After 150 years, dams no longer interrupt Baraboo River.


Mar 11, 2001
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After 150 years, dams no longer interrupt Baraboo River.

By JO SANDIN of the Journal Sentinel staff.

Last Updated: Oct. 22, 2001

Baraboo - After six years of planning and hard work, four dam removals and a celebrity canoe trip, fans of the Baraboo River gathered on its banks Monday to applaud its new fame as the nation's longest restored free-flowing mainstream.

Since removal of the old Linen Mill Dam west of the city on Oct. 11, the river has run free for the first time in 150 years. Members of the Baraboo Canoe Club last week began a seven-day journey downstream for 115 miles from the headwaters north of Elroy to Portage, where it joins the Wisconsin River.

In honor of the occasion, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) and state Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell wielded paddles for the last segment of the trip.

However, the celebration was held in the parking lot of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, beside the former site of the Waterworks Dam removed in 1997, where the water on Monday ran swift and clear.

"This is the longest stretch of mainstream river in the nation restored to be free-flowing," Bazzell told an enthusiastic crowd of about 60 people.

Wisconsin leads the country in dam removal, with 100 deteriorating structures taken down in the last 35 years, according to Todd Ambs, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, which has joined the Sand County Foundation in actively promoting dam demolition as a way of restoring the health of rivers.

Ambs searched nationwide databases and Web sites and sent out e-mail queries to other river organizations to verify the Baraboo's claim to the "longest" title and found that any longer restorations included tributary streams.

"This is the first time a river of this size has been restored," said Bill Hartwig, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which provided money for some of the demolition work.

Baraboo Mayor Dean Steinhorst, who was on the riverbank to welcome the five canoes as they arrived, said the city already was experiencing some of the benefits of its location on a free-flowing river instead of a series of fragmented pools.

He pointed to a riverwalk that eventually will run all the way from one city boundary to the opposite border, and to a number of restored buildings offering small offices along with a river view.

And Baraboo won't be alone, he said. "All the communities along the river will benefit economically from the river's running free."

Helping the environment
Economic benefits have been just as much a part of the dam removal movement as environmental improvement.

Calling the river restoration "a great example of Wisconsin's can-do spirit," Baldwin said, "The Baraboo River is a symbol of what is right in our state and what is right in America."

Already, she said, people can see the benefits of river restoration running through their communities in cleaner water, downstream safety, better fishing, more attractive business and residential locations.

Despite those benefits, the notion of restoring rivers by removing dams still remains controversial.

Yet the cost of bringing a dam up to safe operating condition is often three to five times more than removing it, said Meg Galloway, the DNR's dam safety engineer, whose staff is responsible for inspecting about 3,700 dams.

Opponents still complain about the hydroelectric power lost by removal of the Linen Mill Dam, the last of four such structures taken down along the river's main course since '97, when Baraboo's Waterworks Dam was dismantled. The city's Oak Street Dam was taken out in 2000 and the LaValle dam in February.

One person at Monday's ceremony, Dick Knitter, a retired DNR dam safety officer, remembered a time when the controversy was considerably hotter.

In the '80s work crews needed police protection to take out the Manitowoc Dam.

"And at the public hearings, there'd be 500 people, all mad at us!" Knitter recalled. "Now, they've got a steelhead (trout) run up the Manitowoc River for 50 miles and everybody thinks it's wonderful."

River and fishery specialists from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and the Sand County Foundation have gathered data on river conditions before and after dam removal to ensure a sound scientific base for future decisions on possible dam removals.

In just the last few years, said Matt Catalano, a graduate student at UW-Stevens Point, the fish populations in the Baraboo River have changed from mostly carp to smallmouth bass, a fish intolerant of poor water quality.

Coleman dared to look ahead to an even more dramatic recovery of the fishery.

"The sturgeon in Lake Wisconsin have been bumping their noses on the Linen Mill Dam all these years," he said. "I think we'll see them spawning in the shallows here."

That would signal a genuine return of the river to its historic character.

The name Baraboo comes from the French "a la Barbeau," referring to sturgeon.

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