Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
That common aphorism was evident during the Waupaca County Park and Recreation Committee meeting Monday, Aug. 5, at the courthouse.
Area residents and others with special interests spoke to the committee regarding the removal or replacement of the dam on the Crystal River in Dayton.
Since the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ordered a drawdown of the Little Hope Mill Pond in October 2012, many of the residents who live there have complained about the sediment that has been left behind and about yards that are now so mucky the water frontage has become inaccessible.
But not everyone living in the neighborhood adjacent to the former mill pond agrees with the negative assessment of the drawdown.
“We are in favor of removing the dam and getting back to the natural beauty of the river,” said Cathy Miller who lives in the area with her husband.
Miller described the Little Hope Mill Pond as having “very little water with a lot of weeds” and “very smelly in the summer.”
She said allowing the Crystal River to return to its natural channel will enhance recreational opportunities for kayaking and canoeing.
“At Nelson Park, people are tubing, gathering for picnics and splashing in the river,” Miller said, adding that bald eagles, cranes and geese are returning to the area.
James Barnes, a member of Friends of the Tomorrow River, pointed to experience in Nelsonville, where a dam was removed in the 1980s, resulting in the restoration of the Tomorrow River.
“Now, it’s a trout stream,” Barnes said.
Barnes predicted that a few years after the dam is removed, the Crystal River will become a free-flowing stream that will allow those in kayaks and canoes to travel all the way into the city of Waupaca.
Invoking the names of Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson, Tom Miller urged the committee to remember Wisconsin’s legacy of protecting the environment.
“These conservation giants would agree that dam removal is the right environmental and scientific decision for Little Hope,” Miller said. “Waupaca County’s modern conservation history, your history, is also a record of achievement in the modern era, including Hartman Creek State Park, the cleansing of the Chain O’ Lakes, Waupaca’s Ice Age Trail group and a model county Smart Growth blueprint.”
Miller said removing the dam not only made environmental sense, it made financial sense.
“The cost of replacing the dam is more than double that of removing it, not to mention the ongoing expenses for maintenance, and potential ongoing insurance and legal expenses.”
Roger Genskow, a Dayton resident, described the mill pond as shallow and weed infested.
While admitting the view was better before the drawdown, Genskow said, “But I can also imagine what the river will look like several years from now.”
Rose Dorow, who lives across the road from the Little Hope dam, said that after more than 150 years, the mill pond had developed into its own natural habitat.
“I don’t see the eagles any more. I don’t see the blue heron,” Dorow said.
“How many of you were here 150 years ago when the dam was put in? How many of you have seen the mill pond and Nelson Park?” she asked. “That river is never going to come back and be the way it was 150 years ago.”
Dorow said the Little Hope Mill Pond had given generations of people a beautiful place to visit.
“I want somebody in the next generation to see that,” Dorow said.
“I thought I bought a house on a mill pond. Now, I live on a mud flat,” Susan Richardson said.
She noted that her family pays water frontage property taxes and had invested $5,000 to make shoreline improvements recommended by the DNR.
“Where was all this information about the dam needing maintenance when we were spending so much money?” she asked.
Since the drawdown, kayakers are unable to paddle through the part of the river where the mill pond used to be, according to Betty Stewart, who lives in Dayton.
“People are unhappy about not getting through the oily slick and muck,” Stewart said.
“Most of the new growth is invasive species,” said Brian Harow.
He said the vegetation growing along the land previously covered by the pond includes purple loosestrife, an invasive species the state has spent millions of dollars trying to control.
“This mud puddle is now a haven to weeds, algae and mold,” Harow said. “Does the county have an invasive species plan?”
More research, more options
Several others at the meeting expressed concern about research regarding the consequences of removing the dam and whether the county had developed any plans for restoring the shoreline if the dam is removed.
Bob Van Epps lives near Little Hope and has a business in Weyauwega, where he has been active in the restoration efforts of Lake Weyauwega, a 250-acre mill pond on the Waupaca River.
After years of neglect, Lake Weyauwega became filled with organic sediment, clogged with weeds and too shallow to use. The DNR ordered a drawdown two years ago and the lake was filled back up this spring.
“The river corridor may not be as beautiful as people expect,” Van Epps said.
He suggested the county review the science that has been applied so far to the dam’s removal.
Rob Richardson asked the county to get a second opinion regarding the dam.
“I believe there are other options for the dam,” Richardson said.
He noted that the DNR ordered the drawdown in part because it had reclassified the dam from being small to being large “due to a two-year effort by county staff.”
“The difference between a large and a small dam as it applies to the Little Hope dam is likely minimal,” Richardson said, adding it may cost less to repair the existing dam if the DNR returns it to its original “small dam” classification.
“Discussions with the DNR and a different engineering firm lead us to believe there may be additional options for replacement or repair of the dam,” Richardson said.
He suggested the county form a committee comprised of Dayton officials, Little Hope residents and county staff to review the issue and do more research.
“What I’m proposing is that just like significant medical procedures, the county gets a second opinion,” Richardson said.
Dayton Town Chairman Chris Klein urged the county to review how the drawdown would impact local groundwater.
For more than 15 years, Dayton and two other towns have been monitoring groundwater in the area because an abandoned landfill located about half a mile south of the Crystal River had been leaching contaminants.
The towns have spent more than $1 million to install 21 monitoring wells.
Klein said the drawdown has led to a drop in the water table and could “destroy $1 million worth of monitoring that the towns have done.”
Klein asked the county to consider the towns’ investment in groundwater monitoring as part of the costs associated with the dam’s removal.
Chuck Krueger said the county did not have all the facts and offered to share some facts with the committee.
He said the report presented at the July committee meeting indicated there were very few fish in the Little Hope Mill Pond.
Krueger then added that the report was based on a DNR survey conducted in 1972.
“In 1972, a WDNR person became aware of that fact. He and another WDNR person with the help of my family members put over 5,000 pan fish into the Little Hope Mill Pond. We carried five gallon buckets of fish from the WDNR tank truck to the shores of the pond for three hours or more,” Krueger said.
He told the committee that Little Hope Mill Pond then became “a very good fishery.”
“But when the WDNR ordered the Little Hope Pond be drawn down, all the fish went with it. All the fish, the fishermen and their tourist dollars are all gone. And that’s a fact,” Krueger said.
Krueger also asked the committee to get a second opinion before making a decision.
“Why the sudden rush?” he asked.
Even those who support removal of the dam, suggested the county needed to do more research.
“The job isn’t done by just removing the dam,” said Denny Caneff with the River Alliance of Wisconsin. “There has to be restoration of the land where the silt has been left behind.”
The committee will vote on the dam’s future when it meets at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19.