After 150 years, dams no longer interrupt Baraboo River
By JO SANDIN
Article courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oct. 23, 2001
Baraboo - After six years of planning and hard
work, four dam removals and a celebrity canoe trip, fans
of the Baraboo River gathered on its banks Monday to applaud
its new fame as the nation's longest restored free-flowing
Since removal of the old Linen Mill Dam west of the city
on Oct. 11, the river has run free for the first time
in 150 years. Members of the Baraboo Canoe Club last week
began a seven-day journey downstream for 115 miles from
the headwaters north of Elroy to Portage, where it joins
the Wisconsin River.
In honor of the occasion, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison)
and state Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell
wielded paddles for the last segment of the trip.
However, the celebration was held in the parking lot
of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, beside the former
site of the Waterworks Dam removed in 1997, where the
water on Monday ran swift and clear.
"This is the longest stretch of mainstream river in the
nation restored to be free-flowing," Bazzell told an enthusiastic
crowd of about 60 people.
Wisconsin leads the country in dam removal, with 100
deteriorating structures taken down in the last 35 years,
according to Todd Ambs, executive director of the River
Alliance of Wisconsin, which has joined the Sand County
Foundation in actively promoting dam demolition as a way
of restoring the health of rivers.
Ambs searched nationwide databases and Web sites and
sent out e-mail queries to other river organizations to
verify the Baraboo's claim to the "longest" title and
found that any longer restorations included tributary
"This is the first time a river of this size has been
restored," said Bill Hartwig, regional director of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which provided money for
some of the demolition work.
Baraboo Mayor Dean Steinhorst, who was on the riverbank
to welcome the five canoes as they arrived, said the city
already was experiencing some of the benefits of its location
on a free-flowing river instead of a series of fragmented
He pointed to a riverwalk that eventually will run all
the way from one city boundary to the opposite border,
and to a number of restored buildings offering small offices
along with a river view.
And Baraboo won't be alone, he said. "All the communities
along the river will benefit economically from the river's
Helping the environment
Economic benefits have been just as much a part of the dam
removal movement as environmental improvement.
Calling the river restoration "a great example of Wisconsin's
can-do spirit," Baldwin said, "The Baraboo River is a
symbol of what is right in our state and what is right
Already, she said, people can see the benefits of river
restoration running through their communities in cleaner
water, downstream safety, better fishing, more attractive
business and residential locations.
Despite those benefits, the notion of restoring rivers
by removing dams still remains controversial.
Yet the cost of bringing a dam up to safe operating condition
is often three to five times more than removing it, said
Meg Galloway, the DNR's dam safety engineer, whose staff
is responsible for inspecting about 3,700 dams.
Opponents still complain about the hydroelectric power
lost by removal of the Linen Mill Dam, the last of four
such structures taken down along the river's main course
since '97, when Baraboo's Waterworks Dam was dismantled.
The city's Oak Street Dam was taken out in 2000 and the
LaValle dam in February.
One person at Monday's ceremony, Dick Knitter, a retired
DNR dam safety officer, remembered a time when the controversy
was considerably hotter.
In the '80s work crews needed police protection to take
out the Manitowoc Dam.
"And at the public hearings, there'd be 500 people, all
mad at us!" Knitter recalled. "Now, they've got a steelhead
(trout) run up the Manitowoc River for 50 miles and everybody
thinks it's wonderful."
River and fishery specialists from the University of
Wisconsin-Stevens Point and the Sand County Foundation
have gathered data on river conditions before and after
dam removal to ensure a sound scientific base for future
decisions on possible dam removals.
In just the last few years, said Matt Catalano, a graduate
student at UW-Stevens Point, the fish populations in the
Baraboo River have changed from mostly carp to smallmouth
bass, a fish intolerant of poor water quality.
Coleman dared to look ahead to an even more dramatic
recovery of the fishery.
"The sturgeon in Lake Wisconsin have been bumping their
noses on the Linen Mill Dam all these years," he said.
"I think we'll see them spawning in the shallows here."
That would signal a genuine return of the river to its
The name Baraboo comes from the French "a la Barbeau,"
referring to sturgeon.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct.