If something isn’t done soon, Creigh said he could lose a great deal of business.
“We have people coming up wanting to enjoy the lakes, use the lakes ... and they are going to get here and find out it’s impossible,” he said. “It can’t be done right now.”
Current water level flow information can be found at www.nipscohydro.com.