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.”