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For much of this century, the striking red sandstone canyon of the Iron River in Bayfield County was invisible, blanketed by tons of packed earth that comprised the southern embankment of the 66-foot tall Orienta Falls dam.
The dam was once an assiduous producer of electricity, but its lake is now empty, a sea of lush grass. All that remains is a hulking concrete and iron behemoth with a slightly cast-off mien.
The river's fortune took a dramatic turn the night of September 1, 1985, when a vicious flood nearly toppled the dam. The deluge was chronicled the next morning in photographs taken by employees of Northern States Power (NSP), who circled helplessly in a helicopter, watching as the raging waters overwhelmed the earth embankment and bulldozed away the dam's powerhouse walls. Watching, as a floating island of downed trees converged on the dam's three open gates where a few gawky logs hung up on the iron catwalk 10 feet overhead.
It wasn't just the dam that was destroyed that night, according to The Evening Telegram, a local newspaper. At least three bridges came down as well, including the one at the mouth of the Iron River on Highway 13, where it joins Lake Superior. Telephone service was cut, many roads and culverts were washed away, and though no one died, two families downstream were evacuated for fear the whole dam would go. Mayor Dwight Johnson of Port Wing couldn't even leave his house to check on the calamity – the rain dug a five-foot pond in his driveway and deposited a tree there too, for good measure.
The flood brought down the Orienta dam, but changing times prevented its repair. NSP couldn't justify spending half a million dollars to rebuild a dam that generated only meager profits.
There were other compelling reasons, including rising community interest in restoring free-flowing water so fish could migrate upstream to spawn. As far back as 1939, before the dam was constructed, anglers hailed the Iron River as "one of the very best trout streams in the state." They petitioned the state Public Service Commission to require a "fishway" around the proposed dam. Wisconsin had been authorized since 1839 to require ladders to help fish negotiate dams, but had rarely done so. A ladder never was installed at Orienta, but if history holds any lessons, it may not have worked anyway.
The decision to abandon the dam was not universally praised. David Johnson, 46, a former fisherman now studying to be a teacher, practically growls when he talks about the lake frontage behind the former dam.
"If you like stumbling through tall grass, it's great," he says. That's what now fills the flowage that once afforded Johnson and his family many fetching sunsets from their rustic log cabin on the eastern shore. The much narrower Iron River runs before his porch now, but getting to it requires walking through 100 feet of waist-high grass.
He and several others can think of a dozen reasons to keep the dam, though in the end Johnson's principal fear is that the value of 12 lake lots he bought in 1981 will plummet.
"It's not a matter of wanting to [sell lots]," he asserts, waving an arm toward an edge of thick woods just off the new river channel, not far from his house. "It's a matter of having to. This was my retirement."
Orienta's history may be more colorful than most Wisconsin dams, but its circumstances are hardly unique. There are an estimated 3,600 dams in the state, and each tells a story that often begins over a hundred years ago, when woodcutters and rivermen rafted a feast of raw timber to sawmills powered by the dams' cascading waters. Under the 1840 Milldam Act, almost anyone could plug a creek for almost any reason.
Years later, bigger owners retrofitted many dams to produce electricity for a growing society. Two hundred dams produce power even today. But the economical dams are now in the minority. Most dams fulfill different human needs.
The shallow lakes they create, shimmer on a sunny day aside grassy shoreside parks where crappies bite at fishing lines, defined the towns that developed around them. An outpost with a creek became a town with a heart; a place for family reunions, football tosses and quiet contemplation.
Over the decades, through countless picnics and evening strolls, one generation replaced another, and as memories of their former cool, swift stream grew dim, the dams began to slowly rot away. As long as the aging structures held water, many owners found more pressing problems to spend money on.
But anyone who assumes that a washout like the Orienta Dam is too fluky to worry about doesn't know dams, engineers say. "In a state, in a region, in a country, a 100-year flood occurs many times every year," says Martin McCann, the director of the National Performance of Dams Program at Stanford University. Even minor flood damage upsets the ecology of a stream, dumping sediment that destroys spawning grounds. Preventing that is part of the state's public trust responsibility, says Meg Galloway, the Wisconsin DNR's dam safety chief. "Any structure we allow to alter these waters should be built, operated, and maintained to minimize any consequences," she says.
Owners of decaying dams confront two choices – fix them up or take them out. In West Bend, Baraboo, and in St. Croix County's Willow River State Park, after years of hand-wringing, removal was finally chosen. The residents of Angelo, a tiny hamlet of 50 people already struggling to maintain their heritage, faced the same choices.
