Breakwater Falls and Gorge-Rapids of Pine River (WI) to Flow All Summer!
By: Evan Stafford
From June 1st through the fall of this year, the Pine River (Florence, WI) will offer a rare opportunity for Wisconsin whitewater. During the maintenance drawdown, no water will be diverted around Breakwater Falls and gorge-rapids below the Pine Dam. The 12-foot lowering of water level, (started 5/21) will also expose additional rapids and both twin falls just upriver from the flowage.
In the 2.4 miles of the river from LaSalle Falls through Breakwater Gorge, the Pine River drops a Midwestern-impressive 146 feet (gradient of 61 fpm), over 6 waterfalls and 5 rapids. Average summer flow (June thru October) for this section of the Pine is 342cfs. During normal hydroelectric operation all water but 27cfs is diverted around Breakwater Falls and Gorge. During this year’s drawdown there will be no diversion for electrical generation. The drops at LaSalle and Breakwater will have the same flow rates. Having both these spectacular falls runnable at the same time with the same flow has not been available since the last drawdown in 1993.
In preparation for the 1995 FERC agreement, “Kayak Test” flows were run from 150 to 300 cfs (See article by Mike Sklavos in the May/June 1992 issue of the American Whitewater Journal). Participants concluded that the Breakwater Falls was runnable above 225cfs. USGS Flow rates for the Pine River (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?04064500 ) are measured 2.5 miles downriver from the dam. Also, water release rates specifically for Breakwater Falls below the Pine Dam are posted at: https://accel.wisconsinpublicservice.com/environment/hydrodata.aspx
During the drawdown and throughout this summer local volunteer John Roberts will post updates, photos, and videos of the flowage and runs down LaSalle and Breakwater Gorge at: https://www.facebook.com/PinePopplePike/ Access to LaSalle is by a 1-mile hike-in trail, a 1-mile upriver paddle from the flowage, or a 4-mile downriver paddle. In addition to the downriver paddle and a 1,000-foot portage around the dam, access to Breakwater (during the drawdown) will be limited to the south side drive-in to the WE Energies campsite #24 or a 1,900-foot carry up the service road from the generating station reachable by Power Dam Rd.
Historically, even though, at 60 feet of drop, it is the 6th largest waterfall in Wisconsin, Breakwater Falls has remained unknown because, when the Pine Dam became operational in 1922, essentially all river flow was stored for diversion and released through the downriver generating station. Dewatered, the falls were no longer a part of the river when in 1965 the Pine River became the largest of Wisconsin’s state-designated Wild Rivers (serving as inspiration for Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson’s leadership role in the development of a federal Wild and Scenic Rivers system in 1968). After 73 years of being dewatered, the 1995 FERC Pine Dam license required run-of-river operating mode and a minimum of 27cfs to be released down what had casually become renamed as “the bypass” instead of Breakwater Falls. In the 1997 Wilderness Shores Settlement Agreement (WSSA), WE Energies agreed to remove the Pine Dam in 2025 if the agencies involved in negotiating that WSSA still supported removal. In 2016, in response to inquiries from WE Energies, the Wisconsin DNR agreed to support WE Energies interests in a 15-year extension of the Pine Dam FERC license. Other WSSA participating agencies have worked towards obtaining several valued compensations in lieu of this reversal to WSSA. These appear to be a) protection of WE Energies’ land along the Pine River for eventual inclusion as part of the state’s Wild Rivers system, b) enhanced recreational opportunities around Breakwater Falls (i.e. improvements to public access through Wild Rivers compatible trails, steps, and signage), and c) a fast-track, 2018 updating of the 37-year-old DNR Pine-Popple River Master Plan.
Despite the complexity of issues and interests, this stretch of the Pine River remains spectacular and unique. It is among the steepest gradients of major rivers in Wisconsin. The river pours over outcrops and runs through gorges of some of the oldest Precambrian rock in the nation (dated at 2 billion years old). Since designation as a Wisconsin Wild River the forests along the banks of the Pine River including LaSalle Falls and Breakwater Falls have remained untouched, managed as old growth forests. This year presents a unique, high-end whitewater opportunity to experience the drops at LaSalle (22-feet) and Breakwater (65-feet) and wee hope to see you out there!