by CHRIS ROGERS
Trying to drive through Fountain City this month? Find a new route.
To repair a sewer main, Fountain City will completely shut down a segment of Wisconsin Highway 35 on the north end of the city for at least three weeks starting next week. The project will interrupt a major thoroughfare for commuters, tourists, and emergency responders alike.
Not to be confused with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) project to replace aging bridges near Fountain City — which began in April and will keep a single lane of traffic on Highway 35 open at all times — the city sewer repair will require the entire highway to be closed for around three weeks starting on Monday, June 10.
The official detour for the project sends traffic all the way out to Mondovi and Eleva, Wis., — halfway to Eau Claire and back. Fountain City restauranteur John Harrington recommended that his customers take local backroads for a detour that is only 10 minutes in total. The official detour — which heavy trucks are required to take — turns what is normally a 35-minute jaunt from Alma to Winona into a one-hour-and-forty-five-minute expedition. That route sends traffic all the way up to U.S. Highway 10 and down through Arcadia.
For motorists coming from the north, Harrington recommended taking Waumandee Creek Road just north of Fountain City. From there, automobiles could drive up Lower Eagle Valley Road, turn south at County Road G, and take Highway 95 west into Fountain City. For northbound traffic, the same route works in reverse. Fountain City officials advised large vehicles against taking those township and county roads.
The Great River Road — as Highway 35 is known — is a National Scenic Byway, and tourism along the route is a big part of Fountain City’s economy. While the city will still be easily accessible from the south, travelers coming down from the north or trying to continue a northbound trip upriver of Fountain City will have to go around the road closure. A short stretch of the highway will be closed around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) station on the north end of town.
Asked how the project would affect his business, Harrington said, “It will it have a monetary or economic impact for sure.” Harrington co-owns the Monarch Public House and said that June, especially late June leading up to the Fourth of July, is normally busy season for the restaurant. The highway is supposed to reopen on July 3, though city officials said there is a chance the project could take longer than that. “It’s a significant effect for the month of June and into July, but what are you going to do? You can only control what you can control,” Harrington stated.
The highway is being closed to fix a broken city sewer main underneath the roadway. Fountain City Public Works Director Gil Adams explained that a leaky water line eroded the ground around the sewer main and the sewer eventually collapsed. City officials discovered the problem last year. “Fortunately, the flow [of sewage] is going through; it’s not completely busted, but we are taking on a lot of groundwater because all the springs going down the hill — not to mention all the high water this spring from the river,” he stated. Adams maintained that sewage was not leaking out, but explained that all of the extra groundwater the sewer system was taking in through that hole put a serious strain on the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Normally, the plant handles around 130,000 gallons of sewage per day, Adams reported. Groundwater seeping in through the Highway 35 sewer main hole added an extra 100,000 gallons per day, he stated.
The sewer main extends to the very north end of town and only serves six homes. Those homes will have temporary water service during the project. They will have sewer access almost the entire time because the contractors will install the new sewer line before removing the old one, Adams explained. “We’ll have the other pipe ready to go and ready to flow when we disconnect for a second. So there may be a small time when we say, ‘Hey, take it easy here for a second,’” he stated.
According to Mayor Bobbi Farrand, the entire project is estimated to cost $318,802. The majority of that funding is coming from USDA Rural Development grants and low-interest loans, according to Farrand and Adams. The city is responsible for paying $93,000 up front.
Is there someway the city can keep a lane of traffic open during the sewer repair? “No, there’s not an option because it’s too narrow of an area,” Farrand responded. Located between Rock in the House and the USACE station, it is a narrow spot where the road is bordered by houses only a few feet away from the curb on the bluff side of the road and by railroad tracks on the river side. The pipe itself is buried under the center of the road, Farrand reported.
Other construction projects have been able to keep traffic flowing right beside big excavations. Asked how the Fountain City project is different, Adams highlighted just how narrow the space is. He also explained, “The [sewer] lines are very deep on that end of town. To get underneath them to get the proper compaction and replace the pipe, you have to go very deep. And the deeper you go, the wider the sides are,” he explained. In other words, contractors will have to excavate a significant portion of the road width just to be able to dig deep enough to replace the pipe. After that, there’s only a little space left on either side to get dump trucks in and out and finish the project as quickly as possible, Adams said. At the same time, he continued, “You’re fighting groundwater, so it’s going to be messy.”
“They have to go down 15 feet, and they have to make sure that area does not collapse on the men working down there,” Farrand stated.
Asked if the project would affect residents and businesses, Farrand responded, “I’m sure it will because if they live north of Fountain City and work in Winona, they’re going to have to take a detour around. I’d imagine it’d have an impact on everyone and businesses in town, but we also have to repair the sewer lines and water lines for the residents.” She continued, “There’s never going to be a date that’s going to work with everyone, and we didn’t want to have to reroute school buses during the school year. Unfortunately, it’s always going to affect someone, but we have to provide the best services for our residents who pay for city and sewer and water.”
“We’re hoping to do be done by July 3, but things might come up,” Farrand said of the project’s completion. “We just don’t know until the men get down there and start working.”
The bridge replacement work, which is closing single lanes of traffic south of Fountain City, is expected to be completed in mid-September.
WisDOT Project Supervisor William Kurtz explained that work on the the southern two bridges has been delayed because of an endangered frog — a type of cricket frog — that was found near the project site. It is an endangered species WisDOT officials had not dealt with before; its habitat range is moving northward, Kurtz explained.
Nevertheless, the project should be completed on schedule, he reported. “It’s nothing we can’t plan around, it’s just with the two bridges there, we didn’t know they were until this spring,” Kurtz said.