The unincorporated village used to house both a school and a shallow millpond, but in the summer of 1998, it boasted neither. Its 60-pupil elementary school had been absorbed years before by the much larger Sparta district; the remaining attribute, a little dam built at the time of Wisconsin's birth but owned since 1968 by Monroe County, was now seen as a danger.
In 1996, the county had hired divers, who swam under the dam and discovered deteriorated, stuck gates and cracked concrete, confirming what DNR dam safety inspectors had told them seven years earlier. By the next spring, Angelo Pond had been drained by state officials who feared a big flood would topple the dam and cause damage downstream.
The cost to fix the dam was estimated at well over a million dollars – to pull it down would cost half that amount. And it wouldn't be the first time money had flowed to the aging millpond – dredging had cost $200,000 in 1978 and other dam repairs were made in 1980.
Angelo residents, caught unawares, quickly formed a fund-raising group, Rehabilitation of the Angelo Pond, Inc., and began to lobby the county for more money. Older neighbors who'd grown up catching bluegills and crappies in the warm pond waters now started writing to their elected county officials, urging them to help pay for needed repairs. And they raised some themselves: Green Bay Packers tickets were raffled, a local liquor store gave money to the cause and a woodworker even fashioned birdhouses out of donated cedar, giving the profits to the group.
The onslaught worked. Despite some misgivings, county board supervisors finally voted in favor of the project, and repair bids came in lower than expected. By last July, lush grass was growing on Angelo's banks and a construction crane was poised to start work the next day.
But cases like Angelo's beg a question: How do places as small as Angelo and its big sibling Monroe County end up with such a troublesome mess?
When Wisconsin was young, it might have been sensible to allow almost anyone to build and own dams. Continuing the tradition has fostered some big problems and an interesting continuum. On the one end are decrepit dams whose owners can't be found and often don't care. At the other extreme are big businesses with money and firm expectations, like Northern States Power and International Paper in Merrill, who are ready to sell or remove their dams. In the middle are ordinary citizens and small, strapped governments, who feel their history with a passion where others see little more than a large watering hole.
"I can see why people would say why spend so much to save a lousy pond," said Angelo resident Gerry Neumann, whose second son had been among the last to attend Angelo's local school. "If you lived here, you would."
Ironically, dam owners themselves have always held the reins. Fish or no fish, most dams are welcome to stay, providing owners act responsibly and fix them when needed. And the DNR hasn't exactly breathed fire on recalcitrant owners. Agency files are full of decades-old correspondence with owners over dam problems. As DNR has experienced budget cuts, the agency has lost ground in staffing to oversee dam safety. If the screws are finally twisted, it's because authorities are trying to avoid unexpected disasters like the Orienta failure.
The big dam on the Iron River wasn't poorly maintained. Seepage from the embankment that washed out had been seen during more frequent inspections in years past and Northern States Power had attended to most problems. They'd replaced boards and cables in the mid-1970s, and fixed stop logs and piers in the early '80s.
And the flood that hit it lacked the sustained punch of the 1993 floods, when nine dams in Wisconsin came down or were damaged. The 1985 emergency at Orienta was entirely local, a tremendous storm that deluged the watershed but raised few eyebrows elsewhere.
Much pressure could have been relieved if the floodgates had been opened when the Iron River rose. But turning half-century old cranks while besieged by a swirling maelstrom of rapids and downed logs can be downright dangerous and sometimes impossible if the gates haven't been operated regularly. Merely getting to a dam can prove insurmountable.
Just ask former State Dam Safety Engineer Dick Knitter. In Tomah one night years ago during an eight-inch deluge, he found himself in a life jacket, braced against 1 1/2 feet of water rushing over the top of the Tomah Lake dam, frantically trying to hoist rusted gates with a crane borrowed from a cranberry company. During the rain's early stages, local officials had said the dam was safe; two hours later Knitter learned that the gates were indeed stuck, and he raced from Madison to help. The dam didn't break, but a hospital delivery room downstream was swamped with three feet of water from the overtopping.
It was a ghastly experience, he said. "If I'd slipped, I would have been dead," said Knitter, now retired from the DNR. "I thought the water was going to take out the railroad bridge below."
The colossal press of water against the dam's walls was a stress that counted against its longevity, according to Martin McCann. So he included it on his list of significant problems that occur at United States dams. McCann is building an Internet library of dam conditions to help prevent future failures. He estimates that as many as 2,000 dams a year experience some sort of serious event that makes them weaker.
