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Grafton dam vote divides village

Save the Dam Association members in Grafton want the village to repair or replace the Bridge Street Dam so the lake near the downtown does not drain (top). The association made a rendering of what the area could look like if the dam is removed (above). (Rendering courtesy of Save the Dam Association)

Save the Dam Association members in Grafton want the village to repair or replace the Bridge Street Dam so the lake near the downtown does not drain (top). The association made a rendering of what the area could look like if the dam is removed (above). (Rendering courtesy of Save the Dam Association)

By Sean Ryan

A proposal to remove a Grafton dam is forcing local residents to choose between spending more to keep their downtown lake or less to drain it and gain riverside land.

“There are some things that are worth paying for,” said Bill Harbeck, spokesman for the Save the Dam Association. “I agree that taxes are important, but the taxes should go to things that the community values, and I think this is something the community values.”

The state has reported the Bridge Street Dam poses flood risks and must be removed or fixed within 10 years. A grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would cover the $1.3 million cost of removing the structure.

But the village, if it chooses to replace the dam, would be responsible for the up to $4 million project.

Village residents on April 6 will vote in a binding referendum on removing, fixing or replacing the dam.

The dam backs up water in the Milwaukee River, creating a 35-acre lake through central Grafton. Removing the dam would drain the lake, opening up 12 acres on both sides of the river and, Harbeck said, hurting Grafton’s attractiveness to business.

“You are going to have a lot of, basically, muddy, flat, weedy areas that don’t do much for the look and feel for the downtown,” he said. “Mud flats are what it’s going to look like.”

The land only would be a mud flat for a short time, said Cheryl Nenn, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Riverkeeper Inc., an 800-member environmental organization lobbying for dam removal. The stimulus money also could cover the cost of replanting the mud flats to create a riverside green space with trails, she said.

“It’ll be a change,” she said, “but I also think it will be a great asset to the community.”

Nenn said dam decisions such as Grafton’s are becoming common in Wisconsin after dam failures in 2008 sparked a number of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources inspections last year. Dams below state standards — such as Grafton’s — pose financial questions for communities, she said.

“These dams are very expensive to maintain,” she said. “They’re not necessarily providing a lot of benefit other than recreational or aesthetic.”

The village can save its dam and still avoid the cost of replacing the structure, Harbeck said. The Save the Dam Association hired an engineer to study renovating the dam to bring it into compliance with state rules. Harbeck said renovation would cost about $500,000.

Even if the village has to borrow $4 million to replace the dam, Harbeck said, it’s worth the price. Losing the lake would decrease the value of homes and businesses in the area because they would be farther from a body of water, he said. Harbeck lives in Grafton north of the area affected by the dam decision.

“If you impact the look and feel and aesthetics of the downtown area,” he said, “you are affecting potentially property values communitywide.”


  1. Lisa Uribe Harbeck

    First off, Cheryl Nenn does NOT live in Grafton so our decisions that affect our taxes are just that; OURS!! She states ” not a lot of benefit other than recreational or aesthetic” Well in our village the recreational AND aesthetic value is almost everything. I notice she did not address the Invasive Sea Lamprey Eel that would likely come up the river and spawn in areas north of Grafton. They then mature and travel back downstream to the Great Lakes and kill huge numbers of fish. With the Dam in place it is the one LAST barrier to the Sea Lamprey Eel.

    This Dam issue affects Grafton residents and tourists alike. Thank goodness for the Save the Dam movement who made it their business to involve the Grafton resident.

    Vote “YES” on April 6th and contribute to the well being of the village of Grafton!

  2. So you fix the just enough to bring into compliance with that 500k in repairs. Then what happens each year when the option is to buy new textbooks or maintain the dam? Fill the potholes or maintain the dam? Hope Grafton enjoys spending their tax dollars year after year after year to maintain this thing. Removal is a onetime cost.

    The Woolen Mills dam was removed years ago and a beautiful park replaced the initial mudflat.

    That rendering was intentionally made ugly to sway people’s vote. Nice manipulation to get your way.

  3. The sea lamprey have been in Lake Michigan since the 1950’s and have not been found in the Milwaukee River.

    The dollar figures currently being discussed are not facts, they are educated guesses. The dam has not been evaluated underwater. There are no funds available for a dive inspection at the present time. No one knows the exact condition of the dam.

    There is NO WAY that the Village will allow this area to remain a mudflat. Anyone who spreads that message is trying to instill fear in the residents.

    Removing the dam (and initial shoreline remediation) is zero cost to Village taxpayers. Keeping the dam means committing to a cost up to $ 4 million.

    Returning the river to it’s natural state is not a bad thing.

    I hope the residents of Grafton make their choice based on facts, not fear.

