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Friday, October 19, 2012

What the Frack?

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I've ever seen
Give him two lips like roses and clover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

What the Frack?
Be careful what you wish for, Wisconsin humanoids.  You say you don’t like burning coal to run your air conditioners, so the power companies replace those by plants that burn natural gas.  

Enter frac sand mining in Wisconsin.  Sand mines are more prolific in Wisconsin than rats immune to strychnine.  This byproduct of the glaciers is an essential ingredient for liberating hard-to-get natural gas from underground -- the gas headed for those power plants.  To get the gas, the oil boys blast water and chemicals and sand – this ideal sand from Wisconsin – into fine cracks in the rock.  The sand acts like tiny ball bearings to keep those cracks open to allow the gas (or oil) to be captured.  Technical term:  hydraulic fracking.

They’re not mining natural gas here, mind you; they are mining the sand in order to mine the gas out of the ground (in the Dakotas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere).  Some of these sand mines are getting uncomfortably close to Wisconsin rivers.  But it’s not just rivers they’re messing with.  Sand mining is causing all kinds of grief for communities – truck traffic, noise and dust, shaky reclamation plans, and exploitation not just of a resource but of local decision-making. Other than a few trucking jobs and a few guys to run equipment and processing machines, virtually none of the oil-boom wealth of this sand stays in Wisconsin, and no one is talking about some kind of severance tax.  Why would we keep the oil companies from getting all they want?  

A frac sand mine sprang a leak and dumped sand and water into the St. Croix River last summer.  (Oh, by the way: Rat has it on good information that your natural resources agency in Wisconsin prefers the term “industrial sands” to “frac sand – SO jobby-sounding, isn’t it?  And it sure doesn’t sound like another four-letter word that starts with “f.”) That may not be the worst of it along what is a National Scenic Riverway.  Jerry Dorff, a good friend of this Rat and a river trip outfitter, told his town board recently, “Our concern is the noise from the mine and what the mine is doing to the value of the river."

“Value of the river….” 
That’s a hard one for those who see economic development as monolithic:  create jobs no matter the cost.  Can the value of a river be matched up against the value of sand that’s extracted and shipped away?

And what river is more valued in this state than the Lower Wisconsin Riverway?  It too has a sand mining proposal near its bank, in Crawford County not far from Prairie du Chien.

The Lower Wisconsin is a unique creature.  The land inside the river corridor is legally protected from activities that would be visible from the river.  Even a house has to have colors and windows that make it inconspicuous from the river.  While there seems little the Riverway can do to restrict this mine, this may well be the time to – sorry, Rat can’t help himself – draw a line in the sand to restrict this mine, or even prevent it from going in.  There’s more sand in that thar valley, according to geologists, and the Riverway could end up with several of these things.

The Koch Brothers – who else?
One last possible sand mining insult to the river is the possibility of sand trains, running day and night, on the track that runs parallel to the river from Prairie du Chien to Muscoda.  Wisconsinites will love the intrigue behind the railroad company that owns the track. It’s owned by Wisconsin and Southern, really a Kansas company (WATCO) whose biggest customers are Koch Brothers enterprises.  Rat saw track crews recently replacing ties on this line, and a train buff took pictures of a sand train on those rails, as recently as October 4. (Ya gotta love the photographer's attempt at making a train look sexy.)

Whether or not sand mines are developed on the river, it seems likely that the rumblings of sand trains may serenade Wisconsin river paddlers and campers soon.

Fellow river rats, we may have to get familiar with the state railroad commissioner.  I know, we’re supposed to love trains…but as I said at the top, nothing is clear-cut anymore. 

posted by the River Rat

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hot New Findings! Are invaders benefiting from the record breaking high temperatures and drought?

Even us amphibious creatures could not catch a break from the sweltering heat this summer as water temps soared and side-channels sizzled dry under the unrelenting scorching skies.   As the waters recede the neighborhood can get a little crowded, especially with all the new immigrants!  From the Mississippi to the Sugar River, we have seen unwanted guests flocking here like snowbirds to Florida finding great pleasure in the heat.  

