Read a summary of this position

February 2009

Contact: Cheryl Nenn, (414) 287-0207 ext. 229

Location: The Estabrook Dam is located on the Milwaukee River in the Cities of Glendale and Milwaukee at Township 7 North, Range 22 East, NW Quarter of NE Quarter of Section 5. It is owned and operated by Milwaukee County. The dam impounds an area that extends 0.3 miles upstream of Silver Spring Drive.

Recent Action: On September 25th, 2008, staff from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) inspected the Estabrook Dam to assess possible damage to a section of the fixed crest spillway following the June 2008 flood events. On September 26th, 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) sent an Order to Repair the Estabrook Dam (Field File #40.08) to Milwaukee County Parks. This order described recent observations of structural damage, including stoplogs missing from one section, and suggested that this damage could be indicative of other more serious structural problems, and established an October 5th deadline for completing a draw down of the Estabrook Dam to inspect the stoplog section of the fixed crest spillway. The order also required that a registered engineer complete an inspection and certify a repair plan, and that the Dam not be refilled until repairs to the stoplog section of the fixed crest spillway are completed.

Milwaukee County is now in the position of determining whether expenditures should be made to repair the dam or, alternatively, whether the dam should be removed. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors standing committee on Parks, Energy, and Environment will be meeting to take up the issue on Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, Room 201-B at 9 AM.

Needed Maintenance and Repair Work: The September 26, 2008 Order to Repair stated that the impoundment should not be refilled until repairs to the stoplog section of the fixed crest spillway have been completed.

Estabrook Dam has additional, earlier maintenance and repair requirements that have still not been addressed by Milwaukee County. The past problems needing repair have been identified in WDNR dam safety inspection reports, dated January 23, 1995 and November 22, 2004, and, in a revised repair schedule, dated October 16, 2007. Milwaukee County has not completed a significant number of maintenance and repair items as identified in the 1995 and 2004 inspection reports and thus is not in full compliance with Wisconsin dam safety regulations (s31.02 and s31.19 Wisconsin stats).

The County commissioned a study on Estabrook Dam, which was conducted by STS Consultants, Ltd in September 2006. Bowing to pressure from local landowners at several County Board committee meetings– including most notably a December 6, 2005 Parks, Energy, and Environment Committee meeting approving expenditures for the Study– the County Board passed a resolution stating that the structural integrity of the dam should be examined as well as alternatives for repair, but specifically excluding dam removal as an option. The STS study concluded that the dam is in fair condition, and identified seven items of repair or maintenance. These items include: the sandblasting of the spillway gates and repainting, the creation of drill holes in cross-planks to promote drainage; placing additional rip rap downstream of the gated area along the left bank and upstream along the left and right banks; removing large accumulation of woody debris upstream of the fixed overflow spillway; the reparation of expansion joints on the spillway bridge; the removal and replacement of deteriorated concreted on abutments, operating bridge deck, deck walls, steps, and piers; repair of concrete on top of ice breakers of “sharks teeth”; and replacement of overflow spillway flashboards or stop blocks, repair of bent guides and supports, and removal and replacement of deteriorated concrete on overflow weir crest. In 2006, STS recommended that some of the work be completed immediately and the rest be completed within five years. This work includes routine maintenance as well as years of deferred maintenance work. The STS Study provided an “opinion of probable cost” for implementing all of the repairs identified in their report (STS, 2006). The estimate was $756,000, which included a 20-percent construction cost contingency and a 15-percent cost contingency for engineering and construction contract administration. It did not include any costs associated with the handling or removal of possible contaminated sediments within the impoundment. Subsequently, Milwaukee County staff provided the WDNR with their revised engineering estimate on January 7, 2008 for full repairs and sediment removal dictated by the Order to Repair. Their estimate is $1,378,390 or approximately $1.4 million dollars (Milwaukee County, 2008).

As a result of the recent WDNR Repair Order, Milwaukee County convened the Milwaukee County Dam Rehabilitation Workgroup (or Milwaukee County Workgroup), which has prepared an alternative management array for the Estabrook Dam (see Estabrook Dam Evaluation Matrix, 2009). Management alternatives include a “do-nothing” alternative, short-and long-term repair, water elevation alternatives, and a dam removal alternative.

