While many dams continue to provide useful societal benefits, thousands of small dams have become obsolete, no longer providing the services for which they were designed. These dams damage aquatic habitat, often become financial burdens on their owners, and can become public safety hazards. Their removal can provide lasting habitat benefits, while often also benefiting the dam owner and surrounding community.
For more than 110 years, Colfax Dam in west-central Wisconsin blocked Eighteen-Mile Creek near its confluence with the Red Cedar River. The 13-foot-high, 75-foot-long dam once powered a grain mill, but the structure prevented fish passage and degraded coldwater habitat. Over the years, the dam's impoundment became choked with sediment and created high water temperatures and low oxygen levels, making it inhospitable to trout. The area upstream of the dam had been described as "nothing but sand flats and mosquito habitat."
|The restored Eighteen-Mile Creek now supports a large brook trout population. Fish species diversity also increased with the now unrestricted access from the Red Cedar River. (River Alliance of Wisconsin photo)|
In 1996, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ordered the dam replaced or removed for safety reasons. Dam repairs and pond dredging were estimated to cost over $1 million, a large sum for the Village of Colfax. After a series of public meetings, Colfax residents voted to remove the dam. TU's Ojibleau Chapter president, Duke Welter, attended community meetings and wrote to the local paper advocating for restoring Eighteen-Mile Creek. Welter also joined DNR personnel in presenting the economic and recreational benefits of dam removal to more than 150 Colfax residents at a town meeting.
The dam was removed in the winter of 1997-1998. Stream channel restoration, including bank stabilization and habitat enhancements, followed. The Ojibleau Chapter contributed $2,400 to cover the cost of notching the dam to draw down the water, enabling the project to go forward. TU volunteers also helped install instream structures for fish habitat and flow consistency, helped reseed exposed land and planted streamside vegetation. The DNR also stocked 600 wild brook trout to help establish a self-sustaining population.
|Ojibleau Chapter volunteers assist with reseeding exposed land after Colfax Dam was removed. Chapter members also helped install 98 habitat structures in the creek for trout and other fish. (River Alliance of Wisconsin photo)|
The dam removal cost approximately $200,000, a significant cost savings over the million-dollar repair estimate. Since the dam was removed, native coldwater species have increased in abundance, including mottled sculpin, American brook lamprey and brook trout, which have increased from 12 trout per mile in 1997 to 108 trout per mile in 1999. The "sand flats and mosquito habitat" have become a living, thriving asset to the community.