A Four-hundred-mile Long Liquid Machine
IF THE STATE OF WISCONSIN HAS AN IMAGE OF ITSELF, IT IS SURE ly a rural and agrarian one. Even our license plates proclaim us to be America’s Dairyland. In fact, Wisconsin also has a good share of manufacturing, but it’s rarely mentioned when discussing the “good life” of the state. We may be grateful to have industry in Wisconsin, but we don’t seem to talk about it much.
A Madison television station recently produced a program about the Wisconsin River, which cuts the state in half, running roughly north to south. As you might expect, it emphasized the Indian populations and the brutal treatment they received at the hands of white settlers. There were some quick vignettes of the great nineteenthcentury timber rafts that traveled the river to move the spoils of the virgin forests to the mills, but the program was strangely silent on the state of the river today. Instead it merely intercut a few views taken from a helicopter or shot along its banks. The river was shown as an Arcadian vision, with mist rising from the calm waters on a chilly fall morning or with sweeping vistas of a silver thread cutting through the lush green Midwestern landscape in summer.
PRETTY AS IT MAY BE, THIS view is incomplete and inaccurate. The pictures said nothing about the Wisconsin River’s almost complete physical transformation over the last 150 years and its present industrial use, so intense that for its production of hydroelectric power alone, it has been characterized as “the hardest-working river in the nation.” Nor did they show how this river, once exploited only for industry, now accommodates so much more, including the needs of wildlife, beauty, and recreation.
As was recently pointed out in this magazine, American rivers are generally thought of as either scenic or useful, but not both, the requirements of industry and beauty being mutually exclusive. Through the most careful management, these two uses have been combined on the Wisconsin River, and the image of the river that a casual visitor sees now has been produced and directed just like a Hollywood movie, though at far greater expense. The river is controlled and operated as carefully as one of the thundering paper mills to be found along its banks and as precisely as a fickle and indeterminate nature will permit. Every inch of the river’s course is under management. Water flow, pollutants, aquatic and animal life, even the appearance of the riverbanks and distant bluffs that have scarcely changed since Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled by in 1673—all are monitored, preserved, and controlled.
The Wisconsin River is of middling size, as American rivers go, but it is the major geographic feature of the state. It rises at Lac Vieux Desert, on Wisconsin’s northern boundary with Michigan, and drains approximately 12,000 square miles—nearly a quarter of the state—in its 430-mile course to the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, in the southwestern corner of the state on the Iowa border. For much of its course it travels south, but at Wisconsin Dells it sweeps eastward before turning to the southwest a few miles downstream. The river’s original name, Mescousing (“gatherer of waters” in Chippewa), was rendered by the French as Ouisconsin, which in English became Wisconsin, a name later given to the entire state.
A creation of the last great ice age, the river moved for centuries unimpeded and unchanged through vast evergreen forests in the north and open savanna in the south. Its flows were dramatically variable, with high water in the spring as snow melted, dropping to uncover hundreds of shifting sandbars in the heat of summer, rising with autumn rains, only again to diminish as winter blocked the river with ice. The Indians adapted to this grand seasonal cycle, but the white settlers were not so patient. They had come for land and money, and the river was the way to both.
In his excellent book Stewards of the Wisconsin , Michael J. Goc describes what happened: “From the first day in the late 1830s when loggers and sawmill builders came to the Upper Wisconsin, they tinkered with the river.” Tinkered is too mild a word. They blew up boulders blocking the waterway. They deepened shallow channels, drained marshes, crushed riverbanks by dropping huge logs. They dammed lakes and tributaries to increase the spring runoffs, making it easier to float the huge log rafts downriver to the mills. As deforestation continued, these runoffs increased in volume, with spring floods all too often swamping the growing industrial towns downstream. By 1890 the northern half of the river had already lost virtually all its primeval character, although the great era of dam building was yet to come.
AS LOGGING PEAKED IN the late nineteenth century and then began to diminish, a new industry, papermaking, came to replace it. Papermaking has given the state a stable and renewable industrial base, but its early years were rilled with conflict. The mills needed to operate continuously, and the logical source of power was hydroelectricity generated from the river’s “white coal.” As Goc points out, “hydromania” soon joined “papermania” as the twin forces driving the development of industry up and down the river. Unfortunately the river did not cooperate, and the state legislature was hardly better. For years Wisconsin had licensed dams haphazardly, with no coherent plan or governing body. Fights, even blown-up dams, resulted from the clashing interests of loggers, millers, and the growing electrical and paper industries. The loggers and millers wanted big spring flows to wash the log rafts downstream to the lumber mills, while electrical utilities and paper companies wanted a steady year-round flow. It was clear that something had to be done to sort out the conflicting claims.
