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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Kletzsch Park Dam Project Jammed Up By Public Concern

Susan Bence
Picturesque Kletzsch Park dam was a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Depression. Some people want to see as little change as possible, others say the proposed project will make the park more accessible.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. CT

No one had the opportunity to speak for or against the proposed Kletzsch Park dam project at Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Milwaukee County Parks, Energy and Environment Committee.

While the item was taken up almost immediately by the committee, it just as quickly voted to lay over the proposal to the call of the chair.

Unless the committee forwards the Kletzsch Park item to the Board of Supervisors before its end of term meeting on March 26, the item will effectively be dead.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee County remains on notice from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to either repair or remove the Kletzsch Park dam.

Original story

Kletzsch Park dam in Glendale looks less like a dam and more like a natural water feature — with water tumbling and cascading across the Milwaukee River.

A proposed project would give the dam and the surrounding area a facelift. Some residents have expressed concerns, while others are optimistic.

In 2010, the Wisconsin DNR directed Milwaukee County to repair the dam. "It’s been blocked by sediment and some vegetation growth, so that’s the required part of the project," Karl Stave explains. He's with Milwaukee County’s architecture, engineering and environmental services department.

Since 2010, the Kletzsch Park dam project blossomed, along with funding to make it happen. The Milwaukee County Parks System proposed engineered and enhanced public access above and at the water’s edge. "Which involved a significant amount of grading and removal of trees," Stave says.

The trees he's referring to are some of the majestic oak trees. "That was taken to a public information meeting and was not accepted very well. We then went back to the drawing board," he says.

Credit Milwaukee County Parks
The revised Kletzsch Park plan creates a fish passage that hugs the western edge of the Milwaukee River.

The revised plan has the fish passage hugging the western shore of the river and reduces the footprint for pedestrian and paddler access.

UW-Milwaukee professor Tim Ehlinger and 20 years worth of students studied fish and their habitats above and below Kletzsch dam. He hopes county parks planners will consider other fish passage options, and the fact that fish need habitat above and below the connection in order to survive.

"Our work here basically would suggest that those staging areas would be on the east side, where you have a narrow deeper channel. The side over here is a little shallower and wider." Ehlinger adds, "So biologically, I can make a very good case; fish behavior-wise, why it might actually be more effective on the other side."

Beyond fish, Ehlinger says there’s more at stake here. "You don’t want to rush into something and discount people who have interest in the trees, in the prairie, the Native American Indian culture here. The larger issues other than just fish,” Ehlinger says, “and that’s speaking from a fish ecologist — where fish are my interest."

Credit Susan Bence
Jim Uhrinak and Martha Berglund hope to create interpretive signage shown here with colorful stickers throughout what's called the Indian Prairie that includes Kletzsch Park.

Martha Berglund is among a group of people concerned about the people who gathered here centuries ago.

Kletzsch Park dam area falls within an area rich in evidence of Indian mounds, garden beds and rarely found effigies of animals, called intaglio.

Berglund recognizes development — roads and structures — can’t be undone, but believes what’s left should be maintained and honored. "We want to plant some sort of commemoration to some of the Indian mounds,” she says.

And Berglund’s group also wants to create a guidebook. "Perhaps it would be digital, perhaps it would be signage, it would tell people what was here, what we know about the history of the place, and there would be materials for school children to use," she explains.

Therese Gripentrog, a landscape architect with Milwaukee County Parks says, "We do have an opportunity to work with the tribes to have interpretiative signage at the site and to describe some of that rich cultural resource history."

The Menominee Nation and Forest County Potawatomi will be involved in that project, Gripentrog says.

It came about in a regulatory sort of way. The Wisconsin Historical Society weighed in on the Kletzsch dam project because the parkway in which it is located is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That means modifying the dam — even for fish passage — must be mitigated. And one way to mitigate, or make up for that impact, is by creating interpretive signage.

Despite its complicated road to approval, Gripentrog has high hopes for the entire Kletzsch project, and that includes making even the river’s edge more accessible. "People will see a change, but I think it is a change a lot of people will love right away and other people will grow to love it – and people will create new memories there," she says.

However, Ronnie Preston, who teaches at Indian Community School in Franklin, feels something fundamental will be lost in the process.

Preston, an Apache who for years has lived and worked in Milwaukee, remembers his first visit to Kletzsch Park: "I closed my eyes. You listen to the trees and leaves, you listen to the water, you touch the earth. You don’t need eyesight for that. This is the way it was long before any of you were here. That’s the story that’s there. That’s been here through all of this time, until now. Listening to that water, touching the earth — I was transported back in time."

It’s perspectives like Ronnie Preston’s and Martha Berglund’s that have delayed Milwaukee County's approval of the Kletzsch Park project — despite the parks department’s faith in the plan.

The parks committee is due to take it up again Tuesday.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.