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Portage canal project depends on timely state budget

November 28, 2018

If the state’s 2019-21 biennial budget doesn’t include money to revitalize a portion of the Portage Canal, then the project won’t happen.

That’s the essence of an agreement between the city and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that the Portage Common Council unanimously approved Nov. 20.

And the timing of the state’s budget process makes the prospect precarious at best.

The city’s $1.1 million federal grant for canal revitalization is due to expire June 30 — a day before the new state budget is supposed to go into effect. But it’s not at all unusual for July 1 to come and go without a new budget adopted by the Legislature.

City Administrator Shawn Murphy called to the council’s attention an added clause in the agreement, which puts the city on record as not intending to apply for a time extension to spend federal money for the canal project if the state doesn’t come through with its share of the money in the 2019-21 budget.

“Essentially, it means the city will not file for an extension until the state is committed fully to the remediation of the canal,” Murphy said.

Since the canal is considered a navigable waterway — although it has not been used in that capacity since 1951 — the state would be responsible for dredging and decontaminating the canal from Adams Street about 3,600 feet east to the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks. The cost of such a project has not been determined.

The agreement between the DNR and the city notes the canal’s contamination from pollutants such as motor oil and chemicals from industrial activity that used to take place alongside the waterway has been well documented.

According to the agreement, the city, in conjunction with the cleanup, would use the federal money to build a multi-use bridge over the canal at Hamilton Street, and construct multi-use paths alongside the canal.

The city can apply for an extension of time to use the federal money if it commits to completing the project, Murphy said.

Council Member Dennis Nachreiner asked if it would be possible for the state to make a commitment to funding the canal cleanup, even if the budget as a whole is not ready for adoption before July 1.

Murphy responded that, as he understands the state budget process, the budget has to be adopted as whole, and any potential part of the budget cannot be considered a done deal until the budget is adopted.

A segment of the canal from DeWitt Street to Adams Street was dredged in the summer of 2016, in conjunction with the construction of a new Columbia County Administration Building on the canal’s northwest side and a new county Health and Human Services Building on the canal’s southeast side. The cost for that project was shared among the city, county and DNR.

The $278,183 was paid to Infrastructure Alternatives Inc, based in Rockford, Michigan. The state paid most of the out-of-pocket costs, and the city’s and county’s shares were mostly in-kind contributions, such as the staging and fencing of the area.

That work entailed running about a century’s worth of sediment through semi-permeable filters to clear away the pollutants, and pulling a host of large objects out of the waterway — boulders, mostly, but also old bicycles, building materials, shoes and socks and at least one scooter.

If the state is slow to adopt its new budget, Nachreiner cautioned, the city needs to “be prepared” for the likelihood that the canal revitalization will not continue in the foreseeable future.

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