Editor’s note: In a previous edition of this story, we referred to a preliminary plan to update the Sauk Creek Greenway, which does not yet exist. We asked the City of Madison Engineering Division for an interview at the time this story aired, which they declined, but provided written comment. After receiving additional context provided two months later by the City of Madison Engineering Division, we have edited portions of this story to include additional context on the project’s nature, timeline, and cost.
Last night, the city finance committee met for the second night in a row to discuss the 2023 executive capital budget. But much to the chagrin of south-west side residents, the Sauk Creek Greenway Restoration Project only received a few minutes of discussion.
The Friends of Sauk Creek is a community group of neighbors opposing the city’s plan to update the Sauk Creek Greenway, an approximately mile long waterway that directs storm-water, into the nearby Wexford pond. The plan would convert the surrounding 26 acres of land into a more storm-water-friendly area.
The greenway has had its fair share of issues over the years. Erosion along the greenway is sending sediment and nutrients downstream, including into nearby Wexford Pond, which now requires dredging.
Meanwhile, some “low-quality” trees in the forest are preventing the growth of new trees and facilitating blockages in the stream, causing new water channels to form and ultimately creating even more erosion.
Shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and quick-growing trees like box elder, black locust and ash, have left the ground with bare, exposed soil. Under current conditions, the “high-quality” native oaks in the greenway will slowly die off without being replaced.
Now, the city engineering division, which provided to comment to WORT in November, is restarting a process to thin the greenway’s trees, and deepen and widen the waterway to allow for easier storm drainage in the area.
Just how many of the approximately 5,000 trees will be removed is still unknown.
“The City does not have an estimate of how many trees will need to be removed, as there is not a preliminary design. However, once the project begins, the City plans to utilize environmentally friendly stormwater design that will create a stable stormwater channel and prevent erosion,” says Engineering Division spokesperson Hannah Mohelnitzky.
The Friends of Sauk Creek oppose the restoration plans, and the inclusion of $3.2 million for this greenway restoration project in the 2023 executive capital budget.
The group is asking the city to consider saving as many of the trees as possible.
Ellen Foley is one of the core founding members of Friends of Sauk Creek. She says that the city should not just rework the creek only for storm-water use, as some research shows the creek has existed for hundreds of years.
“This is not some waterway that some engineer thought up in the past two years, this is a creek that has been around for a long time, and a forest has grown up around it,” Foley says.
The restoration project does not yet have a draft design. All that has been released is a 2018 survey from a certified arborist consultant, which documented the ongoing ecological degradation of the greenway due to erosion and invasive, “low-quality” trees. That survey was released shortly before a summer of massive floods in Madison, and the project was put, temporarily, on hold.
The Friends of Sauk Creek say that the lack of public input for the project is their main concern. However, Foley fears that the city is going about the project in the wrong way.
“We have hints that are on the city’s project page for the project, but we have not had any success in getting any details on what exactly the city is planning,” Foley says.
Meanwhile, Mohelnitzky says it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the project without yet having a preliminary design. She adds that the city will welcome community input once a draft design is proposed in 2023.
Not everyone is convinced. Randy Bruegman lives near Sauk Creek, and is a member of Friends of Sauk Creek. He questions why the city would be asking for $3.2 million for the project in next year’s budget if they don’t even know what the project will look like yet.
Bruegman says that he doesn’t believe the city has the best track record when it comes to greenway improvements.
“There’s been experience in other parts of the city. If you look at the greenway project they did on Tree Lane, they basically came in and cleared almost all of the groves of trees out, except for four or five trees, graded it pretty extensively, then walked away. If you look at it today, it’s not very well maintained, and it looks vastly different than it did when the city came in and basically did a clear cut. I think the concerns from the residents here are the we are going to see the same approach,” Bruegman says.
Mohelnitzky says this project is different than the previous greenway projects on Tree Lane, because the trees in this project consist of more native, higher quality species of trees.
“The previous projects on Tree Lane had been cleared of most trees when they were surrounded by farms prior to development. This allowed for a near complete canopy of invasive, aggressive tree species that are not conducive to stormwater management and are bad for native habitat,” says Mohelnitzky.
The Friends of Sauk Creek say that they aren’t against more storm-water projects in the area. In fact, they welcome it, as the area was hit with major flooding in 2018. However, Bruegman says that all he wants from the city is a voice.
“We are willing to engage and work with the city in developing a plan that we both can live with. I think that’s the major ask, because right now they are just sort of telling us what they are going to do,” Bruegman says.
Chris Turner is also a member of the Friends of Sauk Creek. She acknowledges that she is no expert in storm-water management, but from a simple ecological perspective, the greenway should be preserved as much as possible.
“I think at this point, the way it stands, is that they intend to take out not just trees, although those are probably the most important, but the understory as well. If we have learned nothing in the last few decades, it’s that you cannot hardscape everything on the Earth. The water has to go somewhere and it is better to let nature, and dirt and plants and trees, absorb the water instead of just channeling with concrete,” Turner says.
Mohelnitzky says the city isn’t planning to hardscape within the greenway. Instead, she describes the main point of this project as increasing the plant diversity in the greenway to minimize the greenway’s erosion problems.
The main point, in short, is improving the ecology of the greenway.
“Current sub-canopy conditions on this greenway have greatly minimized plant diversity. Where a healthy oak woodland has a diverse and well-vegetated groundlayer, the Sauk Creek Greenway is so densely shaded by invasive sub-canopy shrubs such as buckthorn, honeysuckle, and quick-growing tree species such as box elder, black locust and ash, that most of the groundlayer is bare, exposed soil,” she says.
The city expects the public engagement and design process to take the bulk of 2023. Construction isn’t likely to begin until at least 2024.
Photo courtesy: YS / UNSPLASH