In the Mississippi River near Alma, Wisconsin about 1,000 water hyacinth and water lettuce, two of the world’s worst invasive species that are are not regulated here in Wisconsin due to their assumed intolerance of our winter, were found last year.  After a rapid response to squelch this new invasion, WDNR and USFWS staff hoped that the literature was right.  However, low and behold this summer the two plants (nearly 10,000 of them) reemerged from seed to be joined by yet another nasty invader, parrot feather.  For more on this infestation,

Water lettuce and water hyacinth in the Mississippi River (credit: Paul Skawinski)

 Zebra mussels are not new to the Wisconsin River.  However, this year something monumental happened; their populations exploded!  In a recent survey of a native mussel bed near Muscoda 90% of the native mussels collected had juvenile zebra mussels attached to them.  In total there were over 10,000 young zebra mussels.  That is 10,000 future heal cutting shells to litter our sandbars. While they have been in the area since 2008, they have remained a mere minority until this year.  Now at their current numbers they pose a substantial threat to natives, recreational opportunities, and the bottom line of river-based businesses.
Juvenile zebra mussels on from the Lower Wisconsin River

A stone’s throw over the Military Ridge in the Sugar River watershed the mosquitofish, an exotic species that was also thought to not like our Wisconsin winters, is thriving much to the detriment of our native blackstripe topminnow and state endangered starhead topminnow.  This year’s drought has decreased the back water slough habitat within the river where these three species have competed for resources in years past.  A survey last month discovered that there were now no topminnows and a plethora of mosquitofish in what was left of the shallow sloughs. 

Biologists walk through the site of a former slough
One hot summer a trend does not make.  Us river dwellers, like you, hope that this season does indeed prove to be a fluke.  In the meanwhile, it’s time to get down to business to mitigate the damage that has been done.  Stay tuned for more information on what the River Alliance and their partners are doing to keep these invaders at bay.    As for you, please keep an eye out for the unusual while you visit your favorite waters. 

 posted by the River Rat

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Delton's Dubious Dye Dump

Allow Rat to begin by posing a basic home repair question.  Imagine for a minute that you live in a house with a leaky roof.  To be clear, we’re not talking about a rundown old rat hole (which has an undeniable charm of its own), but a genuinely nice place.  Every time it rains, water drips onto the wood floor.  After a few leaky years, the wood floor is in bad shape, completely water-stained, warped, and rotten.  Repairs are badly needed.  Do you pony up the dough for a nice new wood floor, knowing full well that the roof leaks?  

The Village of Lake Delton, known far and wide for its most river-rat-unfriendly of water skiing shows, is deeply invested in the appearance of its namesake lake, which drives its tourism-based economy.  Recently, the lake has been fouled with green water and algae blooms, caused by upstream polluted runoff that brings excess nutrients into the lake. 

The Village was apparently looking for a short-term fix to the dirty water that would allow water ski shows and other water-based recreation to continue unimpeded by unsightly and stinky algae.  So, they poured $30,000 worth (or some 500 GALLONS) of “AquaBlue” dye into the waters of Lake Delton.

Visibility in Delton's dyed waters is no more than a few feet.

AquaBlue, in case you are wondering, is a “non-toxic” dye for use in ponds—think of artificial blue ponds on golf courses.  Its contents are a trade secret—“concentrated acid blue dye #9” is all they tell us.  The dye, working its dark magic in Lake Delton at this very moment, prevents sunlight from penetrating more than a couple feet in the water.  According to its label, it provides a “beautiful blue tint” to the water.  Eyewitnesses confirm that it Lake Delton is indeed dark blue presently, with visibility at no more than a foot or two.

