People who have walked the Ice Age Trail in Verona over the last month might be shocked at what they see.
A corridor approximately 100 feet wide and two miles long has been cleared, leaving a tunnel of disrupted land with the Badger Mill Creek running down the middle, leaving some residents to wonder how the land will be reclaimed.
A portion of the trail in “the city of trees” has been under construction since the beginning of November to replace 60 year old sewer pipes along the Badger Mill Creek on the city’s east side. The project requires more than 16,500 feet of new sewer lines to be installed underground; it’s a $7.7 million project that’s been in the works in some capacity since 2016. The City of Verona is completing the project in conjunction with Madison Metropolitan Sewer District and Dane County Parks.
For efficiency, the city, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District and Dane County Parks agreed to do all three projects simultaneously, while still maintaining a functioning sewer system.
The project will help the city maintain its sewerage infrastructure, which based on population growth, is carrying around twice the sewerage to the Madison district than it did 25 years ago.
The clearing for construction; however, has a group of Verona residents concerned about the environmental impact. Since early November, around 60 people have created a Facebook page meant to be a launching point for a neighborhood association to voice concerns over the project.
Group leaders have organized at least two informal meetings to discuss possible issues with the amount of vegetation cleared, water quality, unclear restoration plans and a lack of communication from the city.
“We haven’t been able to identify a clear plan to reclaim this resource,” Jocelyn Przywara, told the Press. “It should be very intentional and very carefully planned.”
At the Common Council meeting Dec. 14, around 10 people spoke for nearly an hour, asking the city to pause the project until their questions are addressed.
“The Ice Age Trail is such an asset for Verona, it is recognized as a national scenic trail and its value has been established by the city,” Przywara said at the meeting.
But while some are shocked at the rate of clearing of trees and brush in the area, others view the project as a chance to conserve the habitat.
Members of other groups and agencies involved with the project such as The Ice Age Trail Alliance and the state Department of Natural Resources said the project creates an opportunity to rehabilitate the area that is riddled with invasive species, and also improve a degraded trout stream.
Dan Oele, a fisheries biologist from the state Department of Natural Resources, said the Badger Mill Creek – classified as a Class II Trout Stream – now has virtually no trout. Over the years, it has become a temperate stream with a mixed fish ecology, with cold and warm water fish.
Sara Rigelman, an acquisition and planning specialist with Dane County Parks, said she hopes the project, which includes a multi-use paved path adjacent to the Ice Age Trail, will make the area more accessible to everyone and improve the park as a natural area.
“It hasn’t really gotten a lot of attention in terms of management or habitat improvements,” she said. “I think it is awesome that it’s getting a facelift in a way that is ugly at first.”
To help answer questions on the project, the city has scheduled public meetings where people can provide feedback for city officials. A virtual neighborhood meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, where project staff will go into detail about the history, route, the project’s impact on the Ice Age Trail, restoration efforts and Dane County in-stream work to restore a portion of the Badger Mill Creek.
The city also scheduled recurring monthly neighborhood progress meetings with project staff on the third Wednesday of the month at 5 p.m. from Jan. 20 to Sept. 15. These will include a schedule update on the project and open dialog for questions from the public.
Maintaining a growing city
In the 1960s, the city installed a sewer interceptor along the Badger Mill Creek. In 1996, as Verona’s population grew to 6,500, the city decommissioned its waste water treatment plant and connected it to the Madison Metropolitan Sewer District, which has the capacity to handle more waste.
Today, the second force main pipe that helps carry sewage uphill is being installed because of the increase in population, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District Communications and Public Affairs Manager Amanda Wegner wrote to the Press in an email.
“When the District built Pumping Station 17 in 1996 and abandoned the City of Verona’s treatment plant, the average daily flow from the City was approximately 600,000 gallons per day. It is now approximately 1,100,000 gallons per day; that is almost double in 25 years,” she wrote.
