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Outlook Bleak for Portage Canal Restoration

Posted on April 27, 2017

By Craig Sauer,

There wasn’t a lot of good news for the Portage Canal restoration effort this week.

Funding to restore and enhance portions of the historic man-made waterway are out of sight, and progress on adjacent pedestrian enhancements are caught up in bureaucratic wrangling.

The city does have more than $1 million in earmarks for the project, but millions more to dredge contaminated sediments at the bottom of the Canal and install a canoe-friendly underpass crossing Wisconsin Street are lacking.

Funding was a topic of conversation at Monday’s meeting of the city’s ad hoc Can — a panel made up of city officials and interested citizens.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the owner of the Canal, is responsible for the dredging. Although the DNR completed significant dredging on the first segment of the Canal closest to the Wisconsin River last year, funding for cleaning the three additional segments stretching to the Fox River is not available.

“At this time, DNR has not secured the funding to implement a remedial action in the downstream segments. As I have mentioned before, the issue is the magnitude of the cost,” Scott Inman, a DNR contaminated sediment engineer, wrote in an email to city staff last week.

The email was read at Monday’s meeting because Inman could not attend.

It appears likely that the only way that the DNR will find funding to clean up the rest of the Canal will be if state legislators appropriate funding — something that seems unlikely to most city officials.

“We should probably assume we are not getting anything,” said Chris Arnold, a member of the Canal Committee.

As for the underpass, Director of Public Works/City Engineer Aaron Jahncke told the Committee that funding for a wider Wisconsin Street underpass meant for small watercraft would not likely be funded by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation as part of a plan to improve Highway 51 in a project slated for 2022.

The DOT probably won’t fund anything more than a culvert similar to what exist there now, Jahncke said.

That’s a disappointment to those seeking to use the Canal for recreational and tourism purposes. While the current culvert is navigable, it isn’t very pleasant, said Committee Chairman Fred Galley. Going through the culvert now involves encountering things such as spiders.

“I think this is a showstopper (not in a good way), if you have to through something that ugly,” he said.

Meanwhile on Monday, the Committee spent significant time discussing the nuances of working with a number of state and federal agencies in order to go forward with pedestrian trails adjacent to the Canal and pedestrian bridges over it.

Monday’s conversation revolved largely around appeasing the Federal Highway Administration surrounding the city’s plans. A public hearing could take place in the next few months to discuss those enhancements.


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