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Monday, March 5, 2012

Her Bark Is Stronger Than Their Bite

Nemahbin Dam and Mill

Ol’ Rat has not been the chronicler of good water news lately. So it’s extra satisfying to report some good news once in a while. Delafield dam owner and friend of the River Alliance, Margaret Zerwekh, is one step closer to removing her aging dam. Something she's been trying to do for over 10 years.

Margaret Zerwekh giving a tour of the millhouse, 2006.

Margaret, and her late husband Kenneth, have lived in the mill attached to the dam for over 60 years and Margaret has been maintaining it on her own since 1989 (read a great River Alliance profile of this feisty woman here). In the early 1990s, the DNR informed Margaret the dam was undersized to safely manage flows from large rain events and that homes and people downstream were at risk of being harmed if the dam failed in a rainstorm. Given her age (a sprightly 92!), the age of the dam (an even sprightlier 160) and the cost of rebuilding (conservative estimate: $500-700 K), Margaret made the decision to abandon the dam and restore the Bark River to “a nice little stream with bluebirds on the banks.” In 1998, summer rains swelled the Bark River and the DNR ordered the dam permanently drawn down due to concerns about dam failure and the potential to wash out homes downstream.

Neighbors on the pond were not happy. They rarely are in these circumstances. But this set of neighbors was particularly unrelenting. They tried to get the city to condemn her property and take the dam (that failed). They tried to create a lake district to take over the dam (failed). They took her to court four different times. The most recent legal maneuver was to take their sad tale of lost riparian rights and private nuisance before a jury in circuit court. Oh, and to ask for a million dollars in damages from a little old lady living in a mill.

Last week, that jury unanimously rejected the property owners’ claims. Margaret won her case.

For all their dogged determination, here’s something the neighbors did not do: sit down with the dam owner and try to reach a sensible agreement to grant them access to the river. They also squandered the opportunity to work with the dam owner, the City and other partners to make something beautiful happen in their backyard where an algae- and sediment-choked pond used to be. Instead, they dragged a 92-year-old woman into court for a week and tried to bankrupt her because she followed orders from the DNR. It’s hard not to feel a little vindication for the dam owner after all she’s been through. As for Margaret, there’s nothing like 60 years’ of living on a dammed river to bring the project into perspective. She has clearly said that after so many years of service to people, it’s time to let the river be a river again and to restore it to a healthy ecosystem. As she stated to the River Alliance back in 2006, “I don’t think people understand how it can be a great benefit,” she says. “If we do this right in restor­ing the river, people will come from all over the place to see what we’re doing.”

I know I’ll be there to see it happen. I’ll be the rodent in the water, popping the cork.

posted by the River Rat

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