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Lake association opposes major drawdown to repair Miller Dam sluice gate

Repairs to Miller Dam may end up costing more than anticipated in order to avoid a large drawdown of the Chequamegon Waters Flowage.

At the August 7 forestry committee meeting, administrator Jake Walcisak reported that following last month’s meeting where the sluice gate repairs were discussed he was contacted by the Miller Dam Lake Association with concerns about any type of drawdown.

The sluice gate is located at the bottom of the dam structure about 15 feet below the water level and controls the water level in the flowage. The project engineers had discussed lowering the water level by five feet in order to make doing the work easier. However, the average depth of the 2,714 acre flowage is only 5.5 feet. County to look at options for Miller Dam repairs other than drawdown

“The proposed drawdown would result in a great economical loss to the tourism of both Miller Dam and Taylor County,” wrote Scott Nichols, president of the Miller Dam Lake Association in an August 10 letter to the county. While the lake association recognizes the need to make the repairs, they feared that drawing the water on the lake down would end up costing tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the county due to the destruction of the fishery there.

“We need to avoid a large drawdown,” Walcisak said, noting that other than the channel and a few spots there wouldn’t be much left following a large drawdown.

He told the committee that other options such as building caissons around the gate and pumping out the water have their own issues, since the concrete base of the dam extends out from the structure. “It could mean more money,” Walcisak said.

Walcisak advised the committee to wait on making any decisions until after the county received a final design from Ayres Associates, the engineering firm doing the work for the county. The issue will be brought to the next forestry committee meeting, scheduled for Friday, September 11.

“We will do what we can to keep it to a minimum,” said committee chairman Chuck Zenner.

In other discussion on dams, the county is gearing up for a potential legal battle with Ayres over the engineering company’s mistake in missing a deadline for applying for a state dam grant program last winter. The mistake resulted in the county being docked points in the competitive grant process. According to Walcisak without the points being docked, the Camp 8 project would have easily qualified for grant funding and the Chelsea Dam project would have been within a point or two of receiving funds. The grants cover up to 50% of the replacement cost for the dams.

With neither dam in danger of immediate failure, the county is planning to reapply when the grant cycle reopens in two years and hopes to receive funding at that time. However, there are some concerns about if the dam grant project will still be available at that time because it has been targeted at the state level in the past for budget cuts.

This could leave the county with the entire costs of the dam projects.

Ayres admitted their mistake to the county and last month offered a $2,500 discount on engineering fees in compensation to the county.

Walcisak said that given the cost of the projects, Ayres offer is not enough. He estimated that using standard inflation rates, the cost of the projects will increase by about $17,900 over the next two years in order to do the same work.

“We are talking well over $10,000 in defendable costs,” Walcisak said, stating the county needed to be made whole. He also noted the county has about $74,000 in engineering contracts to let out for the construction supervision and bidding. Typically this would be awarded to Ayres since it had done all the work up until this point, however, the county could give that work to another firm.

“I am not opposed to going after Ayres for more money,” said committee member Mike Bub. His question was what the committee felt was appropriate to negotiate for.

“The $1,250 (per dam) is kind of insulting,” Bub said of the firm’s offer.

Committee member Gene Knoll questioned if there was enough to go to legal counsel for litigation. Walcisak said he talked with the county’s attorney Ruth Ann Koch and was advised that they found Ayres in breach of their contract due to the error.

County board chairman Jim Metz is scheduled to attend the state highway conference and meet with representatives from Ayres over the issue as a way to avoid potential litigation, although that option was not ruled out by the committee.

Committee members also discussed options for the Chelsea Dam project. Adjoining landowners have routinely called for the project to be expanded to include the dikes in order to raise the water level, this would add significant cost. The county has pushed for the creation of a lake district as a way to finance the work since the district would have the authority to borrow money and levy taxes to the lake property owners to pay for work done. Another option Walcisak said was for the county to levy a special assessment against the lake property owners, much like city residents are charged a special assessment for road projects done in front of their properties. He said Washburn County has used these types of special assessments with success.

In other business, committee members:

_ Received an update on the bridge replacement project on the Pine Line Rail Trail. The trail north of Whittlesey Park will be closed for about three weeks as a bridge is replaced. Another closure will occur later this fall when another bridge is replaced.

_ Reviewed and approved the 2021 departmental budget showing the 2% cut in operations that was asked for by the county finance committee. Walcisak warned the committee that they are projecting a 20% reduction in sale price for lumber statewide due to the market. “We have to be cautious with our revenues,” Walcisak said.

_ Approved using money from the forest department land acquisition account to use as needed for the regeneration of spruce plantations in the county forest. Walcisak said replanting is something that would take place over the next nine to 10 years and then not have to be done for decades. The pine in the area is high-value timber for utility companies and others so the cost of the planting will be made up many times over through future harvests. “You have to take care of what you got, before you can go out and get more,” said committee member Myron Brooks.

_ Approved a resolution calling for problem wolves to not be relocated to the county. Walcisak said in the past if there was a problem wolf in one area, the Department of Natural Resources would attempt trapping the animal and moving it to a different location. However, with established wolf packs in most areas of the state, the practice has been stopped since the local wolves would likely kill the relocated wolf as being an intruder in their territory. Walcisak said a majority of counties in the northern part of the state have this resolution in place. “While it is not pertinent right now, it is more a proactive measure,” Walcisak said.

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