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Black River

The Black River begins at the outlet of Black Lake in Taylor County. It flows nearly 200 miles until reaching the Mississippi River. The Black River descends from its headwaters to the dam at Black River Falls an average of 6.6 feet/mile. Below the dam, the river descends towards the Mississippi River an average of approximately 1.7 feet/mile.

Conversely, lower gradient tributaries flow into the upper portion of the Black River whereas higher gradient tributaries flow into the lower half of the Black River. The rocky substrate of the Black River above Lake Arbutus contrasts with the sand bottom seen below Black River Falls. Severe bank erosion below Black River Falls was documented at approximately a dozen sites. These sites contain steep sandy banks and consequently high costs are involved to armor with riprap. One site was stabilized with available funds. Potential problems associated with armoring these banks is discussed in the Mussels of the Black River discussion.

The U.S. Geological Service has gauged flows of the Black River since 1905 in various locations. The gauge at Neillsville has been in service from 1905 to 1909 then again from 1913 until the present. The gauge near Galesville has been in service continuously since 1931. The total annual sediment load estimated from measurements taken at the Galesville gauge ranged from 42,300 to 471,000 tons and averaged 277,000 tons during the water years 1974-1983 (Rose).

The river is designated a trout stream for the first eighteen miles of the Black River. The remainder of the river contains most of Wisconsin's game fish, including muskellunge, northern pike, walleye, bass, catfish and several panfish species.

Recreational use of the Black River has increased over the years. Canoeing and kayaking are the two major recreational uses of the river. Consequently, fishing pressure has also increased. The Wisconsin DNR owns and maintains access to the river at Van Loon State Wildlife Area, North Bend and Melrose. The Department of Transportation maintains access to the HWY 53 bridge. Other canoe/kayak launches exist along the river which are maintained by municipalities or counties. Businesses that cater to canoeists have recently been established in the stretch of river below Black River Falls.

Contaminants in the Black River

A fish consumption advisory for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is in place for channel catfish in the Black River from Black River Falls downstream to its mouth at the Mississippi River (Wisconsin DNR, 1997). PCBs are manmade compounds historically used in inks, lubricants, electrical capacitors and transformers, adhesives and plasticizers (Hutzinger). These compounds are drawn to organic compounds, such as soils and sediment.

Exposure of PCB to the water column and aquatic organisms usually originates from contaminated sediment. Sediment in a river system can become covered by "clean" sediment, but it may also become more diffuse or shift to another location in the river during times of high flow. During the 1993 flood event, the flow of the Black River at Galesville was nearly 31 times greater than the river's 61-year mean discharge. It was speculated that these extreme flows may have mobilized sources of PCBs and may increase their availability to aquatic organisms in the river.

An EPA grant allowed department staff to study PCB concentrations in the Black River to determine the source of PCB found in Black River fish. In 1994, PCB concentrations in the water column were determined by immersing lipid-filled permeable membranes in the Black River for extended periods of time. This method simulates fish uptake of these compounds. It was determined that the PCB concentrations documented in the Black River using the lipid-filled permeable membranes were not high enough to produce the PCB levels found in the fish. The contaminated fish are likely accumulating PCBs in the Mississippi River and migrating up the Black River (Hazuga & Schreiber). Since the laboratory detection limit for PCBs decreased since the last sampling, walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish from the Black River below Black River Falls should be collected and analyzed for PCB concentrations (Amrhein).

Mercury concentrations have also prompted a fish consumption advisory for some species of Black River fish. From Hwy 29/73 in Clark County downstream to the Mississippi River, smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, musky and channel catfish contain mercury at levels high enough to warn people of potential health risks if they choose to consume them (Wisconsin DNR, 1997). Mercury available for accumulation in aquatic organisms is thought to be influenced by wetlands. Chemical properties that exist in wetlands can change mercury into a more available form.

Fish that inhabit waterbodies drained by large wetland areas are in contact with this available form of mercury and may contain concentrations high enough to warrant consumption advisories (Hurley, et. al.). The Black River basin contains approximately 84,627 acres of wetlands or 5.6% of the basin. Other western Wisconsin basins contain a much smaller percentage of wetland and do not have pervasive mercury contamination of fish (Buffalo River - 1.6%, Trempealeau River - 2.4%, La Crosse River - 2.4%). To update the fish advisory database, walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike should be collected from the Black River Falls Flowage, Lake Arbutus and the stretch of river near Owen-Withee for mercury analysis (Amrhein).