Any dam repair scenario would have to include a management plan for debris. Debris in front of the fixed crest spillway has not been cleaned up in years or, perhaps, decades. Significant accumulations of debris would have to be removed from both sides of the dam, and ideally, maintained clean throughout the year to ensure unimpeded fish passage and safe navigation. Estimated costs for dam maintenance according to a Milwaukee County Dam Rehabilitation Workgroup (See Estabrook Dam Evaluation Matrix, January 2009) are estimated at $20,000 per year for cleaning debris and vegetation control, and an additional $25,000 per year for mechanical and structural works related to the Dam and Fixed Spillway.

Further, costs to stabilize the dam under ice loading for full-pool conditions were estimated by the Milwaukee County Workgroup at an additional $2-5 million dollars, which would become necessary if an operational order to keep the dam permanently closed were issued, which could be forthcoming from the WDNR in the next several years. The dam is currently operated as fill-and-draw, meaning that the dam gates are currently opened and closed seasonally to allow for fish migration and to ensure that the dam is open during the winter and, thus, receives less strain from ice flows. However, it is our understanding that the WDNR has notified Milwaukee County that an operational order will be established for Estabrook Dam, meaning that alternative modes of operation of the dam will be considered and evaluated. This is because the current operation of the dam results in negative environmental and recreational impacts associated with the current seasonal opening and closing of the dam gates. The likely alternative includes keeping the dam closed to maintain a continuous full-pool upstream of the dam. However, the dam is currently not stable under ice loading, full-pool conditions, and it is those costs to stabilize the dam under ice loading for full-pool conditions that are estimated at an additional $2-5 million dollars. And, under continuous full-pool conditions, there would be an expectation that the County create, operate, and maintain structures to facilitate fish passage as well as canoe passage. These structures have successfully been constructed in other areas of the country. The WDNR estimates $500,000 to $750,000 (excluding operation and maintenance costs) for fish and navigation passage; and $75,000/year for annual operation and maintenance (Will Wawryzn, pers. comm., February 19, 2009). Thus, barring dam removal, it is likely that any repair alternative would involve additional expenditures in the relatively near future should the alternative operational order be mandated by the WDNR.


Recently, a group calling itself the “Milwaukee River Preservation Association” (MRPA) has been circulating information and petitions regarding the Estabrook Dam. Many of the informational items presented by the MRPA are not based on accurate facts, and, as such, members of the public and County decision makers that are reading their literature or signing onto their petition are being misled (see attached). Below is a more thorough examination of the recent issues put forth by the MRPA surrounding the Estabrook Dam and Impoundment, as well as previous dam removal projects.

Toxins: Previous dam proponents and, most recently, the MRPA, have asserted in letters that past dam removals along the Milwaukee River, and most notably the North Avenue Dam removal, caused “tons of toxins” to flow downstream; implying that all dam removals cause releases of contamination and that short term “negatives” should override long term “positives”. It is true that dams and other major obstructions to river flow allow for the buildup of sediments behind these structures. In developed watersheds, like the Milwaukee River, these sediments may contain contaminants. However, prior to any dam removal projects, the WDNR looks at sediments behind the dam to assess their contamination levels, and these sediments are managed before dam removals. Sediments can be managed by dredging and disposing in special landfills, or by capping sediments in place with engineered products.

The sediments in the Estabrook Impoundment have and continue to be studied in great detail, pertaining to their contamination levels and amounts. Regardless of the dam management alternative selected by the County, contaminated sediments must be removed to protect public health and the environment. The WDNR, Milwaukee County, and USEPA are currently developing a sediment remediation plan for the Estabrook Impoundment, and pursuing funds from the Great Lakes Legacy Act and other sources to clean up these contaminated sediments. It is important to note that other Wisconsin sites have proceeded with safe dam removals after dealing with contaminated sediments. One example is the Oak Street Dam in Babarboo, which was removed in 2000 after the discovery, removal, and remediation of coal-tar contaminated soils in the impoundment (Sarakinos, pers. comm. 2009)

Estimates from WDNR (2005) show more than 55,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments containing over 11,000 lbs of PCBs are located in the Estabrook impoundment. The 2005 document shows that the majority of the sediment deposits are found in the western oxbow of the Milwaukee River, adjacent to Lincoln Creek. The extent of deposits and contaminant concentrations directly behind the dam and fixed crest spillway are unknown. The current feasibility study will include updated information on locations of soft sediment deposits in the Milwaukee River downstream from the oxbows to the dam.