Rat’s pretty skeptical about this whole operation, which stinks as badly as the algae it was supposed to suppress.  Amid all of the murkiness over the dye, some light needs to be shed on a few important issues, such as the impact of this supposedly harmless dye.  If light doesn’t penetrate the dyed water beyond a couple of feet, how do sight-feeding fish find prey?  And if light can’t reach submerged aquatic plants, and the life-giving process of photosynthesis shuts down, what happens to the aquatic critters?

The question of whether or not the Village could legally dump the dye into public waters without a DNR permit is presently being evaluated by authorities, so stay tuned on that.  But it’s pretty clear that the dye was used as a workaround to the Village actually obtaining a DNR permit for any of the alternative treatments they could have sought.  You see, the dye isn’t registered (read: approved) by the EPA, which is likely why it was used.

And then there’s the not-so-insignificant issue of where the dye was dumped.  Deltonites ought to remember that their namesake “lake” is in truth Dell Creek, held up behind a dam.  (The creek infamously reminded us of this during the flood of 2008, when it blew out the dam and artificial lake, taking several homes with it).  Whether AquaBlue, PlayfulPink or RosyRed, the lake’s dye-tainted waters are currently draining out of the lake, and right into the Wisconsin River.  A greenish plume into the river was visible shortly after the dye was dumped.

Trouble is, the dye is meant to be used “in confined systems,” explicitly NOT for use in streams, rivers, or other flowing water bodies that are “not under control of the user.”  Rat can’t say with authority what kind of impacts the blue colorant will ultimately have on plants and animals downstream, but, he can say with full certainty that the Village of Lake Delton does NOT “control” the public waters of our state.

Rat knows desperation when he smells it.  And in his heart of hearts he can’t help but feel sympathy for folks yearning for crystal blue clean water.  The green plague seems to grow worse every year, wreaking havoc on Wisconsin’s rivers and streams.  Visitors flee from the hideous stuff and small businesses suffer the loss of income when summertime waters are marred by algae.  Here’s an idea: how about the fat cats on the hill in Madison pay as much attention to the concerns of small business owners affected by dirty water as they do the cries of other businesses who want regulations gutted?  They seem to only hear one type of small business owner…the one who hates government regulations.

Abstract art? Nope, just a boat landing dyed a pleasing blue tint.

In the meantime, any rat worth his whiskers could tell you that this expensive, temporary, and downright foolish “fix” (and significant expenditure of local taxpayer money) won’t clean up Lake Delton in the long term.  The only way out of this slimy mess is to look upstream and address polluted runoff problems, stopping the slime-causing sludge at the source. 

Remember our home repair question above?  The algae blooms in this case are merely a symptom of the upstream problem of polluted runoff, much like the rotten floor is a symptom of a leaky roof.  Treating the symptom does nothing to alleviate the bigger problem.  Fortunately, Wisconsin has tools in place, such as a progressive set of phosphorus rules, which allow us to holistically treat upstream “problems.”  But until we actually start looking for upstream solutions instead of downstream band-aids, quick “fixes” like Lake Delton dye dumps, Lake Menomin “scumsuckers,” or Lake Monona “solar bees,” are looking like damned expensive lipstick on the proverbial pig.

posted by the River Rat

Monday, May 21, 2012

The White Salmon: A River Reborn

It’s not often this Rat gets to commune with his fellow bank-dwellers, let alone a horde of 750 of them. But that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago, when river rats from all over the country—the world, actually—converged in Portland, Oregon.

What, beyond an appearance by the Pied Piper himself, could attract so many from so far—a 20-year Limburger, perhaps? (Definitely…but not this time.) In this case, we gathered for River Rally an annual celebration of river and environmental victories hosted by the River Network and (for the first time) the Waterkeeper Alliance. It was the largest international gathering of river rats to date. To the terror of some, it appears that we river rats are multiplying. Rapidly.

