|WRITTEN BY STEVE OSTERMANN|
|WEDNESDAY, 15 JUNE 2011 18:25|
After years of planning and debate, $1.6 million Grafton dam modification faces rejection by DNR
The long-awaited and much-discussed fish passage expected to be built at the Bridge Street dam in Grafton this summer appears to be dead in the water.
A $1.6 MILLION fish passage was to be built at the east end (right) of the Bridge Street dam in Grafton as part of Ozaukee County’s Milwaukee River fish habitat restoration project. The plan, however, has been rejected by the Department of Natural Resources.
The fishway — designed to allow native species such as northern pike, walleye, bass, trout and salmon to travel upstream and spawn — was scheduled to be built as part of a $7.2 million river-restoration effort. More than half of the funding comes from a $5.2 million federal stimulus grant awarded to Ozaukee County by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Plans call for the box-culvert structure to extend from the dam to an exit by a boat launch that would also be constructed north of Washington Street (Highway 60).
An alternative to removing the dam, the fish passage was approved by the Village Board in December after months of communitywide debate. The debate led to a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly supported saving the landmark structure.
Design plans for the fish passage were submitted to the DNR for final review, with approval expected early this year.
However, a DNR spokesman said concerns about the possible spread of invasive fish species and a deadly fish virus prompted a tentative decision to deny the permit.
“By far the greatest concern is the spread of aquatic invasive species north of Grafton if the fish passage were installed,” said Randy Schumacher, a DNR fisheries supervisor for the department’s southeast region.
“We wish we didn’t have to deal with aquatic invasive species, but you can’t open a newspaper in this day and age without reading about them.”
Invasive species such as sea lamprey, Asian carp and round goby have been detected in Lake Michigan. Studies have indicated a potential threat of migration, which a fish passage at the Bridge Street dam could facilitate, Schumacher said.
The permit denial was also driven, Schumacher said, by a concern with the possible spread of VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) — a virus that has caused large fish kills in the Great Lakes — as well as the box-culvert design of the passage.
Schumacher said the Bridge Street dam is the last line of defense between inland fish habitat upstream and the Lake Michigan fishery downstream.
In response to the DNR’s decision, county and village officials asked the department to schedule a public informational meeting to discuss the fishway project. During the meeting — to be held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Monday, June 27, at the Village Hall,
Andrew Struck, county director of planning and parks, said he was disappointed by the DNR’s decision but remains hopeful the permit — the final approval needed for the project — can still be secured. The fish passage, designed by Bonestroo engineers, has been approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and was reviewed without objection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.
“Obviously, we think it is still a good and important project,” Struck said. “We are still planning to get clarification and more information and hoping there will be reconsideration of the decision.”
Struck said he understands concerns about invasive species and VHS but believes the Bridge Street dam fish passage would not increase those threats.
“We certainly need to be concerned about those issues, but there has been a lot of testing for VHS in the river with no strong evidence of a serious threat,” he said.
“We’ve designed barriers in the fish passage to prevent migration of invasive species and have also offered monitoring techniques that can be used downstream.”
Struck said worries about invasive species are overshadowing the proven benefits of fish passages throughout the state. Most recently, the Milwaukee River restoration project included the construction of a passage at the Thiensville dam downstream
“This is important work. Restoring native species in the Milwaukee River is not anything close to what they could be,” Struck said.
Village Administrator Darrell Hofland said the DNR’s decision has frustrated local officials and residents who believed the project would be approved after it went through a review process that included public discussion of invasive species and design
“The frustration that I’ve heard expressed is, ‘Why now?’ when both issues were already identified,” Hofland said. “It is unclear if any new information has come to light that would cause an 11th-hour change in the decision.”
Hofland said village officials “hope the DNR will keep an open mind about the project before making a final decision.”
The village has been ordered by the DNR to repair the dam — which has no major structural problems but needs work done on both abutments to meet state flood-control standards — by 2020. Repairs to the east abutments are included in the fish-passage work but would have to be paid for by the village if the project is abandoned, Hofland said.
“If they don’t proceed, the village taxpayers will have to pick up the cost,” he said. “The village was given less than nine years to complete this work, which has to be done.”
The village is exploring options for repairing the west abutment and has agreed to pay Bonestroo up to $25,600 to prepare designs and bid documents for that project.
The Bridge Street dam fish passage is expected to cost $1.6 million, including $300,000 for design work and $1.3 million for construction. Even if the DNR is convinced to approve the permit application, the current delay makes it unlikely the project could be completed this year, officials said.
Schumacher said he appreciates the concerns raised by local officials and praised the river-restoration work being done by the county.
“Ozaukee County is trying to do wonderful things for the fish population of the Milwaukee River and has in fact accomplished a great deal already,” he said, noting that 40 or so culverts have been installed in the river to improve fish habitats and movement.
“Unfortunately, the Grafton dam is a different issue.”
In addition to input received at the June 27 informational meeting, the DNR will accept written comments on the fish passage project for 10 more days before making its final decision. The decision is subject to appeal.
The Bridge Street dam has been a source of debate in Grafton since 2009, when the village was poised to raze the landmark structure.
Protests from residents and downtown businesses fueled a petition drive organized by the Save the Dam Association and led to a binding referendum in April 2010 in which voters supported preserving the dam until at least 2019.
Press reporter Bill Schanen IV contributed to this story.