During the summer of 2008, 3,900 cubic yards containing 300 lbs of PCBs were successfully removed from the Blatz Pavilion Lagoon at a cost of $1.2 million dollars; a project that was managed by WDNR. Removal of these sediments, combined with the remediation of the western oxbow is estimated to reduce PCB transport downstream by 70% and eventually lead to improved quality of fish tissue, along with the protection of human health and the environment (Baird & Assoc., 1997). The Milwaukee River hotspots in the Estabrook Impoundment are the most significant PCB concentrations in the Milwaukee River system (Baird & Assoc., 1997). Preliminary cost estimates for remediating all of Estabrook Impoundment sediments range from $12 – $20 million (Baird & Assoc., 1997). To put these PCB numbers in perspective, the amount of PCBs in the Lower Fox River, the majority of which are found between De Pere and Green Bay, are estimated at 64,440 pounds (

It is important to reiterate that these remaining contaminated sediments must be remediated regardless of the County’s decision to maintain or remove the Estabrook Dam in order to protect human health and the environment. However, even after remediation of the sediments is completed, maintaining the Estabrook Dam would most likely result in future accumulations of sediment and contaminants that would have to be managed in future years due to the natural transport of sediment from upstream portions of the river. Most of the upstream PCB accumulations are located in Cedar Creek and the portion of the Milwaukee River upstream of the Thiensville impoundment. There could be some movement of contaminated sediment downstream during extreme flooding events when the Thiensville Dam is overtopped, although these are not expected to be significant.

MRPA and other Estabrook Dam proponents claim that removing the dam would expose the County and other riparian landowners to liability for cleaning up contaminated sediments. The WDNR has asserted that this is not the case. As there is no proof that Milwaukee County or other public/private landowners along the Estabrook Impoundment were directly responsible for the PCB contamination, it is not likely that these landowners would be liable for cleaning up the contaminated sediment. In fact, the WDNR previously indemnified Milwaukee County and other riparian landowners for sediment contamination along the North Avenue Impoundment in return for their cooperation in managing the sediment during the North Avenue Dam Removal Project in 1997 (WDNR, 1997 and Morgan, pers. corr. 1997).

Cryptosporidium and Cladophora Outbreaks: Some of the residents along the Estabrook impoundment claimed that the North Avenue Dam removal caused the Cryptosporidium outbreak of 1993, and more recently the nuisance Cladophora (filamentous algae) blooms along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The link to the North Avenue Dam removal project to the 1993 Cryptosporidium outbreak is highly unlikely as a matter of timing. The gates of the North Avenue Dam were opened and the impoundment drained in 1990 and the dam was not removed until the winter of 1997-98. The Cryptosporidium outbreak occurred in 1993 and was preceded by a period of heavy rainfall, stormwater runoff, and sewer overflows that most likely compromised the efficiency of the drinking water treatment plant (Curriero et. al 2001; see

The nuisance growth of Cladophora is not unique to Lake Michigan and the nearshore areas of drainage from the Milwaukee River. Rather, it is a common problem around all of the Great Lakes shoreline and is correlated with the improved water clarity, phosphorus loads largely from fertilizers running off into the rivers and Lake, and infestation by the non-native quagga and zebra mussel population. For more information, see:

Using the same logic, agencies and scientists have also not correlated the annual drawdown and flushing/scouring of sediments from the seasonal opening and closing of the Estabrook Dam as a source of Cryptosporidium and Cladophora outbreaks, even though these dam openings and drawdowns occurred as a matter of course during the same time period as the outbreaks.

Impact of Operations of the Estabrook Dam: Milwaukee County’s current policy of alternating drawdown (opening the dam’s gates and draining the impoundment) and pool-full (closing the dam’s gates and filling the impoundment) conditions on a seasonal basis or due to potential flood events has been found to flush contaminated sediments downstream to the Milwaukee River, the Estuary, and Lake Michigan. Contaminants include PCBs (Steuer, 1999), among other things. For more information, see:…. pdf

Besides scouring and flushing contaminated sediment and man-made debris, drawdown of the impoundment scours fish and aquatic life habitat downstream of the dam and within the impoundment channel; dries out river channel fish and other aquatic life (e.g., aquatic insects and mussels), and aquatic plant habitat in the impoundment on a seasonal basis; modifies wetland water budgets; disrupts or otherwise “freezes-out” herptile overwintering habitat; negatively impacts fish movement; and creates safety hazards for water-based forms of recreational users (Wawrzyn, 2007).

Despite these negative impacts, the County could continue opening and closing the dam gates under any dam repair alternatives, but likely only in the short-term. It is likely that the WDNR, as previously mentioned, would issue an operational order changing these procedures. DNR’s own internal guidance dictates “Unless site-specific analysis shows that an alternate operating regime would not have serious adverse environmental impacts, run-of-river operating mode should be ordered so that dam operations are least disruptive to the normal river flow” (For more information see:

If WDNR decided not to do so, the County or any member of the public could choose to protect river resources and uses from the current fluctuating water levels and releases by petitioning the state to establish a dam operational order (per s31.02 Wisconsin stats). By state law, an operational order requires a more thorough review of operation and management options, including an environmental assessment, a public review and a comment process. As part of the operational order process, Milwaukee County would have to account for the economic and environmental costs and benefits of the various dam operation alternatives (e.g., current fill and drawdown versus pool-full and run-of-the-river).

Should an operational order evolve that requires the dam gates be closed at all times (pool-full), the impoundment would no longer have the ability to “flush” sediments downstream. As a result, the impoundment would accumulate these sediments, becoming shallower and further degrading aquatic life habitat and water-based recreational uses, including swimming and fishing. Fish from Lake Michigan (e.g., trout and salmon), the Estuary (e.g., Lake Sturgeon), and lower Milwaukee River (e.g., Walleye and Catfish) would not be able to migrate past the Estabrook Dam except during infrequent flood events when the dam is submerged. As noted earlier, such an operational order would require substantial costs for engineering and repair of the dam to withstand ice loading, and the costs for creating, operating, and maintaining structures for fish passage and canoe passage. These structures have been successfully constructed in other parts of the State, including on the Jefferson Dam, Rock River and the Beckman Mill Dam, Beckman Creek (Sarakinos, pers. comm. 2009). Also of note, in the current State Budget, there is proposed language to lift the requirement that DNR provide cost-share funds when they order fish passage at a dam. Estabrook would be a major candidate for mandatory fish passage should this language go through, and the County would likely be required to shoulder the full cost.

It is highly unlikely that a dam operational order would allow for continued maintenance of the dam while keeping it permanently open, as the short-term repair and long-term maintenance costs of that scenario would far outweigh dam removal costs. In fact, operating the dam with the gates permanently open would likely be considered an obstruction to navigation and would likely not be allowed by WDNR.

If the dam is repaired and maintained, Milwaukee County will continue to assume liability of owning and operating the dam and ensuring public safety. In addition, the current policy of opening the dam during high flow events continues to pose serious safety risks to both paddlers upstream and downstream of the dam, as well as to downstream fishermen and other recreational users. Past notification systems of dam opening have been inadequate or non-existent.

Flood control: There has been considerable misinformation circulating, which claims that the Estabrook Dam was built by CCC/WPA workers in the late 1930s for flood control and secondarily for recreational purposes. It is true that during the 30s and earlier, the Lincoln Park area of Milwaukee County experienced flooding mostly in spring due to snow melt. A project was initiated that involved the channelization of the river to create a “mainstem” of the river and eliminate two meanders (the river basically was a backwards “S” at that time). A straight channel was cut through the center of the “S” and the former meanders have become the present day “oxbows” of the river. Several islands were also created in this process, and several natural rock shelves in the river between Hampton and Port Washington Rd were blasted out–in some areas by 7 feet– to deepen the river and partially alleviate localized flooding (according to a 1938 Milwaukee Journal article). Removal of the S curve and rock ledges lessened resistance of high spring flows (which allowed for a more “straight” shot of water through the area), reduced spring/snow melt flooding, and lowered water levels. The Estabrook Dam was primarily created to reestablish the historical, naturally higher water levels in this river section for recreation after local landowners complained.

The construction and operation of dams and flowages to store water and mitigate flood damage was historically a common engineering practice. In the case of the Estabrook Impoundment, the volume of storage is totally inadequate to provide flood mitigation benefits. One can think of the impoundment as a “full bathtub”. If you turn the faucet on (flood), there is no room in the tub to absorb more water, and it will spill over right away. This is the case with the Estabrook Dam. During flood events, the presence of the dam and impoundment does not alleviate flooding, and may actually increase flooding upstream of the dam.

The dam itself does allow for some control of water levels at 2, 10, and less than 100 year flood events when the dam is opened and water levels drawn down. During present day peak flow events that approximate the 100 year storm (when homes are most likely to flood), the dam provides no flood protection and is completely submerged. Recent engineering by Camp, Dresser & McKee and SEWRPC studies have shown that operating the dam with all gates open would not significantly reduce 2-yr through 100-yr flood stages upstream along both the Milwaukee River and Lincoln Creek (Camp, Dresser & McKee, 1998 and SEWRPC, 2001). Thus, removing the dam would also have no impacts on flood stages upstream.

Water Quality/Fisheries: The effects of dams on river systems are well documented in scientific literature. Locally, the effects of dams and other stream barriers are well documented by SEWRPC in the recent revision to the Regional Water Quality Management Plan (2008). According to SEWRPC, dams limit the maintenance of healthy fish and macroinvertebrate populations. Creation of fish blockages by road crossings, culverts, drop structures, and dams leads to loss of spawning habitat, inability to reach feeding areas and/or overwintering sites, loss of summer rearing habitat, and increased vulnerability to predation. Dams disrupt sediment transport and limit aquatic organism passage, thereby fragmenting populations. All of these factors can lead to a reduction in the overall abundance and diversity of fish and other aquatic organisms.

Currently, the water quality of the Estabrook Impoundment can be turbid and eutrophic during the summer with algal blooms, essentially creating times of high water temperature and low oxygen levels. This would likely get worse if the dam were permanently closed, as there would be no seasonal flushing of the water as dam gates are open and closed. There is also a negative impact on fish populations when the dam is closed. While periodic opening and closing of the dam can accommodate some fish passage, it comes at the expense of disrupting upstream and downstream fish movement, and also causes scouring and flushing of polluted sediment as previously mentioned. When the gates are open, it leads to the scouring and erosion of local and downstream fish and aquatic life habitat.

Assuming the most toxic PCB contaminated sediments will be removed under any alternative; there could still be some minimal transport of largely non-contaminated sediments regardless of the dam management alternative selected. For example, if the dam were to be removed, there would most likely be a one-time flushing of sediment from the bottom of the impoundment similar to that routinely experienced on an annual basis when the County opens the Estabrook Dam gates. Should the dam be removed and water levels be lowered, exposed sediment flats could safely be managed to create new river banks and floodplain wetlands and stabilized with vegetation to manage sediment transport. Drawdown can also be manipulated to minimize disturbance of sediments. Removal of the dam would also improve water quality upstream and downstream and lead to less eutrophic conditions during summer months. In addition, barriers to fish movement would be removed and fish diversity, abundance, and fishing opportunities would increase. After the North Avenue Dam was removed, fish species rebounded from six pollution-tolerant species of fish to over 35 species. Without any marketing, the Milwaukee River has become a destination for recreational fishers around the Midwest and beyond (Hirethota et al, 2005). The improvements in environmental quality, fish and aquatic life resources, and recreational uses are not unique to the North Avenue Dam removal. The positive environmental responses to dam removal have been documented nationally and elsewhere in the state of Wisconsin (Catalano et al., 2007 and Kanehl et al, 1997).

