Wisconsin Dams Neglected, Deteriorating as State Has Diverted Repair Funding

Published September 1, 2008

Heavy flooding in Wisconsin this spring and summer has drawn many a wary eye to the condition of the state’s approximately 3,800 dams–and to the state’s neglect of funding for a program to repair or remove them.

On June 11 Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) issued Executive Order #258 ordering the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to “inspect any dam, including those located on private property, to ensure the security of persons and property.” Thus far those inspections have turned up five failed dams and 18 with significant damage.

Beyond public safety, there is another concern regarding these dams: Who will pay for their repair or removal?

Empty Coffers

In 2007 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Wisconsin dams a grade of C minus, stating, “Dams are not being inspected as required and repair grants have been curtailed due to lack of funding.” This year’s flooding has exacerbated the problem.

Lack of funding is most conspicuous in the state’s Dam Maintenance, Repair, Modification, and Removal Grant, established by the legislature in 1989. The grant allows municipalities and public inland lake districts to apply for funds for dam maintenance, repair, modification, abandonment, and removal.

Since 1991, 90 projects have been completed through the grant, depleting the allocated $11.85 million. Since 2001, the grant has gone essentially unfunded. Its future remains uncertain.

“Funding decisions are made by the legislature and the governor,” said Meg Galloway, chief of the state DNR’s Dams and Floodplain Management Section. “The statutory authorization for the [grant] fund is still in place, but very little funding is available at this time.”

The governor will submit a biennial budget bill for 2009-2011 to the state legislature in February. Each state agency must submit its budget proposals for consideration by the governor this fall. DNR is developing draft proposals, but those won’t be final until endorsed by the Natural Resources Board in September, Galloway said.

Multibillion-Dollar Deficits

The grant fund has been allowed to run dry because it has not been a spending priority, said Dan Johnson, spokesman for Wisconsin state Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn).

“More than likely, multibillion-dollar [state] budget deficits over the last seven years have contributed to that,” said Johnson.

“My best guess would be that given Wisconsin’s increasingly tight budget situation, some legislators felt the money could be put to better use elsewhere,” added state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee).

State Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) agreed. “If I were to make a guess, the funding was reduced because of budget constraints, and it wasn’t a priority for our interim Republican governor in 2001, Scott McCallum, and our current governor [Democrat Jim Doyle] shares that same view,” said Vukmir.

“Republicans controlled the legislative budget process, so it is clearly a bipartisan issue, although the Joint Finance Committee relies on the executive budget for establishing funding levels,” Vukmir noted.

Spending Diversions

State Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) believes this is an example of Wisconsin government drifting away from its core functions and shirking its responsibility to infrastructure, similar to its handling of the state’s transportation trust fund.

“That fund was created with a single purpose in mind–building and maintaining transportation systems,” Schultz said. “But to fill budget holes, well over $1 billion has been diverted from that fund during the past three budget cycles and redirected to other purposes.”

“He’s right,” said state Rep. Steve Wieckert (R-Appleton). “Everyone says there’s no money. That’s not true. We have a $50 billion budget. We just have to better prioritize how we spend it.”

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) suggests there might be other considerations behind legislators’ reluctance to fund the dam maintenance and removal grant.

“Our DNR is one of the most environmentally extreme in the country,” said Grothman. “My experience is they exaggerate safety risks associated with dams because they want to tear them all down.”

Owners’ Responsibility

According to Wisconsin law, maintaining dam safety is the responsibility of the owner. Dam ownership in the state breaks down as follows: 9 percent state, 17 percent municipalities, 14 percent other ownership arrangements, and almost 60 percent former companies or private individuals.

The federal government has jurisdiction over just 5 percent of the dams in the state, nearly 200. But as the state, municipalities, and private owners fail to fund maintenance of their dams, the federal government is where they are likely to turn for assistance.

In August 2007 the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 3224, the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act. The bill authorizes more than $200 million over five years for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to make grants to states to repair or remove structurally deficient dams.

In October 2007 the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where it has seen no movement since.

Brien Farley ([email protected]) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.