BURLINGTON — City officials have approached the federal government about help for Echo Lake that could include funding and project management — but only if the city is ready to say goodbye to the lake.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might even have enough money to cover the entire cost of the project, relieving the city and its taxpayers of likely millions of dollars in expense.
However, the federal goal of “ecosystem restoration” does not include repairing a dam on the White River so that the man-made Echo Lake can be reclaimed for aesthetic and recreational purposes, as many hope. community members.
Frank Veraldi, regional ecosystem technical specialist for the federal agency, said the government would only help save Echo Lake if the dam was needed for flood control. Instead, federal officials consider the dam “defunct,” Veraldi said, so federal funding would only be available to remove the dam.
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“It’s to get rid of things we don’t need,” he said.
City of Burlington officials have submitted a request for assistance to the Army Corps of Engineers should the Burlington City Council decide to tear down the dam and allow Echo Lake to empty into a restored White River, what the federal government considers “ecosystem restoration”.
City Administrator Carina Walters made it clear in her July 15 petition that the city council may ultimately choose to repair the dam and save the lake, in which case federal funding and assistance will disappear. Referring to a “possible partnership,” Walters wrote of the possibility of federal funding. “This consolidated financial assistance could help the community and council make a final decision.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is a division within the United States Army which provides engineering expertise on military and civilian public works projects. The agency is concurrently working with Racine County on a possible dam removal project in Racine.
Burlington Director of Public Works Peter Riggs said if aldermen chooses to remove the Echo Lake Dam, he would recommend pursuing a partnership with the federal agency for funding and assistance.
An Echo Lake project would be managed from the agency’s regional office in Chicago, rather than Washington, D.C.
In a recent presentation to City Council, Veraldi said funding for Burlington would likely be available in a federal budget year beginning in October 2023. But he also said there may be a chance to access funding. earlier.
“There are always unused funds floating around,” he told the council via Zoom on Aug. 2. “We have a good track record of retrieving these to start projects. So who knows?”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told city officials that the Echo Lake Dam no longer meets safety standards and must either be rebuilt or removed. The water quality of the lake has also seriously deteriorated due to years of pollution and neglect.
City consultants projected that repairing the dam and dredging the 70-acre impoundment would cost about $5 million. By comparison, tearing down the dam and drying up the lake would cost around $1.5 million.
Borrowing $5 million to save the lake would raise the average homeowner’s property taxes by $68 per year over 20 years, or a total of $1,368. Borrowing $1.5 million to remove the lake would cost the same owner $20 a year, or a total of $409.
This does not include the potential millions in additional costs the city is considering for new amenities that may be added.
Officials discussed other optional features, such as walks and bridges, that would cost more.
In November, voters will face an advisory referendum asking them to choose between two options – a dam repair project costing $8.1 million and a dam removal project costing $7.7 million. Both proposals include optional features that were discussed but not decided upon.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has approved a $1 million grant for either type of project.
Veraldi told city officials that federal assistance could cover more than half of the costs of the dam removal project, including recreational elements such as hiking trails, fishing platforms and upgrades. to kayak water. With more funding now available under the Biden administration’s historic infrastructure program, Veraldi said, the federal government may be able to pay for the entire effort to remove the dam.
“It’s a possibility,” he said.
The Biden infrastructure program includes $115 million in new funding for dam removal nationwide.
Read the federal aid request
If the city forms a partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, Echo Lake would essentially become a federal project. Federal officials and contractors would carry out feasibility studies, design work, implementation, site monitoring and recreational additions.
The process could take three to five years, meaning state regulators would be asked to extend the 2025 deadline for Burlington to fix its outdated dam.
“For three to five years, we would kind of own it,” Veraldi said.
An advocate for Echo Lake drainage and White River restoration said the possibility of federal funding and project management should make the city’s decision on the future of Echo Lake easier.
Mike Weidert, founder of a Facebook group called White River Renewal, said Burlington residents need to understand that the federal government is talking about substantially completing the project with minimal effort or funding from the city.
“The city would be failing in its responsibility if it did not ensure a full understanding of this enticing offer,” Weidert said. “This offer is as good as it gets.”
Yvette Moeller, leader of another Facebook group pushing to save Echo Lake, could not be reached for comment.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently working with Racine County on a project involving Horlick Dam, a artificial dam on the Root River in Racine which faces similar state regulatory pressures. The project is undergoing a feasibility study, with the federal government paying most of the $200,000 cost of the study.
Once the study is complete, Racine County will decide whether to remove the Horlick Dam or pursue a different project.
Julie Anderson, the county’s director of public works, said working with the federal government has given Racine County access to “a whole professional team” to help sort out opportunities for the Root River.
“They’ve been great working with them,” Anderson said.