The Baraboo example
Video courtesy David Tenenbaum. (1MB video).
Convincing the city to dump the dams involved a lot of tongue-wagging and jaw-flapping. Dam removal, says Van Berkel, is "a long and difficult process. You have a lot of .... opinions and attitudes to overcome." Change, he notes, is "difficult for people, and it is a major change."
Baraboo, located on a steep stretch of the Baraboo River, once had five of the 11 dams that at one time blocked the main stem of the Baraboo River, Van Berkel says. In 1994, the Waterworks dam, in the center of town, flunked a safety inspection, and the city confronted a repair bill that headed north from $694,000 . The alternative, a dam removal, was pegged at a comparatively cheap $214,000.
The possibility of letting the river run free lured the River Alliance of Wisconsin into the picture, and a small group of locals began advocating river liberation. In 1998, back hoes and pneumatic hammers destroyed the Waterworks dam. In the next few years, two more dams in the city were wrecked, plus another at LaValle, 40 miles upstream. Today, 120 miles of Baraboo River runs free, courtesy of what Van Berkel describes as the longest river restoration project in the United States.
Video courtesy David Tenenbaum. (1,016K video).
When the idea was first proposed, city administrator Karl Frantz says "there was some consternation. The elected officials were pretty solidly behind it, but they had to have a stiff upper lip, because people were concerned about what the river was going to look like, whether it would be reduced to a trickle." By now, the river has won over those opponents, he adds. "Those concerns have been put to rest. I've not talked to really anybody who feels it was a bad idea."
Good and bad, but not ugly
Within two years of removal, the index reached 75 to 80 near two of the dam sites. "There was a general improvement from fair-to-poor, to excellent, due to the presence of species [such as smallmouth bass] that require high quality conditions," says Catalano. "That's quite dramatic."
Near a third dam, however, the index improved only marginally. Why the difference? Catalano suspect it's either due to the slower water flow at the third dam, or the more recent removal (October, 2001). In general, Catalano says, the data "shows that these systems are pretty resilient, and can begin to return quickly" to what he presumes were pre-dam conditions.
Photos from River Alliance of Wisconsin & American Rivers.
Because the longest data concerns just five years of change, however, Catalano cannot say if conditions have stabilized: "This is a quick snapshot, but we know you can have different recovery patterns among the dam sites, depending on what type of habitat you have. The rate may be different, and the end result may be different."
Dollars over the dam
The economics of the dilapidated riverfront, where dams once powered mills that ground grain and sawed lumber, are brightening. For years, half-a-million visitors have toured Circus World Museum, the old winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus. The museum straddles the river.
With Circus World bringing the crowds, and the river luring canoeists and kayakers, it's suddenly conceivable that cafes, restaurants and bars may open in the riverfront's historic banks, warehouses and hotels.
Should dam removal become a trend?
©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.