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How much work is really needed at Chelsea Dam?

Members of the Taylor County Forestry committee, as well as lake stakeholders, got sticker shock recently when they were informed that fixing the dam at Chelsea Lake would cost nearly a quarter-million dollars.

The price estimate from Ayres Associates is significantly higher than the approximately $65,000 estimated cost given by the original project engineers, Flambeau Engineering.

While every project engineer’s price estimates are slightly different depending on how they estimate material and labor expenses, generally the disparity is within a few percentage points. A projected price tag of nearly four times more than the original estimate cannot be easily explained away, despite the forestry department’s seeming eagerness in wanting to disparage the original project engineer.

It is much more likely that the two engineering firms were given very different directives and as a result came up with very different solutions. The first being told to engineer repairs to correct the identified deficiencies in the earthen structure while the second being told to engineer replacement of the dam.

The question is what does the dam, and by extension the county, actually need from the project.

The state dam inspector, who himself enjoys fishing on Chelsea Lake, sent the message to lake stakeholders at a recent meeting that the dam needed repairs but was fundamentally sound.

While there is little doubt that Ayres Associates has a very fine plan to replace the dam, it is comparable to going in to a dealership to have worn out tires changed and ending up with a brand new pickup truck. Yes, both options address the safety concern of the worn tires, but unless you have the deep pockets of taxpayers at your disposal, it is generally a better investment to spend money to address the known problems. While the money being spent on the project comes from logging revenues on the county forest, these funds are still taxpayers’ money as much as any other government revenue.

The issue of the dam becomes complicated because Taylor County’s forestry department has opposed the Chelsea Dam project since it was first brought forward, even opposing the county having ownership of the structure at all. It is a legitimate question to ask what direction Ayres was given for the project. Perhaps as the county’s forestry administrator Jake Walcisak stated, fixing it means replacing it. Or perhaps that is one solution and there could be other options.

Did the forestry personnel decide on their own that the dam was beyond repair and give direction to Ayres to design its replacement, despite the Department of Natural Resource’s comments that it just needed some overdue repairs? Or perhaps it was left up to the engineering firm to determine its own scope of the project and they just happened to pick the option which will coincidentally bring in much higher fees for the firm, since engineers are generally paid on a percentage of project costs.

Taylor County owns the Chelsea Dam and has a commitment to ensure the dam is safe and meets state structural requirements. The full county board needs to decide if it is best to do this with repairs or a complete replacement.