Lake Level Concerns

High water levels on Shell Lake have caused significant financial loss to affected property owners.  Homes, basements and crawl spaces have experienced uninterrupted flooding and many homeowners use sump pumps to remove lake water from their structures.  Previously useable lakeshore property remains underwater.  Approximately 182 of the 341 homes on the lake had water within 2-3 feet of their foundation when Lake Protection Advisory Committee members conducted an informal survey by boat in July of 1998.  Lake levels were at approximately 1222 feet above mean sea level during this survey.  Property around Round Lake has also experienced flooding in recent years.

Historical water levels

Data preceding 1949 are scarce, however local history writers indicated very high water existed between 1882 and 1911.  An 1852 atlas shows “Shell River” draining from the lake at the WNW corner.  In 1885, the sawmill dug a channel through the area that is now Highway 63 in order to drain water off the mill floor.  Other reports indicate that what is now “Tiptown” was an island and that Scout Island was merely a few rocks sticking out of the water.

Additionally, the report states that Rolph’s Point was three small islands.  Another account commented that strong east winds caused waves to blow water onto the railroad depot platform. Other historical records indicate that the lake has been as high as 1,232.5 feet above mean sea level (msl) in 1882, and that high levels persisted until around 1911. Over the next 39 years, the lake level declined nearly 18 feet.  In 1936, when continuous lake level monitoring started, the lake level was 1,216.5 feet msl. Townspeople feared that the lake was too low at this level and used dynamite to blast a channel to bring water from the Welsh Lake area southwest of town.

In 1942 Washburn County and the Village of Shell Lake diverted water from the Clam River basin to Shell Lake under a permit from the Public Service Commission.  This diversion has been at least partially blocked with an earthen plug.

Current water levels

Since 1949 the level of Shell Lake has fluctuated between 1,214.96 feet msl and 1,222.69 feet msl - a total difference of approximately 9 feet. Two key factors cause these large fluctuations: variation in precipitation, and changes in vegetation within the watershed.  A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) study in 1982 determined that inflows to Shell Lake were from the following sources;

1. Precipitation - 58% (28 inches/year)

2. Rain runoff  - 29% (14 inches/year)

3. Groundwater - 13%  (6 inches/year)

A 1999 United States Geological Survey (USGS) study of Shell Lake confirms that Shell Lake receives water primarily from precipitation and runoff, not from groundwater.  However, the only way for the lake to lose water is through normal evaporation and minimal groundwater seepage.

Rainfall of 9.14 inches during May and June of 1996 brought Shell Lake to 1,222.69 feet msl, its highest level since 1900.  Similar high water levels occurred in 1986 when July precipitation totaled 9.59 inches. In 1999 water levels fluctuated between 1220.68 and 1221.78 feet msl.  Figure 5 illustrates recent water levels on Shell Lake.

Lake level stabilization

Because of concern by landowners around the lake over the rising lake levels, the Shell Lake City Council reviewed methods for long-term lake stabilization.  The chosen alternative was to install a gravity/siphon system. This system would allow water to be removed continuously if needed. 

Following a short-term pumping project, the City of Shell Lake made an application to the WDNR for a permit to place a gravity/siphon into the lake to stabilize the level of Shell Lake.   The 1999 USGS study concluded that several years of pumping for at least 200 days per year at rates of 1,000 to 2,000 gallons per minute would be required to reduce 1990’s high stages by about one foot

A hearing on the City of Shell Lake’s application for this permit was held on July 7, 1999.  The Department of Natural Resources took no action on the permit, and it was referred to an administrative law judge for resolution.  The permit was denied in a May 5, 2000 decision.  The City Council voted to appeal the judge’s decision at a special meeting held later that same month.

Plant and Animal Life

Aquatic plants

Aquatic plants or macrophytes are rooted vegetation in lakes.  There are three forms ­ submergents (such as pond weed) which occur below the water line, floating leaf (such as water lilly), and emergents (such as cattail and bulrush) which emerge above the waterline.

Aquatic plants provide food and shelter for spawning and nesting, and cover for young fish, waterfowl, and furbearers.  Submergent macrophytes, which are generally found in deeper water, provide seeds, tubers, and roots for waterfowl.  Emergent macrophytes provide food and cover for wildlife and the aquatic insects that feed fish.  Emergent plants also help to stabilize shorelines by minimizing wave action. 

Shell Lake has a diverse community of aquatic plants, yet they are found in only ten percent of the lake, mostly in the South Bay.  Bulrushes, are an emergent plant found mainly in the South Bay. Many of the bulrushes and other emergent plants, have been removed from the lake.  While they may be relatively easy to remove, they can be rather difficult to reestablish.

Little Ripley has abundant aquatic vegetation.


A normal, healthy diversity of animal life exists in and around the City of Shell Lake.  Beaver, muskrat, and mink are often seen in the lakes.  Deer, coyotes, fox, and bear are found in the surrounding woodlands. Ducks, loons, herons, gulls, and shorebirds are abundant.  There are several bald eagles nesting on Shell Lake. 


Fish species in Shell Lake include muskellunge (muskie), walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, rock bass, bluegill, yellow perch, white sucker, pumpkinseed sunfish, and black and brown bullhead.   Of these, only the muskellunge do not reproduce naturally.  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) stocks muskies in the lake each year.  Shell Lake is a good lake for natural walleye reproduction.  Due to its size and shape, the walleye fingerlings may live and grow in an open water habitat away from their natural predators.  Fishing pressure is not considered heavy on Shell Lake. 

There is minimal data regarding the fish composition of Little Ripley and Round Lake.  However each lake has populations of largemouth bass, bluegills, and pumpkinseed sunfish.  Little Ripley suffers periodically from winterkill. To maintain fishing on Little Ripley, the WDNR stocks the lake with bass and bluegills after a freeze-out.