IN 1905 THREE POWERFUL BUSI nessmen from northern Wisconsin proposed to the legislature that they be granted full state authority to dam the tributaries and lakes feeding the upper Wisconsin (the portion above what is now Wisconsin Dells), including powers of condemnation. In return for regulating the river, their company would have exclusive rights to “sell” the water to users downstream. It was a proposal for a land and power grab outrageous even by the standards of the era, and the reformminded legislature threw it out. But the idea of letting a single body control the river was planted, and two years later a modified proposal passed. It created a private corporation, the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company (WVIC), to manage the upper Wisconsin watershed (this time ending a little north of Wausau) and establish uniform flows for owner-users downstream.
The legislature mandated that “the company shall produce as nearly a uniform flow of water as practicable in the Wisconsin and Tomahawk Rivers by storing in reservoirs surplus water for discharge when water supply is low to improve the usefulness of the rivers for all public purposes and to reduce flood damage.” Instead of adapting to the river’s seasonal rise and fall, as the Indians had done for millennia, the citizens of Wisconsin would make the river adapt to them. WVIC, which is still owned by only a few user/stockholders, continues to perform this function. Today, ninety years after its founding, it operates twenty-one reservoirs, which control drainage for about 2,000 square miles, one-sixth of the river’s total watershed.
Sixteen of these reservoirs are natural lakes or lake systems. The other five are man-made, and their water levels may fluctuate from empty to 100 percent full. As a whole the system covers 61,000 acres and can impound more than 15.7 billion cubic feet of usable water. The owners of WVIC are the water users—the twenty-five hydroelectric dams that are strung out along about 250 miles of the river, divided between paper mills and electric utilities. The Wisconsin River drops a total of 1,050 feet from its headwaters to its confluence with the Mississippi, and more than 640 feet of this head is captured and used for power generation.
The river’s function and topography divide into three parts. In the north, from the headwaters to Rhinelander, is the tributary river, a chain of small lakes and streamlets. This part is under the greatest WVIC control. The first paper mill is in Rhinelander, and from there to just south of Wisconsin Dells is the second section of the river, the working part, 250 miles of what used to be cataracts and rapids and is now dammed into mostly quiescent hydro ponds. Below the Dells there is just one more dam, followed by 90 miles of freerunning river. This is the third section, the recreational river, an area not of work but of play, with many vistas that have changed little in three hundred years.
Human management of the Wisconsin River begins in the first foot of its existence. As its waters leave Lac Vieux Desert, they pass over a small WVIC weir and control gate. At this point the river is a tiny stream, but it quickly picks up water from other lakes and reservoirs. This all takes place in the heart of the pine-scented northern vacation country, where the air is clean and the water is pure. Yet the water level in many of these “natural” lakes is artificially maintained by a network of dams and gates, often so small as to be almost invisible in the natural landscape. For example, the northernmost hydroelectric dam, at Otter Rapids, operates at a head of just thirteen feet. With generators dating as far back as 1922, it produces only seven hundred kilowatts, but the need to maintain a constant flow through its turbines affects the water level in the whole Eagle River chain of recreational and residential lakes.
These natural lakes have been dedicated to fishing and recreation since the late nineteenth century. For these uses their water levels have to be maintained within certain limits, which restricts their ability to even out the river’s flow. Recognizing this problem, as early as 1911 WVIC began to build reservoirs—five large artificial lakes on which controls would be less stringent. The water levels in these reservoirs rise with the spring thaws, drop during the summer, refill with the rains of fall, and drop again during the winter freeze.
EVEN LARGER RES ervoirs were proposed as early as the 1930s, and by the early 1950s plans were under way to create seven new impounding basins that would have more than doubled the storage capacity of the system and added significantly to the electrical generating potential of the river. They were never built, for two reasons. First of all, growing environmental sentiment called for leaving the river and its remaining tributaries as “natural” as possible. And second, developing new hydropower had become too expensive; it was cheaper to build coal-fired steam plants. There has been no new hydro construction since 1951.