  1. Water division staff should collect channel catfish, walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike or musky for contaminant analysis from the following sections of the Black River: within the Popple River watershed (near Owen-Withee), Lake Arbutus, Black River Falls flowage and downstream of Black River Falls. (type b)

Black River dams

Two dams impound water on the Black River. The Black River Falls dam creates the Black River Flowage. Moving 13.5 miles upstream, the Hatfield dam creates Lake Arbutus. The Black River Flowage is a long narrow 200-acre body of water which is no more than a deepening of the Black River. By contrast, Lake Arbutus is an 840-acre impoundment with two county parks and many single-family homes on its shores. Additional information on Lake Arbutus can be found in the East Fork Black River watershed narrative (BR07). Additional information on the Black River Flowage is contained in the Trout Run and Robinson Creeks watershed narrative (BR04).

Both dams generate hydroelectric power; however, the Hatfield facility is currently under repair and not producing power. In 1997, the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) licensed the Hatfield dam for another 30 years. The structure which creates Lake Arbutus contains two discharge points, one to the river channel and the other to a diversion channel which leads to the power generation facility approximately 2.5 miles downstream.

The diversion channel is a dike that runs parallel to the Black River. In the past, the entire flow was diverted to the power generation channel; however, the new license requires a minimum daily flow of 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Black River. Higher flow discharges from Lake Arbutus are required into the Black River one weekend each summer month for recreational users. Kayaking the rapids in this stretch of river has become very popular since the flow has been diverted to the Black River to facilitate repairs to the diversion channel.

The Hatfield license contains a run of river conditions. This condition requires the total inflow to Lake Arbutus is instantaneously discharged either through the Black River channel or the diversion channel. Thus, hydropower operations are not allowed to store/release water or otherwise disrupt the normal river hydrograph. (Lovejoy).

Effect of the flood of 1993 on the Black River

In June 1993, flood damage estimated at $50 million resulted from heavy rains (eight inches in five days) that fell on already saturated soils. With only 7 of 10 Hatfield dam flood gates operational at the time of the flood, water levels behind the dam could not be efficiently reduced. This caused localized flooding in the community of Hatfield. The high flows caused a portion of the dam to breach and it was in danger of failing.

High water levels resulted in failure of the levee that creates the Hatfield diversion canal and a flood control levee in the city of Black River Falls. These flows caused large quantities of sediment to reach the Black River and damage to at least 90 homes in "The Grove" area of Black River Falls. As the rains and runoff slowed, the Hatfield dam held and the three remaining gates were made operational (Wisconsin DNR, 1993). The Black River Falls flood control levee was repaired and upgraded in 1996 (Lovejoy).

Species of concern in the Black River

Information on the Black River species of concern are from the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation. Species of concern include rare plants, animals, insects and related natural communities. This information is used to identify critical habitat or conditions to prevent further degradation and thus help protect these species. Protection of Threatened and Endangered species in a watershed requires cooperation between bureaus within the Wisconsin DNR, private landowners, university personnel, sporting groups, industry and municipalities in search of solutions to protect critical habitat.

Rare species are tracked by Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation. Species tracked by the inventory include those listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or by the state of Wisconsin. This plan does not contain a comprehensive list of endangered resources in the Black River basin. Only those species or natural habitats threatened by the degradation of surface waters are discussed.

The Black River contains numerous species of concern. Many unique geological, chemical and physical conditions of the Black River and its tributaries combine to create the elements necessary for the survival of these species. Management decisions should consider the potential presence of these species of concern.


Wisconsin endangered species: Any species whose continued existence as a viable component of this state's wild animals or wild plants is determined by the DNR to be in jeopardy on the basis of scientific evidence.

Wisconsin threatened species: Any species which appears likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, based on scientific evidence.

Wisconsin special concern species: Any species about which some problem of abundance or distribution is suspected in Wisconsin, but not yet proven. The purpose of this category is to focus attention on certain species before they become endangered or threatened.

Black River aquatic insects of concern

Pecatonica River Mayfly
Acanthametropus pecatonica
This mayfly prefers sandy bottoms of large rivers.
Special Concern
Elusive Clubtail
Stylurus notatus
This dragonfly prefers large sandy rivers.
Rapids Clubtail
Gomphus quadicolor
This dragonfly prefers larger, fast, clean streams, especially with rapids.
Skillet Clubtail
Gomphus ventricosus
This dragonfly prefers larger fast, clean streams, especially with rapids.
Smoky Shadowfly
Neurocordulia molesta
This dragonfly prefers medium to large streams with rocky substrates.
Stygian Shadowfly
Neurocordulia yamaskanensis
This dragonfly prefers clean, fast-flowing streams, especially rapids.

