Clam Falls residents appeared en force at the March 19 Polk County Board meeting to express concern about the future of the Clam Falls Flowage. Their words formed a consistent refrain: The town has economic potential with the lake upstream of the dam. Without it, the outlook is dire.

‘Significant’ hazard

In May 2017, the DNR designated the dam a significant hazard, starting a five-year clock for the dam’s owner, Northwestern Wisconsin Electric Company, to bring it up to standard. The dam must be able to pass a 500-year flood without failing or overtopping.

The designation — on a scale of “low,” “significant,” or “high” — is based on potential damage to property, injuries, or loss of life downstream if the dam fails.  

Northwestern estimates repairs to bring the dam up to standard would cost $1.3-$1.5 million.

A clause allows for exceptions to the hazard rating if a study shows the dam can be overtopped without failing. 

Residents say they’ve seen the dam overflow safely in the past. 

Northwestern has proposed that the county, its tenant Flambeau Hydro, and Polk County partner to pay for a study to see if the dam can be overtopped safely. Ayers Associates engineering firm has estimated the study would cost $46,800.

History

The dam was built in 1914-15 to generate power for Northwestern Wisconsin Electric Company, an investor-owned electric utility serving Burnett and Polk counties, with reach into Pine Coutny, Minn. 

According to Dave Dahlberg, president of Northwestern Electric, the company generated power at the dam through the mid 1980s, when it determined repairs would be too costly to warrant investment.

In 2001, Renewable World Energies and its subsidiary, Flambeau Hydro, began leasing the dam. Flambeau Hydro no longer generates energy from the dam, and because of the terms of the lease is responsible for paying for the removal of the dam, if removal takes place.

County could take over

Flambeau Hydro has offered Polk County $650,000 to take ownership of the dam.

“Northwestern has determined it’s not in our interest to keep it,” said Dahlberg. “Flambeau has determined it’s not in their interest to keep the dam. We’re asking if Polk County is willing to take the dam.”

County board members took no action last week, but Chair Dean Johansen said they will take the issue into consideration.

If a hazard exemption is granted through the DNR, there is no need to upgrade the rating. The county would be responsible for maintaining the dam at an estimated annual cost of $8,000.

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