  4. The real issue is – do we use the money we have now – or do we ask the tax payers of Grafton to pay later? We removed the Chair City Dam years back – boy – you would have thought the world was coming to an end. Yet today – it is beautiful and anyone can stand on the Falls Street Bridge and view how nice it looks. So – when you hear the “Fears of the mud banks” consider where the comments are coming from and keep in mind the quote “Pay now or Pay Later – it’s your tax dollars.”
    Thanks & Have a Blessed Easter

  5. Dams do not need “saving.” Dams, especially defunct ones, need removing.

    Up to $4,000,000 to “save” a dam is absurd. Ask yourself this: if there was not a dam there right now, would you pay up to $4,000,000 to erect one?

    There were 4,667 property tax bills sent out in 2009 for the village of Grafton. Divide $4,000,000 by 4,667 tax bills, and you get $857.08 per property tax bill. Still up for “saving” a dam?

    And from an environmental standpoint, it seems that a person who is for “saving” a dam should remove themselves from any other environmental cause they might be a part of, or they could risk hypocrisy.

    “Saving” the dam is an emotional response, not a logical one.

  6. 1). “Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens under the state’s Public Trust Doctrine and and held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources.” All Wisconsin citizens have a say in our public waterways, one of the things that makes Wisconsin great. Yes, Grafton residents alone will make the decision, and bear the tax expenditure. But many residents are hoping you will do the right thing for the environment.

    2). Shame on anyone who attempts to use the fear of ugly mudflats as a sway tactic. In reality, quite the opposite is true. As a previous comment suggested, take the short ride to West Bend and witness the river and prairie restoration that has occurred in Riverside Park. I grew up 1 block from this impoundment, and it was a wasteland. Polluted, stagnant water, and dead carp everywhere. What exists today is stunning, and a destination for canoeists and fisherpersons. SE Wisconsin has many active volunteer groups that love the opportunity to recover these riparian areas. I know, I ma the former president of one.

    3). Be thankful for Cheryl Nenn. She has no hidden agenda, but she knows an awful lot about rivers, and the potential they have when barriers are removed. The lower Milwaukee River contained 3 species of fish prior to removal of the North Avenue Dam. And not the good ones, either. Now there are in the neighborhood of 37, including tremendous recoveries by Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, and Sturgeon.

    4). The cost to repair or rebuild the dam is only the beginning. It will require on going maintenance, debri removal, etc. Removing the dam is a one-time cost, and according to the article, the money is already available. This is one of the few areas where economics favors the environment. Grafton voters, we are counting on you!

  7. I’ve seen great improvement in other dam removal projects from both an esthetic and environmental concern. The sea lamprey is a demogogoic platform as well as the mud flats. It will only be a mud flat for a short period of time. I believe it is a waste of our tax dollars to prolong something that if we did not have – we would not be building…

  8. It’s been 8-9 months since the residents of Grafton became aware of the DNR’s request of a fish ladder at the Bridge St. Dam and subsequent potential removal of the dam instead being proposed by the public works department. Even at that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works with The Great Lakes Fishery Industry sent letters to the DNR and copied it to the Village Board vehemently opposing a tear down. This was not disclosed to the public! This dam is the LAST effective barrier to destructive sea lamprey eel. This creature will have ideal spawning grounds north of the dam and will head back into Lake Michigan to destroy the fishing industry there. Then, millions will be spent through the years to attempt to control them. A thoughtful environmentalist might consider that the waters are not what they were before the settlers came. Many invasive forms of life, non-native plant and aquatic, have been brought in for whatever reason. We need to consider all the ramifications of our actions, not just go for what our ideal dream might be. A fish ladder can be closed if undesirable species head here.
    A group of citizens formed after the August 3rd, 2010 Village Board meeting, where the firm the county hired presented only taking the dam down. The group is now known as The Save the Dam Association. They pooled their own money to hire an engineering firm familiar with dam issues. Their research was shared with the V.B. It is now known that reworking the side areas will conform to what the DNR desires and may cost 0, using the same funds. The Grafton park system should be actively keeping an area that provides so much recreation in so many forms to anyone wanting it! The Village’s Appraiser wrote that all Grafton’s property values will be affected and will decrease! This has also not been disclosed. These are the reasons the citizens voted on to keep the dam. Join others in logging onto for other valid information.

  9. The “Save the Dam Association” used either dishonesty or ignorance to effect the outcome of a public referendum. Education is the absolute most important thing when considering dam issues. The Harbecks used an inaccurate rendering, false invasive species fears, and emotion instead of logic to get what they wanted, which was to perpetuate the destruction of a river.
    Their biased, paid-for rendering showed a massive reduction in the river’s width despite real studies reaching a finding of a 20% reduction maximum just above the dam.
    The sea lamprey has never once been found in the Milwaukee River basin since monitoring began in 1959.
    This was either one of two things: total ignorance, or total dishonesty.

  10. In my 20 years of studying river restoration, Lisa Harbeck, and the Harbeck family, might be the most deliberately ignorant bunch of people I’ve ever encountered.

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