The months-long debate over whether to repair or demolish the historic Monterey Dam has drawn the interest of two UW-Madison students, who say they have sensed hostility from both sides.
Nelson Yang and Alexa Johnson, two junior English majors, are in a class learning about the controversial politics of dam creation and removal.
They have read academic papers, watched documentaries and even taken a field trip to learn about other Wisconsin dams, including one proposed for the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge, Yang said.
Farmers who lived near the Kickapoo Valley Reserve after World War I were moved off their land to make way for the dam. An Army Corps of Engineers representative became notorious for harassing farmers into giving up their land, Yang said.
The dam was never fully built, but the reserve kept the land anyway. Residents were understandably upset, he said.
At one point, residents became so angry with their elected leaders that they held a “funeral” for one senator as a form of protest. The residents took an effigy of his body to the dam and threw it over a cliff, Johnson said.
The current director of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, who had nothing to do with the dam debate, still gets hate letters decades later, Yang said.
While debate about the Monterey Dam hasn’t reached such levels, Yang and Johnson have noticed similar rhetoric and want to quell it.
“We thought we saw a lot of parallels about the dam in Janesville,” Yang said.
The Monterey Dam Association, a group of residents fighting to keep the dam, regularly posts on Facebook, Yang said.
“It’s very hostile, and you wouldn’t see the city council writing like that ever because they’d get extreme backlash,” he said.
Janesville residents won’t be forced off their property over the dam issue, but the dam’s removal still will affect the areas where they live, Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of similarities on how strong the opposition is,” she said. “It’s a very us-versus-them kind of mentality, I think.”
Meanwhile, city officials make “implicit power plays” that strengthen that mentality, the students said.
It’s common for dam controversies to fan conflict between residents and government agencies, Johnson said.
“We saw that disconnect,” she said. “We want to bring to light that divide and encourage conversation.”
“I want to ease that tension,” Yang said. “There are pros and cons to keeping the dam. They should reach a middle ground to keep both sides happy.”
A middle ground could be the city being more public and personal with the dam issue. City officials should reach out to the association and create an environment where both sides can be heard, he said.
“Maybe we can reach a better proposition,” Yang said.
The students agree that the dam should be removed.
From an environmental standpoint, removing it would make the area more natural, Johnson said.
Yang pointed out that continuing to repair the dam will cost more in the long run than removing it.
One significant thing the students have learned is that the Monterey Dam doesn’t provide energy anymore, making its value largely sentimental, Yang said.
“I think it’s something people should take into consideration,” he said.
The fight over the dam isn’t waning.
The association has a pending petition against the state Department of Natural Resources’ decision to allow the dam’s removal. That petition resulted in the DNR withdrawing a grant from the dam removal project.
The association is working to get the DNR to schedule a contested case hearing about the permitting process.
Meanwhile, the city is on track to begin removing the dam in August.
The bid to remove the dam, approved in mid-March, was $1.54 million. An earlier estimate put the cost at $1.13 million.