Five Fox River communities bet more than $145,000 in engineering costs they could get state approval and stimulus money for risky storm-water pond projects.
They won the stimulus money but lost the bet because, after awarding the stimulus money, the state Department of Natural Resources refused to grant environmental permits for the projects.
“We felt it was a 50-50 chance that we would not get that,” said Combined Locks Village President John Neumeier.
Earlier this year, the DNR called for clean-water project applications for grants and loans from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Fox Valley communities — Little Chute, Kaukauna, the town of Menasha and a team of Combined Locks and Kimberly — designed storm-water retention ponds and applied separately for the money.
But the communities all chose the same pond design, which the DNR has long discouraged and is about to largely prohibit, prompting permit rejections.
The in-line ponds were designed so existing creeks and streams would flow through them.
“The fact that the projects don’t necessarily get permitted isn’t new,” said Kristy Rogers, aquatic habitat coordinator in the DNR northeast region.
Kimberly and Combined Locks are out a combined $50,000 in engineering costs for the project. Little Chute spent $35,000 on engineering this year. The town of Menasha has not yet tallied its engineering costs.
Kaukauna, which is appealing the DNR permit rejection, has spent $60,000 so far.
“On this watershed, there are no other cost-effective alternatives,” said John Neumeier III, Kaukauna’s engineer. “It’s a highly developed area.”
Combined Locks President Neumeier said it still was a good idea to seek project approval. The ponds were designed to satisfy state laws requiring communities meet a 2012 deadline to remove at least 20 percent of the dirt and sediment in storm-water runoff that pollutes waterways.
Neumeier, the village president, said the in-line pond would have been built on vacant land and was the cheapest way to hit the deadline. He said regulation of in-line ponds in Wisconsin is inconsistent because some are approved and others rejected.
“We didn’t think it was an impossibility,” he said. “Everything fell into place from our point of view economically.”
The DNR has permitted about three in-line ponds in its northeast region in the past seven years, Rogers said.
Now, after the experience with the four Fox Valley projects, the agency is revising its storm-water rules to prohibit in-line ponds in every natural waterway, said Bruce Baker, deputy administrator of the DNR water division. Some in-line ponds have been approved because they were in man-made ditches rather than in the flow of natural waterways with aquatic life, he said.
The in-line ponds attract carp that come to breed, said Carrie Webb, water management specialist in the DNR northeast region. But the nonnative, bottom-feeding carp stir up the sediment, letting it flow downstream and defeating the purpose of detention ponds, she said.
The draft revision will go to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board within the next two months before going out for public comments, Baker said.
“For communities that ran into this issue, we’re optimistic that the changes that they are making to the projects that they had will allow them to still get funding,” he said.
Combined Locks, Kimberly and, separately, Menasha are working on back-up plans. Neumeier, the village president, said Combined Locks and Kimberly plan to build a detention pond on unused land in Kimberly, and the project still could get stimulus money that was dedicated to the in-line pond.
“It’s been a frustrating experience, I think, on everybody,” he said. “And, hopefully, we’re going to get this resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.”