Friday, September 9, 2011

Power lines may ruin what remains of parkway

Who will speak for nature? Who will speak for Underwood Parkway?

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness….” – Henry David Thoreau      
       Like Thoreau, I would like to speak a word for nature. Although the “freedom and wildness” that our parks provide us in Milwaukee County can hardly be called “absolute,” that doesn’t make them less valuable or less deserving of protection. So, let me speak a word for relative freedom and wildness.
      Once upon a time Underwood Creek was as free and wild as any other stream in Wisconsin. Then houses were built near it and the Menomonee River, into which it flows. Eventually, flooding occurred. What followed, for long portions of Underwood Creek, was called channelization. Riparian woodlands were chopped down, the meandering stream was bulldozed straight, and its channel was lined with concrete. This “solution” was not only temporary; ultimately it led to increased flooding.
            Current plans for Underwood Creek include the removal of concrete and the restoration of a more naturally meandering stream. This already has been done for the short stretch that runs next to Hwy 100 as well as for stretches of other waterways in the county.
      Despite the degradations to which it has been subjected, Underwood Creek is valued enough to be part of the award-winning Milwaukee County Parkway system. A popular segment of the Oak Leaf Trail runs through it. Furthermore, a short stretch of the original, un-channeled creek lies in a densely wooded, swampy area. This is a place that is just about as free and wild as nature gets around here, a place where even Thoreau might have found what he termed the healing “tonic of wildness.”
Sadly, unless there is concerted public effort to preserve it, this small bit of urban wilderness may soon be destroyed.
      As reported recently in Wauwatosa Patch, WeEnergies is planning to build a new substation on the Milwaukee County Grounds. Electrical power will be brought to the substation via two new transmission lines to be constructed by the AmericanTransmission Co. (ATC). Four routes are being considered, from which two will be selected by the Public Service Commission (PSC).
Map of four proposed alternatives
      One of the proposed alternatives would run 60- to 100-foot-tall high-voltage overhead power lines through Underwood Parkway. If this route is chosen, an 80-foot right-of-way would be cleared, effectively destroying one of the few natural areas left in Wauwatosa. What is potentially more distressing to the many people who use it, utility poles and overhead cables also would run along the off-road portion of the Oak Leaf bike trail between 115th St. and Watertown Plank Rd.
      This doesn’t have to happen. There are three viable alternatives. Unfortunately for the parkway and the people who enjoy it, other alternatives run along residential streets. The prospect of having your yard and street dug up for a buried power line, even temporarily, is a powerful incentive to become a vocal opponent of that alternative. This is to be expected and it is how a solution that benefits the few may win out over a solution that benefits the many.
      The parkway and Oak Leaf Trail need vocal opponents of the Underwood Creek alternative. Only if many people are willing to speak a word for nature will we save it.   
      Please attend the open house on Sept. 12 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Wauwatosa Civic Center, 7725 W. North Ave. ATC experts will be able to answer questions about the project and explain how to provide input to the PSC. (You can email comments to if you cannot attend the meeting.)  
      The PSC will rule on the final two routes based on input received from all interested parties, including ordinary citizens as well as residents of affected neighborhoods and major stakeholders such as the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex and UWM.
      No one wants overhead power lines obstructing their own views. Cables will be buried in sensitive locations, like the Medical Complex, UWM’s Innovation Park, and residential neighborhoods. But this is expensive. From a purely economic standpoint, the parkway seems an attractive alternative because the overhead power lines would save money. From a political standpoint, the parkway lacks residents who complain. From an ecological and recreational standpoint, however, overhead power lines and an 80-foot wide swath of clear-cut are anything but attractive.
      It is ironic that just three months ago Wauwatosa announced a new branding campaign for which the theme of the city will be Innovation Parkway. If the city is going to promote the value of its parkways – as it should – sacrificing one of them in this fashion would be antithetical to the effort. Officials in Wauwatosa who support the Innovation Parkway theme, as well as all Milwaukee County users of the Oak Leaf Trail should be pounding home the point – power lines do not belong anywhere near our parkways.
For the benefit of all, let us speak a word for nature…!
      Here is an Underwood Parkway photo essay with explanatory captions. Click to enlarge each photo.
This view west from 115th St. is the channelized Underwood Creek most people see.
This is a view of the original creek that still exists in a little-known natural area immediately north of the previous view.
This set of tracks bisects the parkway and separates the two channels pictured above.
Underwood Parkway drive and Oak Leaf Trail immediately south, adjacent to the channelized creek pictured at top.
This existing power line, at 119th St., is where the proposed new transmission line would begin. An 80-foot-wide right-of-way would be cut through the woodland to the right.
This wetland would be in the power line right-of-way. Wetlands, which slow and absorb stormwater run off, are important for flood management and groundwater recharge.
The off-road segment of the Oak Leaf Trail east of 115th St. If the Underwood Creek Parkway alternative is chosen, this scene would include overhead power lines 60-100 feet tall.
Alternative routes that run through residential neighborhoods, like this Walnut St. route, would use buried cables.

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