Given plans upstream for putting in a fish ladder or passage at the Thiensville-Mequon Dam, removal of the Estabrook Dam would open up the Milwaukee River all the way to the Village of Grafton 32-miles upstream of Lake Michigan. Following the environmental and recreational improvements associated with their previous Milwaukee River dam removal in 2004, the Village of Grafton is proposing to remove a second dam in 2010, and considering a fish passage structure at the third.

Water Rights Issues: Riparian landowners claim that they have rights to the current impoundment under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, and may sue Milwaukee County should the dam be removed. The Prior Appropriation Doctrine does not apply in the State of Wisconsin. That is a component of Western Water Law, which does not apply in most states east of the Colorado River. Eastern states comply with the legal doctrine called “Eastern Riparianism”, which states that the rivers belong to all citizens of the state and that the waters themselves can not be “owned” or appropriated by anyone. Private landowners retain ownership of their riverfront properties as well as to the middle of the impoundment or free flowing bed of the river, and this would not change with dam removal. Citizens can also continue to use the rivers behind those properties and traverse those rivers by boat or by foot if they have “one foot wet”.

In addition, Wisconsin has a Public Trust Doctrine that holds that the lakes and rivers of the State are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens. This Doctrine is contained in the state constitution, and has been further defined by case law and statute. It declares that all navigable waters are “common highways and forever free”, and are held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources. It further states that “all Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that supports those uses.” Furthermore, Wisconsin law recognizes that riparian landowners (or owners of lands bordering lakes and rivers) have rights to the water next to their property including the use of the shoreline, reasonable use of the water, and a right to access the water. However, according to the WDNR, Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the public’s rights are primary and the riparian owner’s secondary. For more information on the Public Trust Doctrine, see:

Property Values: Many residents upstream of the dam claim that their housing values will decrease were the dam to be removed. This is contrary to a recent economic study published by a UW Madison economist in 2008, which concluded that “residential property in the vicinity of a free-flowing stream is more valuable than identical property in the vicinity of a small impoundment, and the shoreline frontage along small impoundments confers no increase in residential property value compared to frontage along a free-flowing stream” (Provencher et al, 2008: see A market value appraisal of property along the former North Avenue Impoundment following dam removal concluded that there was no net difference in the value of recreational based property with or without the dam and impoundment (Olson, 1994). The Northeast Midwest Institute found that cleaning up contaminated sediments could actually lead to increased property values (e.g., approximately five percent in Sheboygan) (Braden, J.B., et al, 2006). It should also be noted that increased property values generally mean increased taxes and increased income to Milwaukee County.

Some property owners also claim that creation of additional lands by removing the dam would create more access to their properties and provide easier access to their properties by criminal elements. Local police records correlating property crimes during the County’s annual 7-month (fall through spring) drawdown have not been provided. There is no evidence that crime levels increased following removal of the North Avenue Dam.

Impact on Recreational Uses: It is true that removal of the dam would change recreational uses upstream and downstream in the Milwaukee River. Upstream landowners would no longer be able to use power boats in this area; however, paddling opportunities would still exist, although in different conditions. Paddling would probably approximate areas of the Milwaukee River both upstream and downstream of the current dam. Existing Milwaukee Urban Water Trail launch points at the Lincoln Park fishing pier would probably need to be abandoned and an additional access point established on the main stem of the river, perhaps near the Blatz Pavilion Lagoon area. Removal of the dam could improve recreational fishing opportunities upstream and downstream of the dam; however, this could also be accomplished with a fish passage structure, which is not currently under consideration. Improved water quality from dam removal in concert with removal of contaminated sediments could facilitate safer swimming in the near future in this portion of the Milwaukee River, which is currently used by some for water skiing.

Great Lakes Compact: There have been assertions by dam proponents that removal of the Estabrook Dam would likely violate the Great Lakes Compact and Act 220, which regulates diversions of water in Wisconsin to areas outside of the Great Lakes Basin and also in-basin consumption of water. This is a baseless assertion. Removal of the Estabrook Dam would not need approval under current regulations associated with the Great Lakes Compact.

