A Dane County excavator got stuck in part of the Yahara River in McFarland on Tuesday, prompting a dayslong rescue effort to pull the heavy machinery out of the water.
The excavator had tried to cross a shallow part of the river between Lake Waubesa and Mud Lake Tuesday morning as part of a multimillion-dollar county program to suck muck out of the Yahara to alleviate flooding. After passing over a soft spot in the river, the excavator got stuck in the muck.
Typically, the county floats a barge over the river as part of the dredging process. But due to the low water levels, the county used excavators to deepen the river, said Laura Hicklin, the director of the county’s Land and Water Resources Department.
“Our goal is to have it out of the water as soon as possible, possibly today or tomorrow,” Hicklin said Wednesday afternoon.
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“For me, this speaks to the issue that caused the equipment to be there in the first place: We have an excessive amount of sediment that has built up that impedes both the flow of water during flood events as well as recreational access,” she said.
Enjoying an entertaining respite from Wednesday’s heat and humidity, residents who live along the river sat outside to watch the crews try to pull the massive piece of machinery out of the river.
By early Wednesday morning, crews had dumped a broad peninsula of stones from a river launch out to the excavator so that a Schmidt’s Auto wrecker could drive into the river and pull out the machine.
“The more they try to get it out the more they get it stuck,” resident Mike Hardiman observed.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, crews had yet to pull the excavator out of the river.
In recent years, the county has launched several efforts to dredge rivers, creeks and streams. One program, known as “Suck the Muck,” used hydraulic dredging to remove phosphorus-laden sludge from the bottom of creeks and streams that feed into the Yahara. That program began in 2018.
Another dredging program focuses on the Yahara, and aims to remove the millions of pounds of sediment that enter the river because of urban runoff.
The program aims to improve water flow, increase flood storage capacity and restore fish and wildlife habitat throughout the area’s lakes.
The county completed the first phase in 2020, dredging the Yahara between lakes Monona and Waubesa. The second phase, its target the stretch of the river between Lake Waubesa and Lower Mud Lake, started last summer and is expected to end this year.
County officials have estimated that the project’s second phase will remove 52,000 cubic yards, or more than 4,000 dump truck loads, of sediment from the river.