The working part of the river starts in Rhinelander, where the hulking mill of the Rhinelander Paper Company looms over the town. It’s also the headquarters of the northern regional offices of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Bob Martini is the DNR’s project manager for the area, and he is passionate about his river. Since joining the DNR twenty years ago, he has worked at developing standards for the river in compliance with federal clean-water standards. He outlines the problem: “In the Wisconsin River watershed there are sixtyfour municipalities and fifteen paper mills that are using the river directly for their treated wastewater.” Before 1972 “the river was the waste-treatment plant. One hundred percent of the mill waste went into the river, and it was overloaded.” Massive fish kills were common, with water so opaque that no aquatic life could survive. One mill was famous for its foamy waste, which sometimes extended, as Martini recalls, “from bank to bank, two miles long and six feet high.”
This began to change with the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which mandated that factory and mill discharges be nontoxic to the environment. Martini recalls that when he joined the DNR, the struggles between the paper industry and the agency were intense. “Originally our style of regulation was ‘command and control,’ because there were two polarized groups that had very different points of view. Most of the people on the industrial side thought that [the new regulations] would adversely affect economics and efficiency. Most of the people on the environmental side thought that the river had been totally despoiled by the industrial users and that it was time to give something back.” After some initial scuffles, industry and regulators recognized that they were all going for the same goal and began to cooperate more closely.
By 1975 the DNR, industry, and municipalities had begun determining exactly how much waste the river could assimilate. This involved more than just reaching a single number, because the river’s waste capacity varies with its temperature and flow. It is particularly low in summer, when the water is sluggish and warm. Eventually all the parties agreed on a matrix, which showed exactly how much pollution the river could handle for any flow and temperature. Martini says that “if we hadn’t gone through this effort, industrial and municipal users would have had to be held to the minimum, most stringent conditions year-round. This has not only led to better use of the river, but I believe that the paper industry is stronger today than when pollution control started because you have to be that much more efficient.”
THE MOSINEE PAPER COR poration’s mill at Mosinee is a striking example of how the paper industry uses the river and how its use has been modified over the last few years. Mosinee is in the middle of the Wisconsin River’s industrial center, an area not often visited because so much of the shoreline is owned by mills and electric utilities. This small town, like many others along the river, exists because of the convergence of wood and water. The Mosinee mill, built where an island splits the river into two channels (making dam construction easier), opened in 1911. It has been expanded many times since and now produces paper products for the building trades and automotive use.
In the dam’s generator house, three ancient turbine generators—the earliest probably dating to the mill’s original construction—continue to operate. There are many such powerhouses on the river with antique, low-capacity generators turning at a stately 120 to 300 rpm. Careful maintenance and low stress make them all but indestructible, so these hydro plants, constructed long ago, come as close as possible to providing free energy. At times of peak demand the generators can be started and brought on line in three minutes.
With automatic controls these machines now operate unattended. Not so the complex and sophisticated watertreatment plant. It has been built in stages since 1972 on a narrow strip of land between the mill and the river, a couple of acres containing three round clarifiers and a covered aeration tank. The Mosinee mill, which Jim Pauls, its wastewater manager, describes as “about mid-sized,” produces both pulp and finished industrial papers. It demonstrates the paper industry’s insatiable thirst for water. Water moves through the mill at the rate of 10,000 gallons a minute. Enough water for a city of almost 120,000 people pours through this system every hour of every day.
The water streams from pulping and papermaking are processed through separate clarifiers. Waste from the pulp mill is high in biochemical oxygen demand (the amount of oxygen necessary to reduce it to harmless sludge) and low in solids, while that from the papermaking machines is just the opposite. Water settles for two to three hours in the papermaking clarifier and six to eight hours in the pulp-mill clarifier before being mixed in a huge tank. There, for the next two and a half hours, the effluent is furiously tumbled in a broth of activated aerobic bacterial sludge through which air, enriched to between 85 and 95 percent oxygen, is blown under pressure. The oxygen and bacteria eliminate much of the organic waste, and the water then settles for another three hours in a final clarifier before reentering the river a few hundred yards from where it was drawn into the mill. The water is now 90 to 95 percent purified, and as Martini observes, “the river can handle the rest.” That seems to be true, for a favorite local fishing spot is just below the mill’s outfall.
Nowhere has the river’s cleanup over the past twenty years had greater or more visible effect than in Wausau, the largest city on the river. Though it is best known as an insurance-company town, Wausau’s fortunes were built on lumber and paper, and for decades the waste-filled river, which passed through the middle of the town, was regarded as an unpleasant industrial necessity. Since the cleanup, however, waterfront property has increased dramatically in value. Perhaps the most visible change in Wausau in the last twenty years has been the development of a white-water kayak course right in the center of town.
