Overwhelming public support favors saving dam

Letter to the Editor

Dear members of the Jones County Conservation Board, the Jones County Board of Supervisors and the public,

     I am an attorney, a retired administrative law judge for the State of Iowa, and a former resident of Jones County. I grew up about 1.5 miles east of Monticello on Highway 151. My dad, Chuck Bohlken, ran Chuck’s Repair Shop. My mom was a nurse at John McDonald Hospital. The Maquoketa River flowed through our property, which was immediately downstream of Monticello Canoe Rental, near the Monticello Maquoketa Dam. During my life, I have canoed the river, and hiked or hunted along it, many times.

     For some time, I have been aware of a controversial proposal to destroy a large portion of the Monticello Maquoketa Dam. There has been an effort, by some members of the Jones County Conservation Board (JCCB), and its staff, to perpetrate this act of destruction against our beautiful and historic dam at a time when there is overwhelming public opposition to it.

     To the JCCB’s credit, however, it has now twice delayed a final vote in response to public opposition to the dam’s destruction.

     I would submit the following evidence of overwhelming public opposition.

     There was a survey in July on public sentiment toward modification or destruction of the dam by the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission. 405 of the 436 respondents to the survey wanted to “keep the dam” in preference to all other named alternatives. The survey states, “If it is assumed that survey is representative, the Jones County results can be generalized (with 99 percent certainty) to all county residents, with a margin of error of (plus or minus) 3.3 percent.”

     In fairness, I would note that the survey asks for the assumption that the survey is representative. I would ask, why would this survey not be representative of the entire county? It was based on survey forms handed out to people in Monticello during the Fourth of July activities. It is no secret that people from throughout the county attend these activities. Although this may have resulted in a higher percentage of persons living in and near Monticello being respondents to the survey, the worst that can be said is that persons who were likely to be familiar with and knowledgeable of the dam were more likely to be respondents.

     For the sake of argument, let us assume that the survey overstates the numbers opposing the destruction of the dam by a whopping 20 percent. This would mean that 73 percent of the county residents oppose the destruction of the dam. Even if we lopped off another 20 percent (which seems unreasonable) we would still find a majority of 53 percent of the county opposed to the destruction of the dam.

     According to the Express, the JCCB apparently relied on a past survey, showing support for the Board’s proposal, which had the majority of respondents from Monticello. So an overrepresentation of Monticello residents was not a problem then. I believe this was also the survey that had a severe overrepresentation of high school students.

     According to articles in the Express and KCRG-TV9, a majority of the public was opposed to the dam’s destruction at the May 18 and July 17 meetings of the JCCB. I understand this was also the case at the Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Eaken “was bothered by the fact that the only people speaking out are those who are opposed to the Conservation project.” That is what happens when the majority is opposed. They speak out!

     Another source we can look to is letters to the editor. In the July and Aug. 2 editions of the Express, eight out of 10 letters were against the destruction of the dam. One of the two letters supporting the proposal was from a Cedar Rapids resident who did not say he had ever been a resident of the county. These two letters are the only ones I ever ever seen supporting the project.

     In 2016, I wrote a letter to the Express opposing the destruction of our beautiful dam and questioning whether the then-estimated $1 million cost was worth the supposed benefits. At that time I was joined by other letter writers who noted:

     1. The fishing editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette had pointed out that the area immediately downstream of dams often provides excellent fishing. He must know what he is talking about as I have seen people fishing below the Monticello dam on numerous occasions.

     2. The Monticello dam aerates the water. By adding oxygen to the water, the dam counters pollution, particularly pollution coming from legacy sewer upstream.

     3. A letter writer took an informal poll of taxpayers, not high school students, who were overwhelmingly opposed to the dam’s destruction or modification.

     4. One writer’s father had given a very substantial sum of money, I believe it was $10,000, for the preservation of the dam.

     In addition to overwhelming public opposition, we must remember:

     1. Due to the reduction of water levels, farmers and others who have made significant financial investment in wetlands along the Maquoketa would see those areas dry up.

     2. I understand the Maquoketa would become a wider and shallower river. Its depth, at least at points, would vary from 6 inches to 13 inches. I had the experience of “canoeing” the Maquoketa from Monticello to Pictured Rocks during a drought or period of low rain many years ago. This consisted of a little floating and a lot of dragging the canoe over shallow sandbars. A significant lowering of the downstream depth of the Maquoketa River would destroy or deplete the level of canoeing now done. This would not only hurt the Monticello canoe rental business, but the many many people who take their own canoes, kayaks, inflatables, and even flat-bottom boats, to float down the river. The dollars those people spend in the Monticello area, and other areas of Jones County, would never be spent.

     3. I am now informed that it is questionable whether any repair of the dam is necessary. What some thought was a crack in the dam is apparently just a cold seam which was where the two sections of the dam were joined. A hypothetical concern exists with respect to the earthen berm on the Monticello side of the dam. The dam and the berm, however, have repeatedly withstood extreme flooding, including complete submersion of the dam, without giving way. The 2010 River Dam Inventory rated the condition of the dam as “Good.” Why fix it or destroy it if it isn’t broke?

     4. In addition to its beauty, the dam has historical value. It is over 100 years old. It was a former source of hydroelectric power for Jones County. It is the only dam in Iowa with an apron structure at its base. Has the JCCB investigated and complied with any legal requirements for maintaining our historic dam?

