Whitewater Park plans may remove Fourth Street dam

Pleasant Springs residents are concerned about the environmental impacts of the removal of the Fourth Street dam in Stoughton. They are concerned bay east of Williams Drive, pictured above, will become a mudpit if the water levels drop.

What happens to one part of a river, will surely affect another.

That was the message sent last month by all 11 Town of Pleasant Springs supervisors and Plan Commission members, who signed a resolution on Sept. 1 opposing the removal of the Stoughton dam, and decrying a lack of say in the City of Stoughton’s decision process.

For the past few years, the city has been considering removing the century-old dam to improve safety and restore natural water flow to the Yahara River, and possibly build a whitewater rapids park to attract outdoor recreation tourists.

Last year, a city steering committee decided that safety concerns and requirements of a $400,000 state grant made fully removing the dam the best option. The rationale behind it was that the dam no longer had a practical function in managing water flow as the Yahara flowed east to the Town of Dunkirk and it cost the city $70,000 in maintenance annually.

During public information meetings, the city brought in experts who advocated for its removal, stating that it was a misconception that the water level would decrease upstream, and called dams “drowning machines.”

The city didn’t get the grant, though, and took another setback when it failed to secure a competitive federal Department of Transportation grant worth $5.6 million, which would have covered 80% of the cost of the project.

In the meantime, opposition to the plan from Pleasant Springs seems to be on the rise.

Pleasant Springs’ two-page resolution cites the “unique and valuable natural assets” of the Yahara River and bay located within the township, and opposes “any plan to remove the Stoughton dam that will result in lowering water levels.” It states that city officials have failed to evaluate the upstream impact from removing the dam in combination with the county’s ongoing dredging, and that the city has “failed to even acknowledge the losses that will be experienced by town residents and visitors” if water levels are lowered.

Pleasant Springs resident Mark Hale said the resolution is intended to send an important message to city staff about the potential impact to wildlife and to “underscore the broad use of the Yahara River and Bay by outdoor enthusiasts.”

“(Town of Pleasant Springs residents) should be commended for documenting these concerns,” he wrote in an email to the Hub last week. “Reasonable multi-governmental collaboration expected for a project of this magnitude has not been realized at a time when, it appears, many Common Council members think there is limited or no opposition to this project.”

City officials say studies they’ve commissioned show that removal of the dam would have little effect on the water surface level, and so far, experts have said removal of the dam would, in theory, restore the natural waterflow, which would benefit water quality.

In a public meeting in January 2020, some people voiced concerns that the Yahara River, including two widening portions located in the township and historically shallow, would become a “mud pit.”

Town of Cottage Grove resident Gray Giesfeldt, who has hunted on the Yahara River for 30 years, told the Hub in June the cattail marsh surrounding the bay is a sensitive ecosystem that can’t tolerate a reduction in water.

“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.

In June, the town hosted City of Stoughton parks and recreation director Dan Glynn, who has been leading the project for more than three years, and mayor Tim Swadley at a virtual meeting to talk about the project.

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. A study might be required in the future as the whitewater park plans progress, because if the city works with the Army Corps of Engineers, a study might be required in accordance with the federal laws.

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.