WAUSAU WAS ONCE the site of Big Bull Falls, a raging cataract around a midriver island where the water dropped some forty feet in a third of a mile. Decades ago the east channel was blocked to create a pond for hydro generators on the west channel. But in the mid-1970s, as the water cleanup began to take effect, a group of kayaking enthusiasts recognized that the dry east channel would make a fine whitewater slalom course. Their vision has led to the creation of a course of national stature. The Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, a major electric utility and the owner of the dam, cooperated fully. Now contestants warm up and take their places in the quiet waters of the hydro pond, then slide over a gate that can be adjusted to duplicate any sort of water condition to begin their run. In 1984, ten years after volunteers started the first work on the course, Wausau began developing the entire site as a new public park.
Wausau is also the headquarters of WVIC. Bob Gall, its president, emphasizes WVIC’s unique status as the only private company to operate the water resources of a major American river, a task that would today be routinely taken on by a public agency. WVIC’s 1907 legislative mandate—to maintain as uniform a flow as possible—has not changed, although the nature of what the company does certainly has. For the first sixty years of its life WVIC was an engineers’ organization, concerned with building and maintaining the reservoirs that supplied the hydropower downstream. But with the new emphasis on the environment, WVIC found that it needed much more information about the quality of its product—water—in addition to its quantity.
“I’m a biologist by training,” Gall told me, “with an emphasis on limnology, the study of freshwater systems. When I started in 1973, the big reservoir proposals had been put on hold, and I spent my first fifteen years with the company collecting environmental data, water quality, water chemistry data. We needed this information to make good decisions about how we ran the river and to defend ourselves because a lot of accusations were being made against the company.”
Perhaps WVIC’s most stressful exercise has just—or almost—been completed: the relicensing of the system by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency responsible for licensing all power-generating dams on navigable waterways. (While WVIC doesn’t operate any power dams itself, its reservoirs contribute to power generation downstream.) Certification is a once-everyhalf-century process that takes years to complete. One of FERC’s requirements was the development of a computer model to decide how and when water should be impounded or released. With the model in place, FERC issued its license, but with very precise wording in regard to flow. Set amounts at certain gauging points were established, with only 15 percent deviation allowed.
No exemptions were specified, but nature does not always cooperate with the federal government. Despite WVIC’s control structures, Gall notes, “there’s still a lot of uncontrolled drainage in the system.” As a result of the very wet spring of 1996, water flows in mid-August were still too high and had been out of compliance for weeks. Nature was taking its course, and no amount of human management could change it. FERC didn’t seem to understand that, and as Gall observes, “You just can’t write a rule about everything. At some point you have to get to a position where you entrust some responsibility.”
In WISCONSIN TODAY, AS IN 1907, virtually everyone agrees that maintaining uniform flow is best for all public interests, including residential development and recreational uses, which were all but unknown ninety years ago. Bob Martini sums it up when he says, “This is a hardworking industrial river, but we have extensive cooperation from all users of the Wisconsin River, ranging from deep ecologists to industrialists to regulators to the average fisherman. They all think that the river should be managed from their point of view. Most of the time these are conflicting schemes, but we’ve come up with workable compromises, and most of these people have agreed to the compromises we’ve made.”
Although there are two power darns farther downstream, the industrial heart of the river really ends at the two largest hydro reservoirs: Petenwell Lake, the second-largest body of water in the state (after Lake Winnebago), and Castle Rock Lake, both created after World War II. They are the last hydroelectric dams to be built on the river. Just below them is Wisconsin Dells, where the river has cut its way through a thick shield of Cambrian sandstone that once formed the southern edge of a great glacial lake. Wisconsin Dells is the most spectacularly scenic part of the river, an eighteen-mile stretch of towering palisades and freestanding rock formations, with shadowy side canyons and grottoes, overhung with trees and moss, branching off from the main river.
The town of Wisconsin Dells, once a quiet nineteenth-century farm and vacation spot called Kilbourn (it was renamed in 1931), has been overlaid more recently with the ad hoc structures of seasonal tourism: miniaturegolf courses, water parks, Indian artifact shops. Only the banks of the river itself remain beautiful and green and without buildings. For that one must thank the descendants of Henry H. Bennett, the man who was responsible for first promoting the beauties of the Dells. Bennett was a young carpenter who returned to the area to pursue a new fascination, photography, after he was wounded in the Civil War. Along with his commercial and portrait commissions, he indulged a forty-year obsession with the landscape of the Dells. He created thousands of stereoscopic images of the region that were widely sold. Bennett’s love of the Dells spurred his environmental interests, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to stir up opposition to the construction of a power dam right in the center of town that buried the old rapids and raised the river level almost twenty feet.
