Around the 7th of September, 2014, heavy rains in the vicinity of Wilderness Park broke up the levee around the O’Neal Lake dam and the lake’s water began draining into a creek. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) then drained out most of the water left in the lake to prevent further damage to the dam, so what was once a beautiful lake is now an eyesore. Before and after photos show the difference between the original 150-acre lake and the oversize puddle of water surrounded by rubble-littered mud flats that it has become. The dam is owned by the State of Michigan, so it’s the state’s job to fix it. Fixing a small dam like this one is not rocket science—all it would take is to fill in the levee, re-install boards in the dam, and let the lake fill back up, but the DNR has still not established a timetable for the repairs, or even decided whether to repair it at all.
Ironically, O’Neal Lake is located in Bliss Township, but local residents who used to enjoy the lake are finding little cause for bliss in its present state. Some of them claim that the original deed that created Lake O’Neal in the early 1950s provides for public use of the lake for fishing, boating, navigation, hunting, and trapping, and that failing to restore the lake would violate the deed by making at least three of these uses unproductive, if not impossible. The low water levels already make the lake an uninviting place for boating and navigation. Docks are stranded high and dry, with many yards of rubble-filled lake bed between them and what’s left of the water—which seems unlikely to float a light canoe, let alone a fishing boat. A hard winter could well cause the diminished lake to freeze solid, killing the fish. That would not only prevent the use of the lake for public fishing but also drive off the wildlife that depends on fish to survive, including loons, ospreys (also called fish hawks), bald eagles, and great blue herons. The loons are a special case, in part because loons are officially a Threatened Species in Michigan. There aren’t many lakes that provide good habitat for loons, but O’Neal Lake—before the dam failure—was one of them. In addition to requiring fish to survive, loons need about a quarter mile of surface water to take off, and a much smaller O’Neal Lake may not provide that. So when the loons return to the lake next spring, they will most likely abandon the lake and try to find a new one—unless the DNR repairs the dam and restores the lake before they arrive. Once the loons leave a lake, they rarely return.
In the past the lake attracted anglers, who fished for bass, bluegills and pike; birders who came to hear the weird, wild calls of the loons and to search for eagles, cranes, and the like; and kayakers who liked to paddle around and enjoy the scenery. Now there’s not much left to enjoy. It would be a shame if another of Michigan’s special places were to be lost forever for the lack of a little dirt, a few boards, and the will to do what needs to be done.