     In a July 21 e-mail to the Monticello Express, Conservation Director Mormann advised the public to visit the webpage listing the seven proposals for the dam. This document overstates the number of options actually available. Options D and E, refer to “whitewater” development, which the public has been informed is now not a viable option. Also, while navigation without portaging is mentioned as one of the project goals, if you examine the illustrative photo for option C, the rock arch rapids, it is clear that neither motorboats nor canoes nor tubes could safely navigate such a structure.

     The only remaining real options are option F to save the dam with no cost estimate provided or to implement the one of the two options for which the JCCB has funding and which, according to the JCCB’s document, it so far prefers: “Option A. Remove a large portion of the dam and add arching boulders across the channel” at a cost of $1.7 million and “Option B. Remove a large portion of the dam and install fish habitat components” at a cost of $1.5 million.” Please note the costs have gone up at least 50 percent above the $1 million cost estimate given in 2016. Will they continue to go up?

     In the Aug. 2 issue of the Express, Conservation Director Mormann now says the JCCB prefers Option A. Mormann made three illogical and contradictory statements concerning Option A. Based on the drawing and the illustrative photo on Option A in the JCCB’s document, the “arching boulders” will, in effect, create a new dam, composed of boulders instead of concrete, with a big hole to allow passage of boats. First, Mr. Mormann expects us to believe that Option A, a boulder dam with a big hole in it, would “raise the water level slightly” upstream in comparison to the current concrete dam with no hole. Really? Second, he also states, however, that the water level would decrease by “mere inches” upstream at the Jellystone Campground. So the new structure will, according to Mr. Mormann, both raise and lower the upstream level of the river. Amazing!

     Third, Mr. Morman also claimed that low-head dams like ours “increase upstream flooding.” This will, of course, be cured by a structure which will (take your pick) raise the upstream water level in comparison to the current dam or only lower that level by “mere inches.” Now that makes sense! Of course, if it is actually a problem, maybe we could reduce upstream flooding by opening the gates when flooding occurs.

     I find Mike Davies’ conclusion that, given the soil type in the river, the cutting of a new channel after removal of the dam will cause “the water level will drop in all wetlands… along the river” to be far more believable.

     The Board’s presentation mentions ongoing costs for maintenance of the dam if it is not destroyed. There is no estimate of such costs. Apparently, no attempt was made to obtain an estimate for such costs during the 10 years the project has been under consideration. I understand the county has never paid a dime for actual maintenance of the dam, as opposed to construction of the boat ramp and the overlook. How do the actual maintenance costs compare to the $1.5 million and upward cost of destruction?

     The proposal mentions safety. It appears there has never been a drowning at the Monticello Dam attributable to low-head dam “drowning machine” problems. It may be that these problems are reduced by the dam’s apron structure at its base. In any event, warning signs would be a much cheaper option than destroying the dam.

     There will always be a risk in swimming, boating or canoeing, no matter what option the JCCB selects. Rock climbing and hiking are, for example, allowed at Pictured Rocks despite the risk. No place can be made perfectly safe and the JCCB has no duty to do so.

     I understand that, at the last JCCB meeting, it was proposed that the gates next to the dam could be lifted, modified or removed, allowing fish to navigate the river without destroying the dam. Perhaps this is the best alternative.

     I would like to note that all members of the JCCB are undoubtedly hard-working, public spirited individuals, but I think those favoring destruction of the dam are mistaken. We need to remember that “free” money from federal grants is never really free. It comes from federal taxpayers, including taxpayers in Jones County. How will we ever get the national budget under control unless we realize there is no free lunch?

     I was surprised to see that the Board of Supervisors’ July 25, 2017 agenda stated the Supervisors would be addressing the “Conservation Board’s Mon Maq Dam Project which may include a major modification to the Mon Maq Dam” and “possible action to support the proposed project.” It was amazing to think the Supervisors would contemplate voting to support the “project” (apparently the “project” contemplating destruction of the dam) before the Conservation Board had taken a vote on which alternative, including leaving the dam in place, it was going to select.

     While no action was taken on July 25, I now understand the Supervisors are again scheduling a possible vote to support the “project” next Tuesday, Aug. 8. This is being done even though the Conservation Board will have taken no final vote on the seven alternative proposals and will not meet until Aug. 24, 2017. How can the Supervisors vote to support the Board’s “project” when they don’t even know if the Board supports the “project?” Have the Supervisors been issued crystal balls so they can predict the Conservation Board’s vote before it occurs?

     I have never heard of a higher level of government authority voting to support a lower authority’s action prior to the lower authority even deciding what it wants to do. By way of comparison, I have never heard of the governor signing legislation before it is passed by the legislature or of the Administrative Rules Review Committee reviewing agency rules before an agency has proposed them.

     If you wish to save the Monticello Dam, please politely contact the Conservation Board and the Board of Supervisors as follows: Conservation Board phone number, 563-487-3541; Board e-mail, conservation@co.jones.ia.us; Chairman Lawrence Pisarik, 563-852-7229; Vice Chairman Dean Zimmerman, 319-465-3764; Secretary Dave Tabor, 319-465-3893; member Rob Roman, 319-462-4107; member Russ VonBehren, 319-484-2849. Board of Supervisors: Wayne Manternach, Dist. 1, 319-465-4257 supv1@co.jones.ia.us; Joe Oswald, Dist. 2, 319-465-3888 supv2@co.jones.ia.us; Jon Zirkelbach, chairman, Dist. 3, 319-480-9550 supv3@co.jones.ia.us; Ned Rohwedder, Dist. 4, 319-484-2693 supv4@co.jones.ia.us; Lloyd Eaken, vice chairman, Dist. 5, 319-480-4365 supv5@co.jones.ia.us.

Sincerely, Donald W. Bohlken

Indianola, Iowa


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