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Steve Rostkowski of East Troy examines plans for Burlington’s troubled Echo Lake during a community meeting Tuesday inside Veterans Terrace in Burlington.
BURLINGTON — State regulators are trying to protect Burlington from a “tsunami” flood disaster if the Echo Lake dam should fail, a city official said during a community meeting on the lake’s future.
“They’re worried about loss of life and property from a dam failing,” Peter Riggs, the city’s director of public works, said while addressing questions from the public about the state’s motives for insisting that the city-owned dam be upgraded or removed.
Saying that dam failure on the 70-acre lake would have a “tsunami effect,” Riggs told the crowd: “You have catastrophic, uncontrolled release of floodwater. Removing that hazard needs to be our goal.”
If the dam is removed, Echo Lake will drain and vanish into the history books. If city officials want to salvage the lake, they must invest about $5 million in new infrastructure and other improvements.
About 50 people turned out Tuesday night inside Veterans Terrace for the first of two community meetings on the issue. The second meeting is scheduled for Jan. 12.
The Burlington City Council plans to make a decision in February.
Mayor Jeannie Hefty, City Administrator Carina Walters and City Council President Jon Schultz were among those in attendance Tuesday night.
Participants in the community meeting voiced mixed feelings on the lake.
Yvette Moeller, a member of a Facebook group called “Save Echo Lake and Dam,” said the lake is a popular attraction and Burlington taxpayers would gladly spend $5 million to keep it.
“We know what we have,” she said. “And we know what needs to be done.”
Another resident, Kim Lunderskov, said the lake has become too much of a flood hazard and should be drained.
Lunderskov said the 70-acre site — which includes the White River — could be reclaimed as a natural resource. “It doesn’t have to be baseball fields or basketball fields,” he said. “Just have it be a natural habitat.”
Washes and canyons have been flowing strongly around Tucson after seeing the wettest monsoon season on record through July 25, according to the National Weather Service. Video courtesy Coronado National Forest.
Engineers have estimated that it would cost $1.1 million to remove the dam and drain the lake, possibly reaching $1.5 million or $2 million with contingency funds and engineering work.
To save the lake, engineers have calculated that the city would have to invest about $5 million — half for rebuilding and fortifying the dam, half for dredging years of pollution and sediment from the lake bottom.
Whatever option the city chooses, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must approve and issue a permit. Either way, the lake will have to be drained, at least partially and temporarily.
DNR officials notified Burlington in 2015 that the aging and deteriorating dam is a “significant hazard.” The city was ordered to address the situation within 10 years — by 2025.
The manmade lake was created in the 1800s when industrial entrepreneurs built a dam on the White River to harness power for operating a mill. The current dam is believed to be at least 50 years old.
An engineer’s rendering shows a restored White River flowing in Burlington, with a pedestrian bridge passing over the river, if the city removes Echo Lake and opens up possibilities for redeveloping the site with such amenities.
If the dam is removed, the lake will drain into the White River and the river will resume flowing through the 70-acre site. Engineers have described several improvements the city could make on the former lakebed, including boardwalks and fishing docks.
Riggs told participants in the community meeting that possibilities for new amenities are “limited only by your imaginations.”
“The sky’s the limit,” he said.
Some participants questioned whether flooding could still occur at the site once the lake is drained. Riggs said flooding is always a risk in parks, but that draining the lake would remove the risk of the dam failing and unleashing a torrent of lake water on the community.

In a growing debate surrounding the future of Echo Lake in Burlington, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a local Republican, said he may lobby regulators at the state Department of Natural Resources to save the troubled lake.
Tom Vos, a former Burlington aldermen who also is the father of Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said he favors investing in modernizing the dam and keeping Echo Lake.
Vos said he believes most people in the city would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund the project.
“Are we going to have to pay for it?” he said. “You bet.”
Robin Vos said in an interview last week that he wants to preserve the troubled lake, if necessary by lobbying regulators at the state Department of Natural Resources.
Water is rushing over the dam at Echo Lake in Burlington in this photo looking north in the early 1900s.
A man on the left appears to be standing on the dam at Echo Lake in Burlington, in an image from 1900 that is looking northwest across the lake. 
A locomotive in 1890 belches smoke into the air as it passes through Burlington and past the Echo Lake dam on the right, with water crashing into the White River to the left.   
Two men are seen fishing on the left along the White River, in an image dated 1890 by the Burlington Historical Society, with a dam in the background holding back the water of Echo Lake in Burlington.
Smokestacks are visible with the dam also in the background in this 1930s-era photo of the White River looking southwest toward Echo Lake.
Some wearing bowler-style hats popular in the 19th century, men gather at the dam of Echo Lake in Burlington, in a photo dated 1900 by the Burlington Historical Society.
In an image dated 1904, the Burlington Historical Society says this photo shows low-water conditions on Echo Lake, with the dam shown on the left and a man apparently standing on the far right.
Ice skaters head out onto a frozen Echo Lake in Burlington in a photo from 1965, showing that the 70-acre lake was a popular spot for recreation in summer and winter alike.
A pitcher on the right gets ready to pitch a ball to a hitter on the left in a 1975 photo showing a game of “iceball” on a frozen Echo Lake in Burlington.
In an undated photo likely from the back half of the 20th century, people gather at Echo Lake in Burlington to watch boat races, with more spectators visible in the distance on the opposite shoreline.
In an image facing west on Echo Lake in Burlington, a man runs across the frozen lake, center, during a 1975 game of baseball called “iceball” in records of the Burlington Historical Society.
Spectators watch boat races on Echo Lake in Burlington in 2003, a summer attraction that has since stopped on the lake troubled by pollution and sediment.
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. 

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Steve Rostkowski of East Troy examines plans for Burlington’s troubled Echo Lake during a community meeting Tuesday inside Veterans Terrace in Burlington.
An engineer’s rendering shows a restored White River flowing in Burlington, with a pedestrian bridge passing over the river, if the city removes Echo Lake and opens up possibilities for redeveloping the site with such amenities.
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