Dozens of Wisconsin dams are on the list, including Tomah, Briggsville, Linnie Lac and Hatfield, which failed in 1993 and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Nationally, greater catastrophes occurred in other states, such as the Buffalo Creek dam in West Virginia in 1972, where 125 people downstream died. Or the failure of the Kelly Barnes dam in Georgia in 1977, where 39 died. "Those numbers are worth remembering," McCann said.
But few people actually do – even the federal government. Not until 1996 did Congress approve a multi-million dollar plan to encourage states to improve their dam safety operations. Back in 1978, Washington's only response was to begin a massive national effort to inspect privately owned dams with the biggest potential for downstream disaster. Those dams comprised 9,000 of about 100,000 dams nationwide.
Those results, as well as several other surveys, showed that fully a third of the inspected dams had deteriorated severely. The existing strategy of allowing states to police their dam safety programs without any federal oversight was resulting in a frightening mishmash of approaches. Many states had inadequate dam safety programs – if any – and too few staff. Often there were no uniform guidelines for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of dams.
Each state's governor was given a report on the inspections and encouraged, but not required, to upgrade those deteriorating dams. By 1982, only 1,000 dams had received any attention. By 1997, little had changed.
Ironically, following a spate of bridge failures and accompanying fatalities in the 1970s, Congress took a different tack. Officials were alarmed enough to push through a stringent mandatory inspection and repair program that continues to this day.
Edward Fitzgerald, a state Department of Transportation civil engineer, likens the needs of dams and bridges. "Once they're built, you don't want to forget about them," he said. "The biggest problems with bridges are the problems we can't see. And that's underwater." The same is true of dams, according to officials.
Compared with many other states, Wisconsin has been a leader in dam safety, having begun in 1986 to require inspections of large dams once a decade. But that's small consolation to State Dam Safety Engineer Meg Galloway. As workload increased, dam safety staff were given extra tasks diluting their abilities to oversee dams. Many dams should be receiving their second inspection around now, she says; almost half haven't even been looked at once. Public dam safety workshops that used to be held every two years have been sidelined, and only a third of large dams have the required emergency action plans, which contain telephone numbers and addresses of people downstream.
"Any dam has the potential to fail at any time," Galloway says. "Part of our job is to identify where the consequences are more significant."
The nice thing about removing a dam is that once it's done, neither state inspectors nor local owners have to worry about it anymore. Money more than ecology may be driving those decisions, but conservationists aren't arguing. Says Sara Johnson, the former director of Wisconsin's River Alliance: "It's really great to have a rare opportunity where the economics of it are so much in favor of the resource."
Last year, on a blisteringly hot July day, my son revived himself in the cool, rushing waters of the restored Willow River in St. Croix County. This moment came after a day mostly spent exploring the shores of tranquil, occasionally scummy dam impoundments with his mom and brother. Asked which kind of water he preferred, he never hesitated: "This kind."
The state-owned Mounds Dam was removed from the Willow River a year ago for $170,000, a fraction of the cost of repairing it. Another dam downstream was removed in 1992, restoring several miles of cold trout water.
No one lived alongside those dams, nobody next door worried about losing a scenic lake view or fretted whether their property values would drop. But in West Bend in the early 1980s, those were exactly the concerns laid in the lap of newly elected Mayor Michael Miller. A price tag of $3 million for an overhaul of the city's 110-year-old Woolen Mills dam prompted some in government to search for an alternative.
They found one. Today, an expansive municipal park known as the River Walk grows in place of the mucky impoundment. New bridges link the banks of the Milwaukee River, and smallmouth bass draw more anglers than the bottom-feeding carp ever did.
Gone is the silence of a shallow, still lake, Miller said. "You can see and hear the river," he said.
Woolen Mills was taken out for $500,000 in 1988, and Miller credits his park and recreation department for creating the River Walk idea, which is now drawing casual strollers and even visitors from afar, including some with sticky dam issues in their own communities.
"People are less likely to object to dam removal if you have a plan," said Miller recently. "I think it added enormous value to West Bend in terms of recreation." And the River Walk didn't hurt property values either, according to the city assessor's office.
West Bend citizens who now support what was done tell the true story, Miller said. "A few years later, many people have contacted me, saying how pleased they were we took out the dam. It's a real [city] asset." he said.
Staff Writer Katherine Esposito covers natural resource and environmental issues from our Madison offices.