MADISON — The Madison County board of commissioners will support efforts to find out about a cost study and grants that might be possible for a proposed dam south of Battle Creek.
But commissioners stopped short of giving any more support, including whether to favor a dam over other proposals to control flooding into Battle Creek.
The request for the letter of support came from the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District. It was placed on the county board of commissioners agenda Tuesday morning under emergency items, but there was disagreement whether it was of an emergency nature.
Ron Schmidt, chairman of the county board, said he owns land that would be among that lost to the proposed 1,200-acre lake that potentially would be created from the dam south of Battle Creek.
Schmidt said his brother, Greg Schmidt of rural Madison, also would lose land. As a result, Ron Schmidt did not vote on whether the county should send the letter of support, but he did participate in discussions at Tuesday’s county board meeting.
Mike Sousek, manager of the Lower Elkhorn NRD, which is exploring the possibility of a dam, said the deadline for the first grant request is next week. As a result, he requested the letter of support be placed on Tuesday’s agenda.
Had the item been placed on the agenda earlier, Schmidt said, more people would have learned about it and would have likely attended Tuesday’s meeting to offer comment or listen to the discussion.
Joe Smith, Madison County attorney, said he isn’t sure if Schmidt actually has a conflict of interest, but his advice to Schmidt was to take the more “prudent path.” That is to declare the conflict, he said.
Smith said he didn’t know the item was placed on the agenda through an “emergency nature” and said the board could have delayed acting on it until the next meeting.
Anne Pruss, Madison County clerk, said the county was not aware of the information about the letter request until Monday.
Ultimately, the county board voted 2-0 to draft a letter of support moving forward with seeking financial plans. Schmidt declared a conflict of interest and did not vote.
Sousek there have been plans for a possible “structure” on the Battle Creek since about 1940.
“It keeps coming up, especially during times of flood,” he said.
Five flooding prevention alternatives were considered in previous years, with two diversion channels, widening the Battle Creek and two different-sized dams considered.
The smaller dam has been ruled out because it would be unlikely that the Army Corps of Engineers would issue a permit to build it, Sousek said. That’s because of the amount of sediment and nutrients that would fill in the lake, and it possibly could create a mosquito haven.
The proposed 1,200-acre lake is still conceptual in nature and no funds have been put forth in the design yet, he said.
After the latest flood this year, the Battle Creek City Council indicated it wanted to do this project, stating that it could provide about $3.1 million to the project, Sousek said.
The letter of support from the county would help to possibly get outside dollars to help with it, such as federal grants and a state grant. The City of Battle Creek has provided a letter and the City of Norfolk is working on one, Sousek said, with other groups also considering it.
The pre-design is expected to cost about $500,000 to $600,000, with the initial cost of the lake about $36 million, including around $18 million for land rights.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Sousek said. “I’m going to say this is the first step of about 1,000. If I can get it done in eight years, that would be smooth sailing. I’m really looking at a 10-year timeline here. The first step is to put a financial package together to present to the board (to make a decision on whether to invest in the proposal).”
The benefits include flood control for Battle Creek, including removing the entire town out of the flood plain that would save residents from flood insurance. It also would help to replenish the aquifer and provide recreation.
The proposed dam is roughly a mile west of the Evergreen Hill Golf Course, which is about 3 miles south of Battle Creek. Preliminary estimates are that the water could displace 10 or 11 residences.
The resulting lake would be accessible from Highway 121 south of Battle Creek, with up to three county roads being lost and other county roads having to be upgraded.
Commissioner Troy Uhlir asked if the $36 million takes into account inflation. He also wanted to know how long it would be until the landowners would know if their land would be taken.
Sousek said the cost estimate does account for inflation, but there are no “hard figures” until the study has been completed. In addition, the lake is still conceptual and it probably would be two years until the exact map is drawn, he said.
“So, really what you’re looking for today is to get that grant so you can do the design work?” Uhlir asked.
“Yes,” Sousek responded.
Commissioner Christian Ohl asked about water releases from the dam and other alternatives. Ohl said he also knows it would be challenging for landowners who might be asked to give up their homes for the project.
Sousek said a lot of grants are built on the premises of recreation, so there isn’t a lot of interest in having significant amounts of water released but trying to keep river flows constant with what they had been.
The lake would be filled with excess water, which could take years to fill — depending on how much excess water there is in a year.
Sousek said with the diversion channel in Norfolk, for example, it could create more damage downstream, although it did protect the city.
During the public comment portion of the county board meeting, Greg Schmidt said the Battle Creek City Council has not approved a $3.1 million bond to put toward the dam for funding as may have been stated earlier in the meeting.
“I just want to clear that up,” Greg Schmidt said. “There was some misinformation given as far as what they are doing for the $3.1 million.”
Another woman who did not wish to give her name spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. She spoke against the dam proposal.