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Madison residents, engineering dept. grappling over removing trees to restore Sauk Creek Greenway

November 14, 2022 11:00 PM

Posted: Nov 14, 2022 11:00 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Both residents and city officials know the Sauk Creek Greenway has to be restored due to urban water runoff, but just how to do it is the at issue, and the funding is up for debate at Tuesday’s common council meeting.

“It’s just, it’s gorgeous,” said Gwen Long, walking along the section of Sauk Creek that runs right through her backyard. “The sunset over this creek as you can see is just beautiful.”

But Long and her neighbors are worried that the little window to nature that runs behind their houses on the west side is in jeopardy – which is why they’re taking a petition to the Common Council on Tuesday.

Madison’s City Engineering Department identified Sauk Creek as needing restoration because urban runoff from development upstream has aggressively eroded the channel, and unhealthy trees are falling and causing more erosion.

The project had to start over in 2018, and after having $1.7 million allocated to it, City Engineering is asking for an additional $1.5 million in the Capital Budget as a placeholder for the next four years if the project continues.

“We’re in opposition to them funding this project until we have some input and have an environmental impact study and get some input on what the plan is,” said Long, one of the founders of the group Friends of Sauk Creek.

“(The runoff is) impacting downstream,” said Hannah Mohelnitzky, public information officer for the Engineering Department. “It’s impacting Old Sauk trails. It’s impacting business park ponds, Pheasant Branch Creek, and Lake Mendota.”

In 2018, the Department contracted Tree Health Management to conduct a survey, identifying 5,595 total trees, 976 of which were considered “quality trees.”

“That does not mean that 5000 trees are subject to removal or even being considered for that,” Mohelnitzky said. “It’s just a matter of those are the trees that we had to look at.”

“Those [invasive] species really impact the amount of light that reaches the forest floor, which is what’s preventing growth of the healthy understory,” she said. “That kind of means that rather than native grasses and woodland wildflowers that would historically would have been present, the forest floor is actually primarily bare and exposed soil right now.”

According to Long, “the plan in 2018 was to dredge this creek twice as deep and to grade the banks down and to grade it out 20, 30, 40 feet on either side. And any trees or vegetation on either side of that creek up to 40 feet wide, so up to 80 feet wide would be a ribbon of no trees.”

While Long and Friends of Sauk Creek acknowledge there has been time for public comment, “we are coming to every meeting that we can, but it seems like when we have community meetings, they already finish their plans and they’re just presenting them, she said.

According to Mohelnitzky, after massive flooding in 2018, the city had to start from scratch.

“We have no plan right now, we have to preliminary design right now.” Mohelnitzky said.

But fellow Friends of Sauk Creek member Randy Brugman thinks based on what little information the city has shared with them, “I think they do have a plan; I think the plan is to come in and from what we’ve picked up, is basically clear cut this entire greenway.”

Brugman also takes issue with the budget ask from the Engineering Department if they truly don’t have a plan.

“How do you know you’re getting the best bang for your buck, for your dollar, for your citizens’ dollar, if you don’t have detailed information and a game plan when you bring a project to the governance body for approval? ” he said.

“We’re asking the council to actually pull the money for this project until 2 things happen: is that we have community engagement, and we have the ability to have an impact on what this looks like at the end of the day because we have to live with it,” Brugman said.

According to Mohelnitzky, along with public meetings, information has been made available online on the city’s Sauk Creek Restoration Greenspace webpage.

“We’re trying to offer as many educational things and data and trying to be as transparent,” she said, “there is nothing hidden right now.”

But, when asked Monday if removing trees was still on the table, “the reality of it, some projects include solutions that potentially could take some trees down, but in the end, will serve our environment much better in the long run,” Mohelnitzky said.

“We know trees need to come down,” Long said, “these woods have not been maintained in the 40 years that this neighborhood went up in here. It needs some trees to be cleared out, it does need work back here and we’d love, we welcome that work, but it doesn’t mean that you clear cut.”

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