Black River fish of concern

Starhead Topminnow Fundulus dispar Prefers quiet, clear-slightly turbid, shallow backwaters with an abundance of submerged aquatic plants.
Blue Sucker Cycleptus elongatus Prefers large, deep rivers with moderate currents over substrates of rubble, gravel, or sand.
Gilt Darter Percina evides Prefers moderately fast currents, deep riffles and pools in clear, medium-to-large streams with clean, silt-free bottoms of gravel, rubble and small boulders.
Redfin Shiner Lythrurus umbratilis Prefers turbid waters in pools of low-gradient rivers/streams over substrates of silt, gravel, or rubble.
River Redhorse Moxostoma carinatum Prefers moderate to swift currents of large rivers, lower portions of their tributaries, reservoirs and pools over bottoms of clean gravel or rubble.
Speckled Chub Hybopsis aestivalis Prefers wide shallow riffles in sand-bottomed streams.
Special Concern
American Eel Anguilla rostrata Spawns in large streams and lakes, with muddy bottoms and still waters. Must traverse swift-flowing streams and rivers to reach these waters.
Mud Darter Etheostoma asprigene Prefers moderate currents in sloughs, overflow areas, sluggish riffles and pools of large, low-gradient rivers over bottoms of mud, sand, gravel, clay or bedrock.
Pirate Perch Aphredoderus sayanus Prefers quiet waters of oxbows, overflow ponds, sloughs, marshes, ditches and the pools of low-gradient streams over bottoms of sand or soft muck with brush piles or dense vegetation.
Pugnose Minnow Opsopoeodus emiliae Prefers quiet, weedy lakes, sloughs and low-gradient rivers over bottoms of mud, sand, rubble, silt, clay or gravel.
Weed Shiner Notropis texanus Prefers sloughs, lakes and quiet sections of medium/large streams or rivers over substrates of sand or mud.
Western Sand Darter Ammocrypta clara Prefers clear to slightly turbid waters with moderate to swift currents in medium to large rivers over extensive areas of sand.

Black River mussels of concern

Buckhorn Tritogonia verrucosa Prefers medium to large-sized rivers, with a moderate to swift current and clean, firm substrates.
Special Concern
Round Pigtoe Pleurobema coccineum Prefers gravel or gravel-mud substrate and is found in medium to large rivers in moderately flowing water. The host fish is unknown.

Black River reptiles of concern

Eastern Massasagua Sistrurus catenatus Prefers southern wet and southern wet-mesic forest, mesic prairies and lowland areas along rivers, lakes and marshes.
Blanding's Turtle Emydoidea blandingii Found in sedge meadows, southern wet and southern wet-mesic prairie, open-water marshes, backwater sloughs, prairie potholes and large ponds, slow-moving rivers and shallow lakes.
Wood Turtle Clemmys insculpta Prefers deciduous forests and open meadows along moderate to fast-moving streams and rivers.

Mussels of the Black River

A mussel survey was conducted in the Black River State Forest portion of the Black River in 1997. Several tributaries within the state forest were also surveyed. Preliminary results reflect different species composition above and below the dam at Black River Falls. This may be a reflection of different fish communities above and below the dam, which acts as a barrier to migration. Prior to the existence of the dams, natural barriers, such as a waterfall, may have also played a role. Fish play an important role in the mussel reproduction as hosts for larval mussels.

Good water quality, a stable substrate in which to anchor and specific fish species are crucial to mussel survival and reproduction. The Black River and several tributaries within the state forest contain the proper conditions for diverse mussel populations. However, two tributaries, Morrison and Perry Creek contained no mussels or mollusks (snails) in the surveyed reaches (Heath, 1997). This curious discovery has not yet been explained.

Downstream of the Black River Falls dam, a mussel bed was discovered on the Black. A recent survey of this bed documented ten species, one of which is a threatened species (Benjamin and others, 1996). The threatened species was found near an eroding sandbank. The decision to armor such a bank would eliminate the habitat this species needs for survival. To make informed management decisions involving armoring banks of the Black River, a comprehensive mussel survey of the Black River should be conducted.


  1. A comprehensive mussel survey should be conducted in the Black River and its major tributaries. (type b)
  2. Before any decision is made to riprap eroding sandbanks of the Black River, a mussel survey should be conducted. (type b)

Black River Wood Turtle Population

Surveys of the threatened wood turtle population in and around the Van Loon State Wildlife Area and downstream of Black River Falls documented a healthy wood turtle population. Good evidence of recruitment within the population and a balanced age class was documented beginning in 1989. However, in approximately 1993-1994, the population began to decline. Neither water quality nor loss of habitat can account for such drastic reductions. It is thought that the illegal harvest of the wood turtle is to blame. They are not wary by nature and are not fast swimmers (Hay). High flows during the 1993 flood may have impacted this turtle population also.

Turtle harvesting regulations went into effect in 1997. The harvest of wood, ornate box and Blanding's turtles is illegal in Wisconsin due to their threatened and endangered species status. An effort to identify target audiences to reach with educational efforts should be a priority.


  1. Land division staff should identify audiences to target educational information about the harvesting of turtles, specifically wood turtles along the Black River. (type b)