THE DAM DIDN’T ATTRACT much industry, but it made touring the river much easier, and Bennett’s descendants benefited. Nellie Bennett, one of his daughters, and George Crandall, her husband, owned a tourist-boat company. They recognized that if the beauties of the Dells were not preserved, the whole town would suffer deeply. In the late 1920s and continuing into the 1930s, the Crandalls bought up hundreds of acres of riverbank property. In the 1950s the family gave the property to a University of Wisconsin support foundation, which recently sold it to the DNR, thus ensuring its continued preservation for public enjoyment.
From Wisconsin Dells the river hooks to the east, then to the southwest, passing through the turbines of the last and largest power dam, at Prairie du Sac. This dam, completed in 1914, impounds Lake Wisconsin, whose shoreline is ringed with modest summer houses—the perfect embodiment of the Midwestern “cottage by the lake” ideal. From this point to its confluence with the Mississippi, ninetythree miles downstream, the river is free-running. With few houses or villages along its course, the river seems somnolent here, but as it flows at an average rate of more than four million gallons a minute, it continually reshapes its course through a maze of islets and sandbars. Much of the land along the riverbanks is marshy and floods in springtime, while the high green bluffs of the unglaciated hills loom in the distance. This is an image that in places has remained all but unaltered for three hundred years, and one that, despite all odds, the state of Wisconsin has acted to preserve—this time for beauty, not business. The small towns along this part of the river exist to serve rural life—the network of dairy farms that dot the small alluvial valleys between the bluffs- not passing tourists.
As early as the 1940s the state began to acquire land along the river. It was too marshy and flood-prone to be useful for farming, but it was a wonderful wildlife habitat, and over a period of forty years the DNR’s holdings reached 23,000 acres. In the early 1970s Rep. Bob Kastenmeier suggested including this part of the river in the federal preservation program for wild and scenic rivers. The response in the state, particularly among those independent folks who lived along the lower Wisconsin River, was hostile. “No way did we want the federal government involved,” recalls one resident. So the project was given to the state. Little happened for almost a decade until a federal inquiry led the DNR to create a citizens’ advisory committee to find ways of preserving and maintaining the river’s rural appearance. The committee met for four years and finally developed a plan that became the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Act of 1989.
Surprisingly, most residents along the river were willing to surrender some of the prerogatives of private land ownership by accepting restrictions on the style, color, and location of residential and other construction. But the citizens of the area demanded one thing: The DNR, with its ponderous bureaucracy and remote location, could not be in charge. Instead, a new state agency, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, was created to oversee the operation of the program. It is the state’s smallest bureaucracy, with just two employees to carry out the citizen board’s instructions.
Mark Cupp, the board’s executive director, seems an unlikely bureaucrat in his summer dress of walking shorts and Riverway baseball cap. “To the best of my knowledge,” he says, “the Riverway is a unique creation, and we’ve had people from Russia, Germany, Canada, and Australia visit to see what we’ve done and how we do it.” Cupp continues: “Our mission is to protect the appearance of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway and to maintain it in as rural a state as possible, as seen from the river. If you want to build a new home or modify an existing structure and it’s on land visible from the river, there are limitations on height, on the use of glass or reflective materials on walls facing the river, and exterior colors must harmonize with existing vegetation during leaf-on conditions.” State agencies must comply as well. Even the magisterial Department of Transportation had to redesign a highway project that would have created a long white concrete retaining wall next to the river. Now even the back sides of the steel guardrails along the highways are painted a dull gray-brown to make them less visible from the river.
About 80,000 acres of land are affected by the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, and since 1989 the state has acquired an additional 18,000 of these acres, so that approximately half of all the land in the project is now in public ownership. Unlike in state parks, hunting is permitted in much of this property, and low-impact recreational sports, such as canoeing and fishing, are encouraged. There have been objections, sometimes noisy, to the Riverway plan, most often from older residents who resent being told what color to paint their houses. But more and more landowners are coming to believe that it’s worth making some slight adjustments to preserve the area for all to enjoy.
The Wisconsin River will never again be “natural.” It will always be controlled and monitored, carefully watched and given gentle guidance and support —particularly in the preservation of its appearance and in the care with which native aquatic plant and animal populations are restored. Wisconsin is a pragmatic state, generally suspicious of aesthetics, but in this case its citizens have been willing to pay the price to give the hardest-working river in the country another identity, this one closer to the long-gone original.