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Racine County's Echo Lake dilemma: Spend millions to maintain dam, or remove it and watch lake disappear?

From the Collection: Burlington charts a path toward tough decisions on its beloved Echo Lake series
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Dam at Echo Lake in Burlington now more than 50 years old needs upgrades

The concrete dam at Echo Lake in Burlington no longer meets state standards and must either be rebuilt or removed — a choice that Burlington City Council members will make. 

BURLINGTON — The cost of saving Echo Lake has climbed into the millions, stirring a debate about whether the popular but deteriorated recreational spot is worth the investment.

Burlington faces a 2025 deadline to address a state determination that the dam on Echo Lake is no longer adequate to safeguard against the potential catastrophe of a major flood.

The city’s choices come down to either making a substantial investment in upgrading the dam and improving the lake or removing the dam and letting the reservoir vanish into the natural flow of the White River.

City officials plan to choose a course of action later this year after engineers figure out how much it would cost to save the lake.

Man fishes on the White River near the dam at Echo Lake in Burlington in 2021

With the 300-foot-long Echo Lake dam visible in the background, Adrien Erickson of Racine casts his line July 8, 2021, while fishing in the White River in Burlington. 

Mayor Jeannie Hefty says she wants to save Echo Lake and see it restored as a beloved natural resource. Hefty, however, said she is uncertain how much the project will cost — and how much taxpayers are willing to pay.

“That’s for the community to decide,” she said. “It’s a lot to look at.”

Part of the answer came last week when engineers presented their estimate on the cost of dredging years’ worth of muck and pollution from the bottom of Echo Lake.

The dredging alone would require $2.5 million.

By scraping tons of sediment off the lake bottom, engineers at Ayres Associates Inc. said they could double the average depth of Echo Lake from 2 feet to 4 feet. That would not only improve water quality and recreation, but it would also increase the 70-acre lake’s capacity for protection against flooding.

City officials will not decide whether to move forward with dredging, however, until they resolve the bigger question of whether to fix the dam. Another study from Ayres Associates is expected later this summer on the cost of the dam project.

If officials decide to remove the dam and dissolve Echo Lake, they would be saving the $2.5 million for dredging plus whatever the cost would be for repairing the dam.

Echo Lake map in Burlington with dam

City Public Works Director Peter Riggs said all options are “on the table.”

If the dam is removed and the lake empties into the White River, Riggs said, officials would undertake reclamation efforts for the river, including deciding where the river should flow and what should be done with the rest of the old lake bed.

“The outcome of dam removal would not look like: Take a bulldozer to the dam, wipe your hands off and walk away,” Riggs said. “There’s a myriad of options that might be explored.”

Dam at Echo Lake in Burlington is 300 feet long across the White River

The 300-foot-long concrete dam across the White River in Burlington has created Echo Lake. If the dam is removed, the lake will empty permanently into the river. 

Echo Lake has been part of Burlington since the mid-1800s when the first dam was built from earth and brush. The current concrete dam was installed more than 50 years ago, possibly in the 1950s.

Located near the center of town, the lake has become a popular spot for fishing, boating and other recreational activities, as well as picnicking in a nearby park.

But over the course of many decades, the lake has been polluted with phosphorous and other substances, contributing to sediment buildup on the lake bottom.

In 2015, the state Department of Natural Resources said the dam no longer was adequate to protect against a catastrophic 500-year flood. State officials gave the City of Burlington 10 years — until 2025 — to rectify the situation.

The city’s current total annual budget is about $25 million, which includes about $7 million in property tax collections.

Even before the full cost of the project is known, debate is heating up over whether Echo Lake should be allowed to disappear into the history books.

Adonis Herrington fishing on White River in Burlington near Echo Lake dam

Adonis Herrington of Racine emerges from the White River while fishing Thursday just below the Echo Lake dam in Burlington. 

A group has organized on Facebook under the banner “Save Echo Lake & Dam,” attracting more than 800 followers. One participant declared: “I cannot imagine my old hometown not having Echo Lake.”

At the nearby Veterans Terrace event venue, General Manager Beth Reetz said the lake and the dam are major attractions when she books weddings and other special events for the facility at 589 Milwaukee Ave.

Nevertheless, Reetz said, said she is willing to wait to see the final price tag for saving the lake and to hear what alternatives exist for perhaps transforming the site into something equally as appealing.

“I want it there,” she said of the lake. “But I’m also going to stay open-minded.”

Homeowner A.J. Schkeryantz, who owns property on the lake’s north shore, said he bought his house specifically so he could enjoy the scenic lake views and atmosphere.

Schkeryantz said his property value would plummet if the lake suddenly vanished. Although he lives outside the city limits, he said he would happily pay higher taxes to fund whatever improvements are needed to keep the lake where it is.

“It makes this area beautiful,” he said. “If they let this go, it’d be an embarrassment to our town.”


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