Verona’s eastside interceptor needs to be replaced because it has inflow or infiltration from groundwater, surface water and or stormwater, Wegner said, which causes stress on the entire system.
The project will replace Verona’s interceptor pipe, which is a large sewer line that smaller neighborhood lines feed into. The old interceptors are on the east side of the Badger Mill Creek and the new interceptor will be on the creek’s west side.
“Eliminating sources of inflow and infiltration into the system reduces stress on the regional conveyance and treatment system, and it reduces costs to communities and ratepayers by reducing the amount of flow (specifically non-wastewater flow) that comes to the treatment plant,” she wrote.
A need for rehabilitation
Kevin Thusius of the Ice Age Trail Alliance said although cutting down trees never looks good, he believes the project can spark an ecological improvement of the area.
“In one way it is a shame, but also the Ice Age Trail Alliance has been fighting that area for years because of the invasive plants and trees,” he told the Press in November. “We hope that when the project is done, we can install some more resilient vegetation as buffers for the trail.”
City Parks and Urban Forestry director David Walker said 80-90% of vegetation the city removed for the sewer interceptor project was volunteer species, meaning the seedlings start to populate and can prevent other types of growth. Walker, who has worked for the city for three decades, told the Press he spends a lot of time removing cottonwood and box elder from the Badger Mill Creek area.
But even with a group of volunteers, Walker said they could never really make a dent in removing invasive species because it was too pervasive.
Walker noted about 10 oak trees in the path of the corridor were taken out, and some of those could have been nearly 100 years old; however, the city was able to save a row of around 40 pines right on the stream bank that are approximately 50 years old. He said he knew this project was going to be an eye opener for people, but he is confident what has been taken out should be removed.
“We reset the clock and it is a very good opportunity to establish what should have been there prior to settlement 100 years ago,” he said.
In regards to the stream, Oele said when someone sees a stream with steep river banks, like the Badger Mill Creek, it’s not a sign of a healthy waterway. The banks should be on a slope to allow for overflow during heavy rain.
Right now, soil from the river bank erodes into the river. The lack of shade from the vegetation clearing will increase the temperature of the creek, but Oele said when the DNR consulted him for the project permit, it wasn’t his biggest concern.
“You have to pick your poison,” Oele said. “You can leave a stream highly vegitative or you can do some work with the banks.”
Concerns from the neighbors
Przywara told the Press she understands the city has to improve the sewer system, but the restoration plan for the city’s portion of the project appears to be an afterthought. Even after attending the Oct. 29 neighborhood meeting, she had no idea so much clearing would occur and noted construction started less than two weeks later, which left little time for public input.
She feels that the residents had to pressure the city into taking a hard look on how to rehabilitate the area, after the sewer lines are installed.
Dawn Regenbogen said multiple residents have been told that trees were the enemy of the sewer lines. And initially on the city’s website, trees were not listed in the restoration plan, just native grasses. She told the Press she believes the reason trees are now being included is because of pressure from residents.
Przywara said the Ice Age Trail and Badger Mill Creek are important resources that should be handled with care and consideration — especially during the pandemic, when people use the outdoors as a needed relief.
“The value of public land has been really brought to the forefront,” she said. “State parks, county parks have been flooded with people and that’s true here too. Spring, fall, summer, there were tons of individuals and families walking here enjoying the recreation opportunity and nature.”
The creek follows along a line of a moraine, which means it was the path of glaciers thousands of years ago. There is also a marshland, East View heights sanctuary and a Savanna Oak forest, she added.
The careful watch of residents in the neighborhood did prompt the city to expand communications with the upcoming meeting in January, and the monthly meetings. A citizen complaint to the state Department of Natural Resources also prompted the city to install silt fencing along the creek to prevent construction related runoff from entering the stream, Oele said.
“We identified erosion and sediment control measures and we forwarded the concerns onto the city and they were quickly remedied within 24 hours,” he said.