The proposed removal of a century-old dam in downtown Stoughton has some area residents concerned about the effect it might have on the Yahara River and their properties.
Town of Pleasant Springs residents and recreational users of the river are concerned if the dam is removed, water levels will drop in an already shallow waterway, harming waterfowl and recreational users and reducing property values.
City officials say the dam removal is imperative for safety and that studies they’ve commissioned show little effect on the water surface level. Experts agree that the removal of a dam, restores the natural waterflow and is beneficial to fish and water quality.
Surrounding all of it is a concern that some unhappy with the project feel they have been largely left out of communication from the city and that the studies don’t relate to their fears.
City leaders are hoping to change that in the next week with two key presentations.
Parks and recreation director Dan Glynn, who has been leading the project for more than three years, and Mayor Tim Swadley will speak at a virtual Town of Pleasant Springs meeting 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 11.
And at 8 a.m. on Monday, June 15, a wildlife biologist from the state Department of Natural Resources will be speaking at the Whitewater Steering Committee meeting about water quality, and wildlife.
The removal of the Fourth Street dam is part of the city’s plan to develop a whitewater park on the Yahara River, which is hoped to draw thousands of people to Stoughton each year and bring in millions of dollars in tourism revenue.
The park, which would be similar to attractions like those in Wausau and Dubuque, Iowa, would feature rapids for paddlers and rafters, as well as a surfing wave, necessitating a bypass or partial removal of the dam.
Last year, the steering committee decided that safety concerns and requirements of a $400,000 state grant made fully removing the dam, built in 1911, the best option. A paddler got stuck under the dam in 2018.
In a public meeting in January 2020, some people voiced concerns that the Yahara River, including two widening portions that are in the township and historically shallow, would become a “mud pit.” A Facebook group with 350 members called Friends of the Yahara Bay has asked for an environmental impact study to be done on the river north of Stoughton.
Glynn said such a study is not required because the removal of the dam is considered a minor action, but he added that as the whitewater park plans progress, the city will have to work with the Army Corps of Engineers, which might require one in accordance with the federal National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
Recreation Engineering and Planning Inc., the company that is contracted to build the whitewater park, has done studies of water depth, water flow and flood mapping. Those studies indicate that the removal will cause a roughly 7-inch fluctuation in water levels north of the Forton Street bridge, Glynn told the Hub.
The studies did not indicate what environmental changes that could bring further upstream. But Glynn said Dane County, which operates the Lake Kegonsa dam, is required by the DNR to release a minimum amount of water for the benefit of wildlife.
Kenneth Potter, professor emeritus of hydrology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the dam has no purpose now, and removing any man-made dam allows the body of water to return to its natural state, which has a positive impact on the environment including marsh, wetland and waterfowl.
But opponents say they’re not convinced, and the city has largely left the Town of Pleasant Springs to the north and the Town of Dunkirk to the south out of conversations in a rush to complete the project, which could open as soon as 2022.
City officials say the removal of the dam is essential for safety. In 2018, a woman nearly drowned in the Stoughton dam, and in 1996 a person died in the Dunkirk Dam, which is the same style as the Stoughton dam, Glynn said.
“It’s important to recognize these incidents happened when the dam areas have very little paddling activity,” Glynn wrote to the Hub in an email. “The steering committee felt it would be irresponsible to build a whitewater park that would attract thousands of paddlers each summer and leave an unsafe condition.”
Water level concerns
Town of Cottage Grove resident Gray Giesfeldt is an avid hunter who has hunted on the Yahara River for 30 years and in the 1990s developed a plan with the DNR to restore marsh and wetland surrounding the bay.
In his experience, Giesfeldt said, the river north of the city can not tolerate a reduction in water.
When the Fourth Street dam was opened completely within the last decade, the bay east of Williams Drive drained overnight, creating a large mud pit, Giesfeldt said. He added the area surrounding the bay is a cattail marsh, and that is a sensitive ecosystem.
Giesfeldt added that site is a place where extensive waterfowl migrate, dive and raise their chicks, including the rare blue-wing teal duck – which will no longer happen if the water level drops significantly.
Hale said even a 7-inch reduction will have negative consequences on the marsh, wetland and property values of homes.
“Anybody that’s lived along this river for any length of time knows the ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, of the water; and are very concerned about the removal (of the dam) given the information we have,” he said.
Glynn told the Hub in an email that he was working to acquire a cost estimate for a water depth study on the two widening portions, which would look at water level depths and be used to map out the potential changes in the areas upstream of County Hwy B.
However, he cautioned, the study would not be necessary for the project to move forward.
A previously commissioned study on water depth and water flow from the Fourth Street dam to the Lake Kegonsa dam on Williams Drive that indicates there will be little effect on the water surface between the two areas if the dam is removed.
This study showed the impact would be 1.2 feet at the Forton Street bridge, gradually lessening to .25 feet of impact at the Lake Kegonsa dam.
Giesfeldt, Hale and Town Chair David Pfeiffer all questioned the validity of a study performed by the company contracted to do the design and construction.
“I’m very skeptical having seen it in person live and in color,” Giesfeldt said. “If somebody says this water park removal of the dam is only going to lower the water level north of that railroad bridge by six or seven inches – show me the data, where’s the data coming from.”
Hale said he was the first to inform the Town of Pleasant Springs board the dam might be removed, months after the city began working on the plans.
“We’re your neighbors,” Hale said of the city’s Common Council members. “We’ve got people out here that have businesses in town. We’re all part of the greater Stoughton area. It’s troubling that the dam removal has gotten some momentum without really quality discussions with people in their own backyard.”
Pfeiffer said the city has never initiated conversation with the Pleasant Spring Town Board or residents.
“The township was never notified by the city regarding this project,” Pfeiffer said. “Neither were residents living on the river.”
Now that city staff and alders are aware of the concerns, they have been willing to come and speak at meetings, Pfeiffer said. Glynn spoke to a Town of Dunkirk lake district meeting in addition to his planned Pleasant Springs board meeting.
Glynn said the City of Stoughton is not obligated to communicate with the surrounding municipalities, but it does plan to consider input from community members. He has already met with homeowners who live on the river in Pleasant Springs and spoken with many people over the phone.