Time and time again over the weekend, Rat heard inspirational tales of countless steadfast and dedicated river rats, toiling away to protect their local river, stream, bay, sound, or slough. Many of them, it appears, are winning these battles, and we rightly celebrated them with good food and drink, sometimes until the wee hours of morning. But even this party-loving Rat needs a break from the reveling, so I stole away up the Columbia River Gorge to see the recently-uncovered new digs of the White Salmon River.

The former site of Northwestern Lake--now the free-flowing White Salmon River--1/4 mile upstream of the breached Condit Dam.
The White Salmon, as you may have heard, is just about tops for recent river success stories. It, combined with its Washington brethren the Elwha River, represents the largest dam removal effort to date in the nation. The White Salmon enters the mighty Columbia River—historically known for its epic salmon and steelhead runs—about 25 miles upstream of the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia. The narrow canyons and raging rapids of the White Salmon are a powerful force, so much so that you humans decided to plop a hydropower dam on it (as you like to do, it seems).

The Condit Dam, built in 1913, had long lost its maximum power-generating capacity over its 100-year lifespan, due the buildup of an estimated 2,300,000 cubic yards of sediment that reduced reservoir storage by 60% (Steve Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 1). Additionally, the dam’s owner, PacificCorp, in order to obtain a new Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) license, would have been required (per the Endangered Species Act) to get salmon and steelhead past the 125-foot dam, to access native spawning grounds upstream. Between the cost of facility upgrades and lost reservoir storage, maintaining the dam as a hydropower facility was seen as unprofitable, and PacificCorp removed the dam this past October (culiminating years of discussion and planning efforts). Do yourself a favor and watch the stunning timelapse video of the breaching of the dam, taken by fellow river rats Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli, posted below.

Today, the White Salmon runs with all of the unbridled force and energy that a wild river should. The river has scoured through about 50 feet of sediment that was formerly lakebed to return to its original riverbed from 100 years ago. With a big spring snowmelt and runoff event in the next couple years, possibly along with some help from PacificCorp, it should wipe out much of the unsightly sediment on its banks in due time. PacificCorp will also revegetate the remaining sediment banks over the next two years, and maintain the site for the next ten years (Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 3).

Bank erosion is significant on Little Buck Creek, once a  'finger' of Northwestern Lake and now a tributary to the White Salmon. Note the dock protruding from the bank, and the section of dock lying on the bank ten feet below.
Rat spent a perfect May afternoon nosing around the banks of the river in the area upstream of the now-breached Condit Dam, at the former site of Northwestern Lake (in an area once known as “Jaws Canyon” prior to the construction of the dam). Notable were stumps of massive trees along the riverbank that were removed 100 years ago (because you can’t have trees growing up through the surface of an impoundment). Though the landscape still bears a somewhat traumatized appearance, its scars are only temporary…but its rejuvenation is eternal, and unmistakable.

Rat, not normally a mystical sort, was roused by the aura and vitality of this renewed place. It holds a sacred feeling, the kind usually ascribed only to houses of worship or holy sites. But here, below towering Douglas firs and western red cedars, the divine waters of the White Salmon run free again. For the first time in 100 years, it will beckon forth the return of coho salmon, spring and fall Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout runs, which form the life-giving base of the entire Pacific Northwest foodweb. Their inevitable return will signify a miracle of its own kind, rivaled by few others Rat has ever encountered.

Massive stumps, relics from tree removal efforts 100 years ago during construction of the Condit Dam, mark the former (original) riverbank.
*For an incredible wealth of resources about the White Salmon dam removal, see Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli’s exceptional blog White Salmon Restored: A Timelapse Project at Rat wishes to personally thank Andy and Steve for the content and information contained on their blog that was referenced or used in the writing of this post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

All Hail Hurley and the Hell They Avoided

This Rat was nosing around northern Wisconsin recently, discovering, among other things, that one of Wisconsin's border rivers -- the Montreal, that is, the river no one gets right in a quiz about border rivers -- has two branches. 

Wow, huh? 

Well, there's more. In tracking the branches of the Montreal, you travel to Hurley, Wisconsin, in northern Iron County hard against the Michigan border and its twin city, Ironwood.

