How to Clean the Milwaukee River:
Set It Free
Tearing Down Dams Helps the Water

4/22/99
- BY BRIAN McCOMBIE
reprinted with permission of the Shepherd Express



A lifelong resident of West Bend, Rick Emanuel grew up on the east side of the city near a 67-acre pond formed on the Milwaukee River near the Woolen Mills Dam.  The pond near which Emanuel lived and played wasn't a pleasant place.

"The impoundment above the dam was filled with sediment -- a lot of still water and strong odors and algae blooms," Emanuel remembers.  "Really, it was nothing but a big, muddy puddle."

Originally built in the late 1920s to provide power generation, by the 1980s cracks had significantly weakened the dam's structure. West Bend, which by the '80s had assumed ownership, originally decided to preserve the Woolen Mills pond by erecting a new combination dam and bridge.  But over a five-year period of discussion and consultation with the Wisconsin DNR, another possibility emerged: Remove the dam and let this stretch of the Milwaukee River flow freely once again.

The Woolen Mills Dam was removed in 1988.  An angler and canoeist, Emanuel says he's seen this stretch of the Milwaukee River steadily become cleaner.  The stagnant water of the impoundment once held mostly carp, but now smallmouth bass are regularly caught.  The city transformed the area that had once been under water into a park complete with football and soccer fields, walking and biking trails.  The river itself has become a kind of open-air classroom for local school children studying water and aquatic science projects.  Local businesses have benefited, too.

 "Before, there was really no draw to the area," Emanuel says.  "Now there's a lot of pedestrian traffic going [through the park area and] to the downtown."

Another dam on the Milwaukee River is currently slated for removal.  According to Mike Bruch, DNR Dam Safety Engineer for the Southeast Region, work will begin this summer to remove the Chair Factory Dam in Grafton.  The dam needs repairs the owners couldn't afford.

The Waubeka Dam just west of Fredonia is another possible candidate for removal.  Again, private owners can't foot the bill for much-needed repairs, and the city of  Fredonia recently decided against assuming ownership.  Bruch says a local group wants to preserve the dam, but Bill Sturtevant, Assistant Dams Safety Engineer with the DNR, notes that the costs may be prohibitive.  Sturtevant says the Waubeka Dam's maintenance and repair requirements mean the dam will likely need to be replaced, to the tune of between $500,000 and $700,000.

What if it were simply removed?

"Based on what we've seen, $150,000 to $175,000 is the high-end estimate," Sturtevant said.

With Milwaukee's North Avenue Dam breached in 1997, only a handful of dams will exist on the river after the Grafton dam's removal (and possibly Waubeka's).  With the economies of repair versus removal, it's not out of the question that the Milwaukee River could be essentially free-flowing someday, revitalizing the river, its fish and quite possibly the communities lining its banks.

It's kind of a Field of Dreams in reverse: Remove a dam and good things will come.  And it's a scene that will be replayed across Wisconsin in the near future, since the Dairy State is among the nation's leaders in the removal of dams.

As was the case on the Milwaukee River, most Wisconsin dams were originally built to create power for industries.  According to the Wisconsin River Alliance, the nation's first hydroelectric dam was erected in Appleton in 1882 to provide electricity for a streetcar  line.  Today there are some 3,500 dams statewide. Meg Galloway, a dam safety engineer with the DNR, says, "After 50 years, if there isn't a very good track record for maintenance, there's a good chance you're past a dam's useful life span."

Water can eat under and around a dam.  Periodic flooding will push water over the top, putting more stress on the dam.  Galloway notes that Wisconsin's winters create problems:  "The freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw that occurs is especially hard on concrete [dam] structures."

The DNR estimates that some 300 to 400 Wisconsin dams are at or past their useful life, and the people or communities that own them are now faced with a choice: repair, replace or remove.

A study on the removal of over 30 small dams in Wisconsin, conducted by UW-Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, found that removal usually made the most sense financially.  That's because repairing or replacing a dam usually costs three to five time more than removal.

In the case of the Woolen Mills Dam, replacement of the dam would have cost an estimated $3.3 million.  The bill for removal was $86,000.  Even with the money spent on river improvement, planting and the creation of the park, the total bill was still only one-third of the cost of the replacement dam.

Ecologically speaking, dam removal is a benefit, too.  People often think that a dam provides good fishing, but according to Tom Thuemler, a DNR fisheries biologist, "In general, reservoirs may provide some excellent fishing when they're young.  But as they age, the fisheries tend to be not as good."

Sara Johnson has been working on the problem of dams for the past five years, first as director of the Wisconsin River Alliance in Madison, and now on the national staff of Trout Unlimited.  Johnson says that with age, dams tend to collect sediment that would otherwise wash downstream, and this sediment covers up prime spawning areas.  The lack of river flow also makes it difficult for the water to become oxygenated.

So with limited spawning places and low amounts of oxygen in the water, game fish tend to die off or move away.  They're replaced by fish such as carp, which don't mind such a habitat.  Dams also block the routes of migrating fish such as walleye and sturgeon, which need to swim upstream to lay their eggs.  And the turbines at hydroelectric dams can kill fish.

"These problems get worse over time," Johnson notes.  "That's why the longer a dam's  around, there tends to be fewer species of fish in a river."

By blocking the flow, dams create another problem.  A good flooding is vital to a river's health. It flushes out sediments and pollutants, and pushes important nutrients into the river.

State environmentalists are working to see these free flows restored.  The Wisconsin  River Alliance was founded five years ago to protect and restore the state's rivers, and they've had some notable successes.  When eight hydroelectric dams on the Menominee River came up for federal relicensing a few years ago, River Alliance was one of the groups that negotiated with the owner, Wisconsin Electric, to see if some of the dams might be removed.

Johnson worked on the Menominee River relicensing, and says Wisconsin Electric realized early on that negotiating was much more economical than the confrontational approach that often occurs between corporations and environmental groups. Instead of trying to blast each other with studies and lawsuits.  Johnson says the company, river advocacy groups, and state and federal agencies agreed to remove three of the less efficient dams, provide fish protection devices on the others and release water at specific times to mimic natural flows.

Other Wisconsin rivers are saying goodbye to their dams, too.  On the Baraboo River northwest of Madison, one dam was removed last year, a second will be removed this summer and number three will be history in 2000.

The first dam removed was located near downtown Baraboo, and Johnson says the experience there was much like the Woolen Mills' situation: Fishing improved, more anglers appeared, a river walk was created and buildings along the Baraboo were revitalized.

"The river became an integral part of the community," Johnson says.  "There's a real potential for economic development around a restored river."  Stephanie Lindloff of the River Alliance says at least two other Wisconsin dams are being considered for possible removal, including the Ward Paper Mill Dam on the Prairie River in Merrill and the Bloomer Dam on Duncan Creek in the town of Bloomer.  But Lindloff notes that dam removal can create controversy.

"A lot of it is based on the fact that these communities are talking about removing a structure that's been there seemingly forever," Lindloff says.  "Most people can't remember a time when their dam wasn't there, so it can become an emotional decision for a lot of communities."

Still, Lindloff expects more Wisconsin dams to disappear in the near future.  With the number of aging and obsolete dams on the rise, she believes that the environmental and economic benefits gained from freeing up Wisconsin's rivers are too great to ignore.

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