Portage panel extends canal engineer services

September 26, 2018

Portage city officials are holding on to hope that the state of Wisconsin will come up with money to clean another segment of the Portage Canal.

Whether that hope is realistic is anyone’s guess, City Administrator Shawn Murphy told the Common Council’s Finance and Administration Committee on Monday.

“The state has to appropriate money in the next biennial budget,” Murphy said.

In a long meeting, dominated by preparations for the city’s 2019 budget, the Finance and Administration Committee pondered whether to spend $1,250 to hold on to the services of KL Engineering of Madison, on a limited basis, in the hope that the state’s 2019-2021 biennial budget will include an appropriation from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to help dredge and decontaminate the canal from Adams Street east to the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.

A $1.1 million federal grant for the project is due to expire June 30, Murphy said, but the grant can be extended for two years, provided city officials can guarantee the cleanup will happen.

Absent a DNR appropriation, no such guarantee is possible, he said.

But, by hanging on to KL Engineering services until the Legislature decides on the upcoming budget, the city keeps alive the hope that the canal rehabilitation will become a reality, Murphy said.

A letter from Kim M. Lobdell, president of KL Engineering, was included in the committee members’ information packets.

The company’s proposal, which the committee unanimously approved, called for engineer Karen Richardson to be available to the city for up to 10 hours per month, through the end of this year, at $125 per hour.

The money would come from an existing canal fund, which Murphy said has a balance of about $115,000.

According to specifications for the canal rehabilitation, the Portage Canal —joining the Wisconsin and Fox rivers — is the only known canal in Wisconsin. It was completed in 1851, and ships navigated it until 1959. The state took ownership of the waterway in 1960.

The canal segment from Adams Street to the railroad tracks is the second of four canal segments, totaling about 2½ miles, slated for refurbishing.

In the summer of 2016, while the new Columbia County Administration and Health and Human Services buildings were under construction on opposite sides of the canal, the city, county and DNR partnered to dredge the canal between DeWitt and Adams streets.

In addition to removing debris — mostly boulders, building materials and bicycles — from the canal bottom, the dredging also entailed filtering the water through semi-permeable containers to remove contaminated sediment.

Murphy said the Adams-to-CP-Rail segment is much less accessible and visible than the segment adjacent to the new county buildings, but also is filled with what he called “sloppy moosh,” likely necessitating more excavation than the previous dredging.

The current proposal calls for combining the canal cleaning with some canal-side improvements, like trails.

If the state money comes through, the city can then extend its contract with KL Engineering for the project, Murphy said. He did not say how much state money would be needed to keep the project going.

Committee member Bill Kutzke expressed concerns about the long-term plans, to clean the canal all the way to Highway 33, and beyond that to the Fox River.

“How are we going to fund sections 3 and 4?” he said.

“That’s for another meeting,” committee chairman Dennis Nachreiner replied.

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