Economics/Costs to Taxpayers: The cost of dam repairs will largely depend on whether Milwaukee County concentrates on short-term or long-term repairs and how they implement these repairs either with employees or consultants/contractors or some combination of the two. Dam proponents state that the STS study asserts that it is more cost effective to maintain the dam than remove it. Based on the needed repairs and annual maintenance costs of the dam vs. estimated costs of removal, this seems to be again an incorrect statement. Previous studies by the River Alliance of Wisconsin concluded that on average, dam removal costs were one-third the costs for repairing a dam, excluding operation and maintenance costs.

Current short-term deferred maintenance alone is estimated at $1.4 million dollars according to the Milwaukee County Workgroup and STS studies, with approximately an additional $20,000 per year to clean up debris behind the gated dam portion alone (not including debris removal from behind the fixed crest spillway) and an additional $25,000 per year estimated for mechanical/structural maintenance. If maintenance costs including debris removal from the spillway and other debris management were added, that would probably bump up costs by several hundred thousand dollars. Long-term repairs could cost an additional $2-5 million dollars to stabilize the dam under ice loading conditions. This is a probable future expense once an operational order is established for Estabrook Dam.

Dam removal is estimated at around $650,000, but the Milwaukee County Workgroup estimates the entire cost of removal with associated restoration at approximately $1.8-2 million dollars. This figure would include dam removal, revegetation costs of exposed sediment, debris removal costs from the fixed spillway, and costs associated with managing sediments that are mixed in with debris (and which could be contaminated, requiring special disposal). As a relative cost comparison, the North Avenue Dam was removed at a cost of $385,000 in 1997 (not including restoration costs). Compared to the Estabrook Dam, the North Avenue Dam was a more challenging, complex, and massive structure to remove, and one which posed larger engineering challenges.

Given the current financial state of Milwaukee County, the economic implications to taxpayers of either keeping or removing the Estabrook Dam are significant especially given the degraded state of the County’s park system and competition for limited dollars. Compared to many badly needed park facility repairs and maintenance projects, the costs to repair and continue to maintain the Estabrook Dam (and the environmental and recreational uses it supports upstream) are not sustainable.

Removal of the dam would be partially borne by Milwaukee County taxpayers; however, there are significant federal, state, and non-profit sources of funding available for dam removal and environmental enhancements (e.g., fish habitat structures and wetland restoration) (River Alliance of Wisconsin). Costs to repair and maintain the dam in perpetuity would be born entirely by local taxpayers.


It is clear that years of neglect have caused major structural issues with the Estabrook Dam, and that there is no viable “do-nothing” alternative here, as Milwaukee County would continue to be in non-compliance with both the existing WDNR Order to Repair and current state dam safety regulations. Additionally, public health and safety could be compromised. Similarly, there would be no reason to maintain the dam and keep it permanently open, in our opinion, as the short-term repair and long-term maintenance costs of that scenario would far outweigh removal costs. In fact, operating the dam with the gates permanently open would likely be considered an obstruction to navigation and would likely not be allowed by WDNR. The only viable options then become (1) short-term and long-term repair with maintenance, probably including fish and navigation passage structures, or (2) dam removal. (Note: the technical feasibility and costs of constructing and operating a fish and navigation passage is estimated by WDNR staff at $500-750K, but this was not studied by STS or the Milwaukee County Workgroup).

Based on the facts as stated above (and given our current knowledge of the situation and perusal of public documents), Milwaukee Riverkeeper advocates for removal of the Estabrook Dam. Milwaukee Riverkeeper believes that removal of the dam would have the greatest positive impacts on flood management, water quality, sediment management, fish and aquatic life, terrestrial wildlife, and recreation. Dam removal will help us reach our vision of restoring the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River for current and future generations. We believe that the ecological health restored by a free flowing river is of higher long term value than maintaining the current impoundment created by the dam. We also believe that the costs of repairing, replacing, and maintaining the dam will be far greater in the long run than the costs of removing the dam.

