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Group keeps fighting to save Janesville's Monterey Dam

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Jake Magee
Saturday, August 5, 2017

JANESVILLEA growing group of people opposed to the Janesville City Council's vote to remove the Monterey Dam shows no signs of giving up.

Members aren't optimistic that the city will reverse its controversial decision, but that hasn't deterred them.

"Even if they took the dam out, we're not gonna go away," group member Jim Chesmore said.

The organization began as the Friends of Monterey Dam—a group of about a half-dozen residents who panned the idea of removing the historic dam. As the group grew in size, its name changed to the Monterey Dam Association, and it now has at least 30 members.

The association has its own website, T-shirts and yard signs. Members meet weekly, as they have for months. The group is an official nonprofit organization, Chesmore said.

It has even retained a lawyer, just in case.

Members finished their "Just Give a Dam" campaign at the Rock County 4-H Fair last week. People who staffed the booth said they gathered thousands of signatures on a petition asking the city council to revisit its decision.

In late March, the council voted 6-1 to remove the Monterey Dam. For months before the vote, city staff hosted public forums and meetings to share information about both removal and preservation.

Seven of the association's members shared their concerns Thursday in Chesmore's South Main Street home, which runs along part of the Rock River that will be affected by the dam's removal.

A main issue is trust. Members believe the city isn't being completely honest or forthcoming with information about cost and how dam removal would affect the environment.

Chesmore has voiced concerns before that he doesn't believe the decision to remove the dam was honest.

In recent years, the city council has budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the dam, association member Harry Paulsen said. Members wonder where that money went and why it wasn't used for the dam.

Paul Woodard, city public works director, said just because the council budgeted money for the dam doesn't mean the city had it in hand.

The council budgeting money for the dam is like a homeowner including roof repairs in his budget and then deciding the repairs can wait, said Tim Whittaker, city stormwater engineer.

The city council never approved borrowing money for dam repair, they said.

At the beginning of the decision-making process, city staff said the cost of both removing and repairing the dam would be roughly the same.

Dam repair would cost about $700,000. Removal was expected to cost about $1.1 million, but staff believed the city could secure $400,000 in grants to make both options equal in cost.

Association members doubt those figures.

Member David Brummond said at one of several dam meetings, city staffers wrote on a board that the low bid for dam repair was about $506,000—almost $200,000 less than the $700,000 estimate.

Woodard and Whittaker said the $700,000 repair estimate includes adjustments for inflation and the difference between the lowest and second-lowest bid.

"There's all these other things you've got to add in there," Woodard said.

Based on independent research, association members believe the removal cost will far exceed $1.1 million. On top of the initial price tag, there are maintenance and upkeep costs the city hasn't considered, members said.

Member Jeff Navarro said the $1.1 million estimate also doesn't include amenities, such as shoreline restoration, piers and walking trails upstream.

"The dollars have been left out of this discussion overall far too much," he said.

Whittaker said the $1.1 million figure includes the dam removal, shoreline restoration and amenities. It also includes a short-term contract for the maintenance and establishing native vegetation, he said.

Repairing the dam means it eventually will need repairs again, but not for 40 to 60 years, members said. They don't believe the claim that the dam would need to be repaired every decade or so, Navarro said.

Members also have concerns about removing the dam before contaminated sediment at General Motors is cleaned up.

Officials have said GM is the sole entity responsible for cleaning the sediment. But association members said an argument could be made to hold the city liable if contaminated sediment flows downstream after dam removal.

The state Department of Natural Resources has made it clear that GM is responsible for the cleanup, and the city sides with the DNR's expertise, Woodard said.

The dam won't be removed immediately, he said. Instead, the water will be drawn down slowly so sediment doesn't immediately flow downstream.

Other association members believe removing the dam will kill fish that can't adjust to the change in their environment.

Overall, there are too many unknowns, members said.

"We don't know when the dam is gone what's gonna happen to the land around it. We haven't got a clue," said member Gary Schultz, who offered the city money to repair the dam. "It will be the biggest mistake in Janesville's history, bar none."

"With the dam, we know what we have," said member Sheri Henry.

Woodard said the Monterey Dam is one of several capital projects—part of about $25 million in projects each year—that the city handles. The dam will be treated no differently, he said.

While the council has voted to remove the dam, its decision isn't yet permanent.

The city has filed a permit to abandon the dam. The DNR will hold a public hearing likely within 90 days. Once the permit is accepted and the dam is abandoned, the council can't reverse its decision, Woodard and Whittaker said.

The Monterey Dam Association hopes to raise enough awareness, discussion and concern to stop the process and have the council re-examine the issue. Many who signed the petition at the fair said they were unaware of the facts the association presented, members said.

"They think it's time the citizens start having input instead of the city dominating and badgering us into what they want," Chesmore said.

"We want to show people do care; the people are interested; the people are concerned," Navarro said.

"If you have a large-enough group, they have to listen eventually," Henry said.

If the association fails to get the city's attention, it hopes someone from the state or federal level steps in to stop the dam removal. Members have reached out to the state and Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

To some, the association might sound like a group that wants to raise a ruckus for no reason, but that's not the case, members said.

"We are people that care about our city," Chesmore said. "We love this city."



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