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Alternatives emerge for Little Falls Lake dam

About 50 people attended a meeting Wednesday, May 6, at Hudson Town Hall, where Department of Natural Resources officials outlined possibilities for the future at the Little Falls Lake dam. (Staff photo by Mike Longaecker)

Eight options will be mapped out for the future of the Little Falls Lake dam, but Department of Natural Resources officials said last week it boils down to variations on three alternatives, and could come with a $15 million price tag.

The dam will either be rebuilt, removed or repaired, according to an outline of plans presented Wednesday, May 6, at Hudson Town Hall.

To many of the 50-or-so people in attendance, however, there were only two realistic options: rebuild or remove.

One DNR official at the meeting admitted that repair would be a daunting prospect.

“It’s a bigger challenge than taking out what’s there,” Regional DNR Manager Dan Baumann said, responding to an audience member who said “repair is not an option.”

It was also the sense others had at the meeting gathered after hearing from a panel of DNR officials that the Little Falls Lake dam’s unstable foundation — forming the base of the 117-foot-long structure first built about 100 years ago — would be a key part of any repair effort.

The lake will be drawn down on June 1 in response to safety concerns that the dam could give way under a major storm event.

“The DNR is killing the lake June 1,” said Jim Laird, whose home overlooks the lake — a delta formed by the Willow River just upstream of the dam. “The question is, ‘Will it ever return?’”

There is no question the lake will go away, at least temporarily. Department officials said Little Falls Lake will be reduced to a stream while a permanent solution is under consideration.

DNR Regional Program Manager Ben Bergey said sometime this fall the department hopes to complete a strategic alternatives analysis paper to formally outline plans that will be submitted to department administration.

Missy VanLanduyt, a Wisconsin State Park System capital development specialist, said another public meeting will be held after DNR administration decides on an alternative. From there, she said, design and budget plans will be presented to DNR administration and lawmakers.

“Hopefully they’ll approve that,” VanLanduyt said.

‘A pretty big-ticket item’

The process will take at least five years before any construction could begin, VanLanduyt told the audience.

An existing $3 million state budget request for repairs to the Little Falls Lake dam is likely to be approved, she said.

VanLanduyt said that budget request had been submitted in 2013 when the DNR knew problems existed at the dam, though not yet the entire scope.

The $3 million request still needs support from the legislative joint finance committee and Gov. Scott Walker. The funds were initially slated to repair gates on the dam, though VanLanduyt said it’s now clear that those dollars should be diverted to different purposes.

If approved, the $3 million would now pay for projects associated with the draw-down.

“To stabilize the area and to make it safe,” VanLanduyt said, “and sediment management.”

Remaining dollars would be rolled into future project costs, she said.

Department officials said the overall project cost will range from $2.5 million to $15 million, depending on which alternative is selected.

“This could be a pretty big-ticket item for all of us,” DNR engineer Gordon Stinson said at the meeting.

The drawdown, officials explained at the meeting, is the direct result of serious concerns about the dam’s reliability in a major flood.

Stinson said department workers first began inspecting the dam in 2011, but couldn’t get a better look at it until 2014, when a contracted firm went in search of an answer to the question, “Why don’t these (dam) gates work?”

Stinson said it was determined that dam’s foundation was compromised, leaving the structure “in dire need of being addressed.”

A summary of problems at the dam outlined in a handout from the meeting lists:

— Inadequate spillway capacity

— Three of four gates in poor condition with two completely inoperable

— Seepage indicating poor foundation and structural movement

— Spillway built on “questionable timber crib and experiencing uncontrolled seepage” at key contact points indicating possible foundation problems and a “continually deteriorating probable fail point”

Alternatives moving forward call for two options of full dam replacement, five options for partial dam replacement and one option for removal of the dam.

Baumann said the Little Falls Lake dam is classified as a “high hazard” dam due to the public damage that would result from a failure. More than 290 square miles from the Willow River watershed feed into the river and a 100-year storm would put the “noncompliant structure” at risk, he said.


The process begins next month when Little Falls Lake is drawn down.

DNR dam engineer Mike Rogney said the “staged” process will mean taking the lake down 6 inches per 24 hours by opening the dam’s gates.

Once drawn down to a stream, DNR officials will wait for the exposed sediment to settle and dry out. Then, Rogney explained, the formerly underwater area will be seeded so vegetation can grow. He said vegetation will help stem sediment runoff into the river.

Willow River water will pass through the dam’s sluice gate until a different option at the dam is under way, Rogney said.

He described how riprap and other materials will be placed in the waterway to control sediment flow and to re-establish the original river channel.

Local impact

The Little Falls Lake project will include a long look at what impact the lake has on the community and the region.

Willow River State Park Manager Aaron Mason said the park receives more than 700,000 visitors annually.

Part of the alternatives analysis will consider the economic impact those visitors bring, Bergey said at the meeting.

He pointed to a University of Wisconsin study that reported more than $4.8 million was spent locally due to traffic coming to the state park. That number balloons to a nearly $30 million impact on the regional economy, according to the report.

“We’re an integral part of the local economy,” Bergey said.

Recreation, fish-and-wildlife resources and public use of the Little Falls Lake area will also be studied as part of the alternatives analysis, he said.


Attendees at the meeting presented a bevy of concerns to the panel, ranging from questions about the impact on Lake Mallalieu to plans for relocating fish in Little Falls Lake.

Hudson resident John Thomas said he left the meeting with a sense of lost trust.

He said he’d like to believe that the input given by community members at the meeting made a difference, but said the process so far hasn’t instilled hope.

“Once burned, twice cautious,” Thomas said.

Yet he said he still would like to forge a working relationship between the department and community members with the goal of protecting the Willow River ecosystem.

“Let us actively participate in the drafting of the report,” he said after the meeting.

Laird said he left the meeting feeling “pretty discouraged.”

“My concern is even higher now than it was before,” he said.