Panel clears way for Willow River dam project to begin

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There will be a Little Falls Lake again at Willow River State Park.

The Wisconsin Building Commission last week approved a slate of projects, including the $19 million reconstruction of the Little Falls Lake dam in the town of Hudson.

Approval of the project marks a major milepost in a process that began in 2015 after Department of Natural Resources officials concluded the former dam had become structurally vulnerable if faced with a major flood. The dam has since been breached and partially removed as a precaution while efforts to replace it have been underway in Madison.

"It's a relief to move through that process," Willow River State Park Manager Aaron Mason said Tuesday, Oct. 24.

The structure's breach has reduced the Willow River flowage from the former impoundment that park visitors paddled and fished on to a meandering riverway snaking its way to remnants of the old dam.

"We're looking forward to getting moving on the project," Mason said. "We definitely have a lot of visitors that miss that lake and the water recreation."

Gov. Scott Walker's support of the project proved a linchpin in moving it through the legislative process. The Republican governor visited Willow River State Park in February to announce an additional $11 million in funding for the dam that would be included in his budget. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee passed the budget — which included the dam item — before Walker signed it in September.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, a River Falls Republican who sits on the finance panel, said Walker's support, along with backing from the DNR, "was key" in securing final funding for the project, which first received $8 million in the 2015 budget.

"This is great news," Harsdorf said of the building commission's approval. "Obviously this is a costly project, but one that we know is vital to maintaining the interest in Willow River State Park."

Once complete, the park will see a new dam and a return of Little Falls Lake — along with a reconstructed road leading down to the water — at Willow River State Park, which is among the top revenue-drawing parks in Wisconsin.

"It's going to restore the park to what it was before the drawdown," Harsdorf said. "It will restore the amenities it had before."

Construction is set to begin in the spring with completion tentatively set for late 2019. Mason said the bidding process should begin in the next few months.

One thing the project won't address, however, is sediment pushed downstream to Lake Mallalieu. Mason said the problem is on the DNR's radar but that replacing the dam took priority.

"It's to be addressed, but we have to deal with things in the right order," he said.

UWRF renovation

In addition to the dam project, the building commission also approved $1.3 million renovation plans at Abbott Concert Hall in the Kleinpell Fine Arts building on the UW-River Falls campus.

The project will replace "aging and obsolete building services," along with electrical and lighting systems, according to a university news release. Plans also call for a new orchestra pit platform as well as acoustic improvements.

The university said the 44-year-old concert hall is showing its age in places like its seats and lighting controls, both of which have experienced failures.

"Abbott Concert Hall is an important venue which supports academic programs and student experiences, and enhances the cultural vitality of the entire St. Croix Valley," UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen said.

Work on the project, which received funding approval in 2014, will begin in June 2018 and should be completed by January 2019, according to the university.