Past Glory
Hurley lets you know, early and often, that is is a mining town.  Or WAS a mining town.  It's clear by the names of the businesses and streets, the public art and historic markers, that this burg clings to its iron mining past like a rusty nail to a magnet.  It's clear by the pro-mining yard signs that they continue to cling to mining as its future.

There's something sad about that. Area residents are no doubt sad and angry that their chance for another iron mine, and the jobs and activity that comes with it, was snatched from their grasp like a pick axe wrenched from their hand by a cranky straw boss.  Rat overheard none of this, but  it is known they blame environmentalists and Indians and one state Senator who blocked legislation that would have allowed the mine to operate without any meaningful environmental standards.

That mine would not have been their granddad's mine. 

Rat's sadness about all this runs in a couple of directions.  Rat is sad for the good folks of Hurley who were led down a primrose path by a mining company that knew from the beginning a mine in that area would not work unless they could be utterly careless with water and tailings and paying local governments for the damage they'd cause.  Rat is sad for the fact that it is obvious that the good folks of Hurley need some new kind of economic activity.  There are way too many bars per capita in that town -- not a good measure of community health.

Hurley's Hurdles
We then advise them, "Protect your resources and make money through tourism!"  But you sense a "been there done that" attitude about tourism in the town, and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy even:  "Tourism didn't really work before, so let's not try very hard at it," they think.  And because they don't try very hard, it's not a very appealing place, and its charms are hard to find.  So tourists don't come, and they say, "See, tourism doesn't really work here." And there's your vicious cycle.

This Rat did his best to spend a few special grains and nuts to do my share for the local economy.  But the occasional "quiet sport" tourist is notorious for not spending much money -- kayaks don't use gas, we bring our Clif Bars from downstate, and we drink modestly. (Okay, not my friends.)  One barkeep, in sizing up the tourism potential, told me that snowmobilers "don't even drink no more."  That's probably a good thing, but it hints at the limited imagination that appears to permeate the town about what it could be. 

I went back to the Montreal River to find Peterson Falls, a sweet little cascade of the East Branch.  It's poorly marked, and its very unofficial feel made it deliciously primitive.  But Iron County boasts 18 waterfalls.  What could they do to  make Iron County Wisconsin's "waterfall destination?"  Would that be the catalyst to put in the map -- the draw that triggers the new restaurant, that inspires the new convenience store, which in turn convinces some retirees to settle there, which puts money into a developer's pocket who then feeds the local lumber mart and Friday fish fry joint? 

Hurley could at least try.  They would be in total charge of their own fate, and maybe begin to imagine a new future. 

Meanwhile, go to Peterson Falls while in Hurley,  and while you're at it, find the confluence of the two branches of the river.  Nothing breathtaking or spectacular, but very satisfying.  That river has seen change and upheaval over the millenia.  So will Hurley. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Smell of Sewage, and of Shirking Responsibility

This business of the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources cutting slack to a septic waste hauler smells, well, like raw sewage.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s responses have gone from defensiveness, to shooting the messenger (criticizing the Wisconsin State Journal for, essentially, doing what a good newspaper does), to proposing that DNR political appointees reveal if they got campaign contributions from someone they expect to regulate. 

Rat will take up the stinky problem of “septage” spreading on farmland in a minute, but first – to the almost-as-stinky proposal by Secretary Stepp to “fix” this problem by having agency staff reveal conflicts of interest they might have with people they should regulate. 

This assumes that DNR is run by people who get campaign contributions. The fact is, very few people, even political appointees, are in a position to get campaign contributions that would affect their decisions at the agency.  

This “fix” is a smokescreen.  The underlying problem with the DNR is its single-minded focus on serving the “customer,” whom the current regime sees as business people who should not be regulated, and the DNR’s job is to clear regulatory brush out of their way.  This mentality overlooks an essential fact:  that ALL citizens of the state are DNR’s “customers.”  The agency’s job is to protect the resource.  By giving this septic waste hauler a pass for violating state law, they were willing to risk contaminating the wells of other “customers” – those people whose houses adjoined the fields where the septic waste was illegally spread.

