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Dam Decision – Remove It

Photo and story by Vince Bushell

You can’t make everybody happy. The common good should determine resource management. Resources include public land and water, and public finance. Science is not opinion. Some aspects of best use in the public arena are opinion.  EstabrookDamMarch2015

The above aphorisms are criteria I use to make a judgement on topics like the Estabrook Dam.

To be sure, I have my own prejudices. I do work on and in the environment with River Revitalization Foundation (RRF). To be clear, this editorial is my opinion. My formal studies at UWM were in the Biological Aspects of Conservation. My areas of interest include Botany and Ecology, and of course, my long-term interest in Riverwest, which has been my home since 1980. The Milwaukee River defines us .

If there is one point that many would agree on, it is that this decision has dragged on far too long. In my opinion, it is time to remove the Estabrook Dam. Getting over the politics of this has been the hang up. And quite a hang up indeed.

This discussion has been going on since at least 2006. Some residents want it rebuilt, as repair seems out of the question at this point for the deteriorated structure. The WDNR has ordered it repaired or removed, and extended that order several times. Milwaukee Riverkeeper has sued to have the dam removed, since the DNR has declared it a nuisance. The DNR had good reasons for extending the deadline. But those reasons will end soon, as removal of contaminated soil in the dam pond’s sediment is finished. The studies are done. But the political maneuvering is not. 

The Milwaukee River flows from Sheboygan and Fond du lac counties through Washington and Ozaukee Counties into Milwaukee County before joining the Menomonee and Kinikinnic Rivers. This confluence forms the estuary that flows under the Hoan Bridge into Milwaukee’s harbor. Milwaukee is literally the “gathering of the waters.” This watershed is one, from the furthest points upstream to Lake Michigan. What happens upstream affects downstream habitat. Dams affect upstream and downstream habitat.

Dams once interrupted the natural flow of rivers for one reason or another. Flood control, recreation, waterpower early on, ice harvesting (yes, ice harvesting), were all uses for dam ponds. Uses change over time and science, which is not dogmatic, changes with new information. What once seemed good ideas for flood control, are found to be ineffective. Recreational uses change and support for one use over another changes as well. After years of abuse the Milwaukee River is making a comeback. Water quality has greatly improved. Some of that is due to dam removal on the river.

The river flows and so does opinion. There is much support in this most populous part of the state of Wisconsin, to view the Milwaukee River as a “natural” resource. Much effort and funding has been put into rehabilitating the river to a more natural state. And by the river I mean the watershed that includes the land adjacent to the river that gives its water to the river. There has been so much study and writing on the issue of the Estabrook Dam that I cannot begin to cover it here. But if you want to educate yourself more it is only a Google search away: look for Estabrook Dam.

I support the removal of the Estabrook Dam because this action serves the best interest of the general public in Milwaukee County and particularly the underfunded Milwaukee County Park System. There are a long list of maintainence needs for County Park facilities where money should be allocated.

The truth is, I was not always in favor of dam removal. My education began with the removal of the North Avenue Dam. There are similarities between this action done in the late 1990s and the Estabrook Dam saga. I believe removing the Estabrook Dam will have similar results. Predictions of dire consequences will fade. New uses and better habitat for fish and other plant and animal species will result.

The North Avenue dam impoundment provided me with winter fun for over a decade. I loved ice skating on the impoundment. It was my favorite winter thing to do. I would go down with my friends and shovel off a rink and have a blast. It was great exercise and loads of fun. Sunny days on the ice were a delight. I still miss it.

When they talked of taking the dam out, I was sad. I was not sure the water quality would improve much just by removing the dam.

The North Avenue Dam had a larger impoundment than the Estabrook Dam. And the North Avenue Dam was built almost 100 years prior to the Estabrook Dam. The history of the North Avenue Dam and its uses is fascinating. Just as the Estabrook Dam provided years of recreational fun, so did the North Avenue Dam.

I have lived in the Milwaukee River Valley for more than 30 years. For the last ten of those years I have worked on restoring river lands by removing non-native invasive species of plants and planting native species, including hundreds if not thousands of young native trees.

I have seen the landscape slowly change. I have seen the river improve. With improved access more people are using this resource and more plants and animals are making it their home. Ironically, I see evidence of beaver activity on the river right in the heart of Milwaukee. If there are to be dams, let them be natural, built by beavers. I have seen a slow change in the ecology of the land and water over time – a change for the better. I no longer see the need for dams that disrupt the natural flow of the river and lower water quality, by their very nature, and inhibit fish passage.

This story needs to recognize the input of the DNR on rehabilitation of the Milwaukee River. Will Wawrzyn is a DNR fisheries biologist who has been working on our river for years. Just last fall he supervised the installation of a “reef” off RRF land on Riverboat Road. This reef is to support fish breeding efforts as the fishery improves over time. Thanks to efforts by the DNR, the Milwaukee River has become a great place to fish. Over 30 species of fish now reside in our river and many migrate upstream. His writings with other DNR staff on dams and dam removal and the resulting effects  on the river and landscape are invaluable.

Alderman Nik Kovac asked me to write about this topic. I thank him for the suggestion. I ran into County Supervisor Gerry Broderick (3rd District) at Dino’s Restaurant recently. Broderick supports removal of the dam.

Broderick commented on fellow Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, Sr. (1st District), who represents the district where the Estabrook Dam resides. Broderick complimented Lipscomb as being a good enough fellow, though “not as liberal as me, but who is?” Broderick noted the power that Lipscomb has as Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee chair on the County Board. Lipscomb is supportive of County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic, (4th District). Maybe this is the reason usually “green” Dimitrijevic votes with Lipscomb on this issue. It might also have to do with the tension between the Board and County Executive Chris Abele, who wants the dam removed. Also likely it is the legislative tactics that put the budget funding for all programs on hold because of an amendment inserted late in the process by Lipscomb for dam repair. Maybe they are all waiting to see what the courts say regarding the suit by Milwaukee Riverkeeper asking an order be given to have the dam removed as a nuisance as designated by Wisconsin DNR.

If you want the dam taken down, what can you do?

Support County Executive Chris Abele on this. Ask Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic to stop supporting an environmentally and fiscally irresponsible project. And ask our County Supervisor for Riverwest and adjacent neighborhoods, Willie Johnson, Jr. (13th District), to stop supporting funds for rebuilding Estabrook Dam and to champion funding for repair of the dismal and locked-down bathrooms and service building in Kern Park and for increased staffing for our parks along the Milwaukee River in Riverwest including Gordon Park.

I have known Willie Johnson, Jr. for years. I have voted for him. He is a good man. It is time to pay attention to county park facilities in Supervisor Johnson’s neighborhood and not support spending millions of dollars to rebuild a dam that the vast majority of county residents don’t need, and which adds nothing but does subtract from the living diversity in the river.

This is not over. Let the water flow free.

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