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>DNR permit for $1.6 million county project in Grafton would allow only one species to swim upstream of dam<

A Department of Natural Resources official said Monday the state will issue a permit to the Village of Grafton for a trap-and-sort fish passage that will allow only sturgeon to pass over the Bridge Street dam — despite the fact this species isn’t likely to be found there for another decade.

“As long as VHS (a fatal fish virus) is an issue, we don’t feel we can go forward with a fish passage that doesn’t have a trap-and-sort facility,” said Ken Johnson, DNR water division administrator.

This proposed restriction has officials, who are still waiting for final word from the DNR on the permit conditions, wondering about the viability of the $1.3 million project, which was originally expected to be completed this year.

The work is to be funded through a $5.2 million federal stimulus grant administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and awarded to Ozaukee County.

“Obviously we’re not interested in spending a lot of money in something that is not going to have a great benefit,” said Terry Heatlie, NOAA habitat restoration specialist.

“We were definitely surprised that (concerns about VHS and invasive aquatic species) came up so late in the program. We’re trying to wait and see definitively what the decision is by the regulatory agency so we see what our options are.”

Major changes could result in a re-evaluation of the project, Heatlie said, adding that the agency needs something in writing  from the DNR before making a final determination.

“We don’t want to waste taxpayer money,” he said.

Andrew Struck, Ozaukee County’s director of planning and parks, said the county will have to take another look at the project if the DNR places such tight restrictions on the fish passage. The DNR has not yet addressed these potential restrictions with the county, he added.

“Restricting it (passage) to a single species was never brought up,” he said. “At this point, they (the DNR) are adding things at the last minute.”

Johnson said the village, which owns the dam, could accept the permit and build the fish passage at a later date, something Village Administrator Darrell Hofland said is impractical because of the NOAA grant deadlines.

In the future, the fish passage could be opened for the free flow of species if VHS is detected upstream, Johnson added.

Hofland said DNR officials have told the village that the passage could be built but not opened for the next 10 years, when there may be better, more practical ways of testing for the fish virus.

“They’re aware the technology today does not exist to make it practical for a trap-and-sort operation,” Hofland said.

“The question Village Board members have is ‘Is it a good use of taxpayer dollars to build a facility only for it to be closed for up to 10 years?’”

The DNR’s decision to allow only sturgeon, a fish that does not carry the VHS virus, to pass over the dam — at least for now — is the latest twist in a years-long project that has almost completely been turned on its head.

The project is intended to improve fish habitat and the health of the Milwaukee River by removing impediments to aquatic life and waterflow.

A proposal to remove the Bridge Street dam proved to be controversial, and was settled only after a lengthy debate and a referendum vote that required the village to retain the structure until 2019.

Plans for the fish passage were then developed, but delayed when the DNR decided to require a trap-and-sort facility to avoid the spread of both VHS and to contain invasive aquatic species, such as the sea lamprey and round goby.

“The scope of the project has gotten substantially more complicated,” Hofland said. “I sense there’s a lot of frustration within the DNR. It was not a unanimous decision.”

The cost of operating the trap-and-sort facility has caused village board members to oppose it, Hofland said.

However, Struck said that operation of the facility would likely not be a responsibility of the village or county.

“Operating a trap-and-sort with a fisheries expert is not the village’s domain,” he said.

For the village, a decision on the fish passage is important for more than one reason. The village must make repairs to the dam abutments in the next eight years, and some of the cost of work on the east abutment would be rolled into the fish passage project, cutting about $170,000 from the entire project cost.

The Village Board last week voted to apply for a 50% grant from the DNR to make $570,000 in dam repairs, Hofland said. 

Johnson said he expects county and village officials to discuss the permit requirements and make a decision on how to proceed once the DNR forwards final documents to them.

That, he said, will occur “hopefully by the end of this month.”

Once those documents are received, Hofland said, the Village Board will make a decision on whether to accept them.

“The village is the owner of the dam and will be the owner of the fish passage. Consequently, the village will make the final decision,” he said.

Struck expressed frustration with the process, noting that the DNR has not yet discussed the design and operations plans  and the potential restrictions included in them with the county.

Heatlie said NOAA is “trying to find some way to move forward with this. We’re all trying to do the best thing we can for the resource. I know the DNR is trying to do that as well.”

If, for any reason, the fish passage does not move forward, Heatlie said NOAA will look at funding other work.

“The Milwaukee River is an area of concern and we want to benefit that. The beauty of this project was the amount of area that would benefit,” he said, noting the original goal was to open 119,000 acres of habitat and 158 miles of stream.

“A lot of good has been done already with this project,” Heatlie said. “A lot of areas upstream and downstream have been opened. It’s unfortunate this one little barrier still remains.”

Source Ozaukee Press