One not unreasonable excuse Stepp gave for lax enforcement by DNR since Scott Walker was elected was a lack of staff.  But the Walker administration has no intention of beefing up enforcement of polluters.  Gov. Walker defended the DNR's actions on the septic waste incident in a statement last week, and in a recent email invitation to environmental groups to discuss the DNR’s upcoming budget, the Governor’s office told us we should come to the meeting with these “guiding principles” in mind:  

“….not spending money that the state doesn’t have; smaller government is better government; and people create jobs, not government.”  

Translation:  don’t come asking for more DNR staff, and don’t ask us to enforce the law. 

Speaking of laws– those regulating the spreading of liquid waste, colloquially known as “sludge” –spreading sludge on farmland is legal, and is mildly regulated by DNR.  State and county conservation staffers who work with sludge haulers say that while municipalities and industries can generally be trusted to play by the rules, the guys hauling septic wastes are often cowboys – flaunting the rules and not bothering with the paperwork required.  

A simple policy solution to that problem would be to send all septic wastes to the nearest municipal sewage treatment plant, rather than spreading it, raw and untreated, on farmland.

Even with that change, we need a DNR willing to enforce the law. We’ll see if DNR can give a credible response to what’s been exposed, through this stinky incident, about its official mindset. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Conspiracy Theory? Never.....

The Rat finds himself feeling a little sorry for Mr. Williams, the president of Gogebic Taconite, the day after the Assembly’s mining bill hit a brick wall in the Senate. Not because he didn’t get changes in the state mining law that would have allowed his company to take the iron and run at the expense of Wisconsin’s water resources, but because it sure seems like poor Mr. Williams became a pawn in a much bigger plan. Sure, he lied to folks in Northern Wisconsin when he said they didn’t need any changes in law to do their mine. Then a few months later he said GTac would stop pursuing a permit until they had “certainty” on a timeline for their permit review. And shortly after that a draft bill came out that set a ridiculous timeline, shut out the public, and exempted mining operations from environmental protections. But it was the business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, that was the tail wagging this dog.

Now Rat is by no means an expert on the economics of mining, but after a few conversations with some of the folks who are, discovered they were just as perplexed about how the GTac mine could actually pencil out. Taconite, the material they want to mine in the Penokee Hills, is by definition a low-quality ore. The percentage of iron in the rock is low, and it takes a lot of time and effort to sort out the good stuff. The Penokee deposit is also very deep, over 1000’ in some locations, and buried at an angle that makes it hard to get. Even with higher prices for iron, it’s hard to figure how the expense of extracting, processing and transporting the iron could be profitable. No doubt being able to go after it without worrying about pesky environmental regulations would help, but even if they were given free rein to dig as they pleased, it hardly seems worth it.

Rat is betting Mr. Williams figured that out for himself, but agreed to stay in the game to help with WMC’s real agenda – use the perfect foil of jobs for the depressed North and factory workers in Milwaukee to topple the first domino in their plan to dismantle environmental laws one industry at a time. Iron mining would be first, even though there was no guarantee GTac would actually proceed, then on to sulfide mining! And after that, sky’s the limit. Too bad the whole jobs screen started to fall apart at the final hour. Even though GTac claimed they would hire Wisconsin workers, they earlier noted no one here had the skills, and there were no provisions for job training. Then, the day before the vote in the Senate, WisBusiness reported that Milwaukee area mining equipment manufacturers could sell lots of stuff if GTac opened a mine, but no new manufacturing jobs would be created. That didn’t stop WMC from pulling out all the stops and getting union workers to lobby Milwaukee-area senators to vote yes. Luckily, they read the paper too and saw the bill for the sham that it was.

posted by the River Rat

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