by Monica Reida

Due to a lack of action from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, the Estabrook Dam on the Milwaukee River continues to stand without a decision made as to if it should be demolished or repaired. Estabrook Dam fall 2015 web

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ordered the county to open the gates of the dam in 2009 due to hazardous conditions. The initial deadline for the dam to either be repaired or demolished was July 27, 2012. The current deadline is December 31, 2016.

Among those calling for the demolition of the dam are the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District commission, the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

“Removing the dam is not only the best, most effective fish passage, it is critical to improving the overall health of our waterways and related ecosystems,” Abele said in an email.

“Removal of the dam is also more fiscally responsible,” he added. “The cost of removing the dam, much of which can be funded through grants and other non-tax-levy sources, is approximately $1.7 million. Repairing the dam will cost more than twice that amount, plus ongoing annual operating costs in excess of $160,000.”

The most recent development with the dam occurred when County Board chairman Theo Lipscomb, Sr. (1st District) wanted to fund a fish passage for the dam. The allocated funds for the fish passage are $750,000, which would be on top of the anticipated $2.5 million for repairing the dam.

County Supervisor Willie Johnson, Jr. (13th District) has been one of the proponents for keeping and repairing the dam.

“I have been a supporter of repair of the Estabrook Dam since I was elected in 2000,” Johnson said in a statement. “I distinctly remember that residents who lived just west of Green Bay Avenue, across from Lincoln Park, supported keeping the dam in place because of continuous home flooding. Those homes had [sic] experienced the effects of the 100-year flood since I’ve been in office. Many of these homes were owned by elderly residents who do not have deep pockets and could not afford to replace furniture or make other repairs due to flood damage to their homes.”

Sup. Gerry Broderick (3rd District), who chairs the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee, disagrees with Sup. Johnson on the dam’s ability to mitigate flooding.

“The dam has been proven to exacerbate flooding,” Broderick said. “It’s an anachronistic structure.”

According to an environmental assessment done by AECOM for Milwaukee County, removing the Estabrook Dam would still allow for the area to handle a 100-year flood and would result in lowering the flood elevation. Furthermore, staff for the County parks is required to open the floodgates in the event of flood levels being reached at the Estabrook Dam. This labor would not be required if the dam were removed.

If the dam is repaired, it would cost $160,000 every year to maintain the dam. According to figures from Milwaukee Riverkeeper, it would cost $5.1 million total to repair and maintain the dam.

“It’s a waste of money,” Broderick said. “It’s an environmental affront.”

According to Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the Estabrook Dam causes sediment to accumulate, which can increase toxicity of the river water, threatening aquatic life. Milwaukee Riverkeeper mentions on its website the sediment has to be dredged, which is a costly procedure.

The dam falls under the jurisdiction of the Milwaukee County Parks system, which had an estimated capital repair backlog of more than $200 million according to an analysis published in 2014 by the Public Policy Forum.

Abele believes the funds that would be appropriated for repairing and maintaining the dam could be better used for other projects in the Parks system. He added the need to fund other Parks projects led to him vetoing of the County Board’s budget amendment regarding the Estabrook Dam.

“Demolition of the dam benefits the entire community and our critical natural resources,” Abele said.

The fight over the Estabrook Dam in some ways mirrors the battle over the North Avenue Dam, which was removed in 1997.

“This is something I experienced firsthand when I worked with the Milwaukee River Revitalization Foundation and others on the North Avenue Dam removal more than a decade ago – at the time a small but loud group of critics opposed removal with similarly dire predictions,” Abele said. “Instead, Milwaukee County residents have now seen a cleaner river, more trails, higher property values, lower flood risk, and tax payers don’t have to pay for the positive results.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Abele reported the amount of fish species in the Milwaukee River increased five-fold shortly after the North Avenue dam was removed.

Broderick said there are about 40 species of fish south of the Estabrook Dam and only “4 or 5 north” of the Estabrook Dam.

Abele cited work by groups like the Urban Ecology Center as being a sign of the resurgence of riverfront activity as a result of the North Avenue Dam’s removal.    

Sen. Chris Larson (D-7th District) is challenging Abele for the County Executive’s seat in the 2016 election. Larson, who served on the County Board from 2008 until 2010, did not return a request for a comment on this issue.

In April of 2009 Sen. Chris Larson, then County Board Member, joined then County Board  Member Theo Lipscomb at a news conference at the dam site. They repeatedly asked why  then County Executive Scott Walker didn’t include the Estabrook Dam, county buildings and runway improvements on his list of stimulus possibilities, as reported by WUWM news.

Abele feels the issue should not be as contentious as it is due to it ultimately depending on what is “the most effective and fiscally responsible way” to care for Milwaukee County’s natural resources.

“I’m proud of my record protecting our waterways and the ecosystems they support – these resources are vital to Milwaukee’s economy and our heritage,” Abele said. “It would be disheartening to say the least for anyone to oppose commonsense protections for these natural resources as a way to score political points.”

The Milwaukee County Board’s next meeting is Jan. 21, 2016 at 9:30 AM.