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Is dredging Gays Mills wetland a good idea?
Plan may be problematic
wetland pond

Is there or isn’t there a plan to dredge the wetland pond north of the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center?

Well, it appears the answer is maybe.

In an effort to discover if the idea was feasible and allowable, the Gays Mills Economic Development Association (GMEDA) did look into filling out the paperwork before hitting their first snag—paying for an analysis of the silt debris.

The organization does not have the funds, approximately $5,000, to pay for the analysis, so the village’s financial support would be needed to continue, according to GMEDA member Brad Niemcek.

“Basically, the question of dredging is, is it practical, valuable, and reasonable to make the pond recreationally flexible,” Niemcek said. “The first step is to see how the DNR would evaluate this in terms of wetlands preservation, but to even get that started, the DNR is asking for (an) evaluation of the silt to be dredged.”

Not all members of GMEDA agree on pursuing the slough-dredging project, according to Niemcek.

Proponents of the project see it as potentially providing an attraction, which the village doesn’t currently have—a multi-use recreational pond giving people a place to kayak, canoe, fish and swim without the current of the river.

“One part of the question of this project is whether the area is attractive to someone planning a weekend,” Niemcek said. “It falls short on that front. This would create an additional attraction that gives people something to do, while they are here. The second part of the question is determining if developing recreational assets will help attract families looking to relocate, something all small towns in the upper Midwest are struggling with. One thing we don’t have in abundance here are lakes.”

Others view it as the loss of an asset we already own, a wetland providing wildlife habitat and floodway protection.

Without knowing the specifics of the plan, Tracy Hames, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, did say that dredging the site would be wetland removal, and it would be treated as such by the state. It is a project that he cautioned the village should look at carefully before acting.

This type of project is one that is common and can lead to a number of unexpected consequences if not approached with great care, Hames noted.

Wetlands serve multiple purposes. The most obvious is wildlife habitat. The moment you make it deeper, you alter the habitat significantly and change what can and will live in it, the wetlands expert explained.

“You would probably lose most of the birds currently living there,” Hames said. “There are eagles nesting there and that could also negatively impact their local foraging efforts.”

Wetlands also serve as filtration, cleaning the water that moves through them, both from flood events and precipitation.

Additionally, their capacity to hold water helps recharge the groundwater aquifers.

Perhaps most importantly, they help control the damage done by floodwaters.

“We have lost half of our wetlands in Wisconsin, so we need to be careful with those we have remaining,” Hames said. “When you remove wetlands, you increase the flood peaks and increase the energy the floodwaters expend, leading to a lot more erosion.”

Floodwater moving over wetlands is spread out for containment due to the shallow nature of the body of water and its ability to absorb and retain more water, minimizing impacts downstream. A deeper water body would respond differently, Hames said.

In Gays Mills, there is a narrow section of land between the north end of the shallow pond central to the wetland remnant in question and the Kickapoo River. It’s approximately 50 to 60 yards wide. That narrow strip paired with dredging could create serious concern in the event of flooding.

If the pond were dredged without a berm or levee being constructed, the additional depth would act as a hydrologic draw during a flood event. This would lead to erosion between the river and the pond. Over time, it would create what is known as a head cut, Hames predicted. This increased erosion would lead to deeper channels and a probable change in the course of the river, bringing it closer to the highway.

If the narrow strip of land is protected with berms or levees, space in the floodway would be reduced. This would create higher peaks during flooding and most likely, require continued maintenance, according to Hames.

Construction of berms and levees also often have the unintended consequence of creating an unnatural situation that harbors invasive species such as Eurasion watermilfoil, giving invasives an initial toehold from which to spread that doesn’t exist as readily in an undisturbed wetland.

Ultimately it becomes a question of the economics, does the positive impact outweigh the negative, Hames explained.

“You have to look at these questions very carefully,” Hames noted. “These lands took millennia to form. Rivers move. And you want to keep the floodplain open or you will see greater impacts when the floods occur.”

Since the land in question lies within village limits of Gays Mills, the county would have no authority over such a project, according to John Rybarczyk, Crawford County Sanitation and Zoning Director.

“As a rule of thumb, when it comes to wetlands, I would say stay out of them,” Rybarczyk said. That said, the county’s sanitation and zoning director noted the county has no jurisdiction within the village and rarely become involved in wetland projects where it does have jurisdiction since state limits are more restrictive than the county’s.

To move ahead, the project would need to gain clearance from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The village would need to show the DNR that the project was the least damaging practicable alternative use of the site. The project would need to show that there would be no significant adverse impacts to wetlands, water quality or other detrimental environmental impact in order to meet the DNR’s permitting standards.

Impacts considered would include: floral diversity; fish and wildlife habitat; flood protection; water quality protection; shoreline protection; groundwater recharge and discharge; as well as aesthetics, recreation, and education.

To move forward with the project, the Village of Gays Mills would need to submit a preliminary application with the DNR. The agency would then identify sampling requirements. The village would have to respond by providing a sampling and analysis plan and dredging permit application. At that point, the DNR would be required to respond within 30 business days to identify all necessary permits and approvals.

“We don’t know enough about the project to move ahead,” Niemcek said. “We need to learn more. The DNR are the experts. They are the ones who can tell us if this is a feasible idea.

 “The project is a non-starter unless the village is willing to pursue it,” Niemcek concluded.