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Waubay Chain of Lakes, in the Glacial Lakes & Prairies Region of northeast South Dakota, is a stunning example of nature's triumph over human settlement. What was as recently as 1930 a series of shallow glacial lakes has enlarged until it is nearly all one huge water body, called Waubay Lake. Land where once lay the individual Hillebrands, Spring, Grenville Slough, North and South Waubay Lakes is now melded via flooding into one huge liquid expanse. The relentless rising flood ignores farm fields and lakefront property lines as it continues to march toward engulfing Minnewasta, Bluedog, Rush and Little Rush Lakes into its voracious reach.
Where farmers and ranchers tilled the soil and raised their children, livestock and crops for more than 100 years, the relentless water marches toward its ancient cyclical banks. Unfortunately, these property owners didn't have the advantage of scientific studies of the historic water tables and former floods when they homesteaded these prairie fields. If they had, they likely would have continued to farm the area in the hopes that the 'next' flood could be held in abeyance by man-made ditches and dikes. But a combination of weather changes, including cooler temperature averages and several years of heavy rainfall, have created changes that have affected the lakes and its human inhabitants immeasurably.
The changes caused by the phenomenal growth of Waubay Lake have not been all detrimental. Submerged timber, rock piles, old farm implements and flooded farm ground have created ideal habitat for spawning game fish, chiefly the popular walleye. Also growing in number are perch, northern pike, smallmouth bass, bluegill, white bass, black crappie, rock bass and small numbers of lake herring transplanted from the Blue Dog Lake State Fish Hatchery. As the local farmers give up their fields and their crops to the rising water, increasing numbers of sport fishermen arrive at the lake to inject new life into the local economy. The 15,540 acres of water attract sport anglers year round, with ice fishing nearly as popular as open water angling.
Although Waubay Lake is open to boating, emergent stumps and tree trunks make the shallower areas a little too dangerous to attract power boaters and sailors. There are several public access boat ramps along the shore, but no public swimming beaches have yet been developed due to the changing water levels. Several bait shops and small marinas rent fishing-type boats and provide all supplies necessary for the angler's day on the water. A few small resorts offer vacation rentals, with private swim areas and even guide service for anglers wanting to go home with a guaranteed 'best catch of the day'. Major walleye fishing tournaments are regularly held on Waubay Lake and serve to acquaint the public with all the Waubay Chain of Lakes area has to offer.
Hillebrands Lake and Spring Lake are encompassed by the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge. Special fishing and boating regulations within the Refuge's waters assure plenty of undisturbed spawning area to keep the lake well-stocked with fish. The Refuge is home to 244 species of birds (over 100 nesting species), with 37 mammals also in regular residence. The Refuge is a favorite bird watching destination, and hunting is permitted for some species in season with an applicable license.
Towns that offer supplies, lodging and restaurants include: Grenville, located on the former North Waubay Lake; Webster, a few miles south of the lakes; and Waybay, on Bluedog Lake. One of the resorts near Grenville contains a small campground for self-contained camping units. The Glacial Lakes Snowmobile Trail connects the communities of Grenville, Webster, Roslyn, Eden, and Lake City. This beautiful trail is primarily off-road through the Coteau des Prairie Hills and connects to the 92-mile Northeast Trail.
Many vacationers come to one of the resorts on the Waubay Chain of Lakes that stays open in winter to enjoy ice fishing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. Only 40 miles from Watertown, the Waubay Chain of Lakes is an excellent, uncrowded weekend get-away. Campgrounds and swimming at nearby Pickerel Lake complete the recreational attractions, so the area is seeing an increasing number of vacationing visitors. The rising water has left several roads in the area either abandoned or virtually unused, making them ideal for hiking and cycling.
Recent studies of the hydrology of the Glacial Lakes area have shown that most of the Waubay Chain of Lakes are simple basin lakes with no real inlet or outlet. Lower average temperatures have limited water loss due to evaporation, and increased rain and snow falls have added more water than anyone has seen in recorded history in the area. Several years ago, the South Dakota Water Management Board established the OHWM (Ordinary High Water Mark)) on Waubay Lake at 1787.1 feet above sea level. By spring of 2009, the water level was at 1801.9 and is still rising. Waubay Lake gains water via underground percolation and overflow through connecting wetlands from Pickerel Lake and Enemy Swim Lake on slightly higher ground. Excess water has migrated downgrade to the southernmost lake in the chain - Bitter Lake - formerly mostly dry, but now overflowing and growing to the point where it threatens the town of Waubay.
Geological surveys show that the excess water at some point will get high enough to flow into an old channel which will lead it farther south toward Grass Lake in Codington County and on to the Big Sioux River. Although FEMA declared the area a disaster site in 1998 and has provided some funds for moving structures, cleaning the channel and extending it to Grass Lake and the Big Sioux would be costly and time-consuming. It would involve a large number of landowners who would have to agree to the extra flow of water and upgrading existing culverts to handle the increased water. In the meantime, the owners of flooded properties move their homes to higher ground and give up planting soggy fields. They don't know if, or when, their lives will return to anything approaching the normal they have always known.
This uncertainty has not prevented development of new housing on high ground around the Waubay Chain of Lakes: several new developments offer real estate, both existing homes and buildable lots with waterfront and water views. Cottages above the new water line can sometimes be found for weekly or monthly rentals. Hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts in the area are geared toward handling the weekend visitors. The few resorts along the shoreline do their utmost to make the vacationing family's stay a pleasant one with children's activities and group events scheduled regularly. The Waubay Chain of Lakes is open for business despite the flooding, and business owners are anxious for you to come and enjoy all their area has to offer. So, pack the spinning rods, binoculars and hiking boots and come on up to the Waubay Chain of Lakes for a spell. You'll fall in love with its windswept banks, campfires near the water's edge, and the excitement of reeling in those eager walleye.
Statistical information for the Waubay Chain of Lakes listed is the latest figures for the combined water surface of what is now Waubay Lake. These are necessarily estimates as the water levels are still rising.
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