Sep 10, 2016

Don’t Save The Dam - Save The Fish

By: Ken Quant

Just north of Milwaukee, in the bedroom suburbs of Mequon and Thiensville, lies a secret water paradise that belies its surroundings. A haven for fish and wildlife, this unique natural corridor is created by the backwaters of an old mill dam on the Milwaukee River in Thiensville. Originally built more than 150 years ago, this dam forms a 5 mile “deep water” flowage perfect for recreational use. 

It’s hard to explain exactly how unusual this area is in a metro location of 2 million people. Surrounded by nondescript upscale sub developments, strip malls and medical buildings, this entire stretch of river has an unexpectedly remote feel, yet it is only 20 minutes from downtown Milwaukee. The river is surrounded by public nature preserves and there are still several long stretches where no houses or buildings are visible along the shores to this day. Lined with trees on both sides, the whole area is basically a wildlife refuge in an urban jungle. Numerous wetland areas teem with birds, fish, deer and other mammals. Recently, one of the largest of these backwater areas became the first place where bald eagles returned to nesting in Southeastern Wisconsin in more than 100 years. 

Unlike the normally shallow water found on the rest of the Milwaukee River system, the water remains deep enough in this section for boating even during the driest periods of summer. Local river residents and the general public alike all enjoy fishing, kayaking, pontooning and even water skiing on the usually placid water. 

Around 2002, this wildlife safe haven came under a serious threat. Not from invasive species or regulation crazy bureaucrats, but from a citizen activist group. As it turns out, there is a whole group of well-intended people that have made the removal of all dams a priority. Right or wrong, they believe that all rivers should be returned to their natural state by removing dams and returning them to their pre-civilization flow so native fish can once again access ancient spawning grounds. Fairly well-organized, they have been very successful at achieving their objectives throughout the state with aggressive campaigns targeting local decision makers. 

Armed with a then-recent negative DNR safety report on the dam, these advocates targeted the Thiensville dam for removal. Years of neglect had pushed the old dam into a state of ill-repair, and since it would be cheaper to remove it instead of repair it, they saw an easy target towards their overall objective. As well-meaning as these advocates are, the problem with dam removal on this stretch of river is that it would eliminate most of the wetland habitat that the local wildlife have made their home.

Of course this also threw up all sorts of red flags with local property owners because they would no longer have deep enough water for recreational boating. So, in an effort to defend the wetlands, the local River Advisory Board decided to figure out how to save the dam by locating funding for the necessary repairs

Original repair estimates exceeded one-million-dollars, so securing this level of funding would not be easy. After several years of trying various potential sources of public and private funding, little progress had been made towards their goal. It seemed like nobody wanted to save the old Thiensville dam. 

Just when it looked like it may be a lost cause, the wife of a River Advisory Board member happened to be watching TV when she saw a story about a privately funded fish passage that was built around the old Beckman dam in Beloit. This “passage” allowed fish to swim upstream around the dam. She thought a similar style fish passage would be a perfect solution for the Thiensville dam since it would keep the dam removal advocates happy and still preserve the deep water impoundment area behind the dam. 

Guided by this new stroke of genius, the River Advisory Committee changed its focus from saving the dam, to saving the fish. As hoped, this subtle twist spurred initial potential funding interest from several private fish and wildlife organizations. However, now the problem would be drafting up a proposal plan, without funding, to present to them.

Just like the fish they wanted to save, the River Advisory Committee had hit another wall. That’s when the Mequon City Engineer, Bill Hoppe, jumped in to help. He suggested contacting the engineering department at Marquette University to see if they would be willing to take on the plan creation as a student project. Thankfully, the Dean of the Engineering Department agreed the project had educational merit and he turned his students loose the next semester.


Four months later the students had drawn up a plan that would allow fish to slowly step their way up to the dam level water height, one small jump at a time. It ingeniously reconfigured an adjacent mill pond into a flowing stream to encourage the fish to swim upstream, entirely bypassing the dam. After a few tweaks, this new expanded Fish Passage Plan gained DNR approval. However, it would also need substantial additional funding to bring it all together.

Undaunted by this new funding obstacle and armed with the new plan, Hoppe went out searching for more money. As hoped, he was able to secure some significant funding grants from several private fish and wildlife organizations, but it was not enough. To get the remaining funds, he turned to the two local municipalities that surrounded the river. Both communities agreed that saving the dam made sense and each kicked in a bit more towards the cause. By now nearly one-million-dollars had been secured, which was a strong start, but still significantly short of the total amount needed to fully execute the plan. 

Fortunately for the project, this happened to be the year 2009. The country was spiraling into the Great Recession and a new President had just pushed a controversial economic stimulus package through Congress to help put the country back to work. Part of the new spending landed directly at the base of the old dam. 

Bolstered with federal dollars, the fish passage and dam repair project shifted into high gear. A dedicated new Milwaukee River Watershed Fish Passage Program county office was even opened to manage this, and other county-wide river projects. Shortly afterward repairs were started. Within the next year the old dam and stagnant mill pond were transformed into a showcase fish passage and dam complex complete with a motion activated camera to document the fish that traveled through the old flood gate at the top of the new fish passage ladder.

Today the river is thriving. Fish, deer and birds all enjoy the nearly pristine riverbanks and long lost fish species have been photographed swimming through the passage including steelhead and even a rare musky. Property owners are also enjoying stable home values, while the public still has access to a natural water oasis surrounded by a sea of cars, concrete and people. The dam removal advocates have now moved on and even reluctantly agree that the compromise worked. Saving the fish was truly a nearly perfect solution and just a small bit of proof that good solutions can still come from differing interests.