We do concede that impacts on motorized recreational boat uses will be significant and some landowners may prefer the current “aesthetics” of the impoundment instead of a free-flowing river. However, we feel that the benefits to other recreational users such as fishermen and passive non-¬motorized forms of boating will be significantly improved locally and watershed-wide. We believe removing the dam will mean that all people enjoying the river or engaging in recreational activities such as canoeing, kayaking, fishing, or hiking along the river’s edge will have an improved experience within our river corridor and adjacent County Parks.

Given the extensive state of contamination within the Estabrook Impoundment, all potential dam management alternatives should include remediation of contaminated sediment. Based on past experience with the North Avenue Dam, we would also prefer complete removal of sediments for all of the dam management alternatives as opposed to some sort of engineered cap, which has partially failed downstream of the North Avenue bridge, and which is now requiring significant repairs by the City of Milwaukee. We will continue to advocate for Federal and State funds to clean up the Estabrook Impoundment of contaminated sediments through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and other funding sources.

Furthermore, we believe, weighing both pros and cons, that Milwaukee County will be exposed to less liability by removing the dam than by keeping it. We also believe based on past economic studies, that impacts to property values of upstream landowners would not be negatively impacted. Based on the economic facts as presented in the STS report and by the Milwaukee County Workgroup and as described above, it is clear that dam removal would be much more cost effective in both the short and long term than dam repair and continued maintenance. We are well aware of the political influence of landowners upstream of the dam, and we respect their opposing position; however, we also feel that the County Board has a responsibility to consider opposing viewpoints by environmental advocates, fishermen, paddlers, park advocates and other tax paying residents that live throughout Milwaukee County, who will be affected by this Estabrook Dam management decision. The County’s budget is experiencing tough times, and there are many other important and “sustainable” park projects in need of funding that will not be funded if the Estabrook Dam is repaired and maintained. We believe the Milwaukee River should be restored and managed to the benefit of the greatest number of biological and recreational uses, and for the greatest number of users.

In closing, we urge the County Board of Supervisors and its standing committee on Parks, Energy, and Environment, to vote NOT to fund the repairs of the Estabrook Dam; to fund removal of the Estabrook Dam; and to advocate for the removal of contaminated sediments and restoration of the Milwaukee River in the area of the dam and existing impoundment.

Furthermore, given the importance of this issue, we encourage the County Board to define and initiate a better process regarding Estabrook Dam decisionmaking. This process would bring all stakeholders to the table, provide detailed information to the public on the environmental and economic effects of alternatives pertaining to the Estabrook Dam management, providing sufficient public notice of meetings at a place and location where working people can participate in the process, and eliciting meaningful public comment from all interested parties. Making such an important decision at the Parks Committee meeting and County Board absent a meaningful public process seems highly inappropriate and does not give this issue the attention that it deserves.

This position approved by the Riverkeeper Advocacy Committee on: February 20, 2009 (by email)

By the Board of Directors on: February 23, 2009 (by email)

References Cited

Hydrologic and Hydraulic Effect of Estabrook Dam and Impoundment

Camp Dresser & McKee. 1998. Hydraulic Evaluation of the Lincoln Creek – Milwaukee River Confluence Area.

Milwaukee County. 2008. Rehabilitation of the Estabrook Park Dam Engineering Estimate, January 7, 2008.

Milwaukee County Dam Rehabilitation Workgroup. 2009. Estabrook Dam Evaluation Matrix—Draft.

Milwaukee Journal. 1938. River Remade to Provide Park Playground for Milwaukee. November 13, 1938.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. 2001. Correspondence to Susan Baldwin, Director Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture. SEWRPC Community Assistance Report No. CA 410-235, March 26, 2001.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. 2001. SEWRPC Staff Memorandum: Review of the Impact on Meaux and Lincoln Parks of Implementation of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Lincoln Creek Flood Management Plan, January 5, 2001.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. 2001. Correspondence to Susan Baldwin, Director Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture. SEWRPC Community Assistance Report No. CA 410-235, January 5, 2001.

STS Consultants. 2006. Executive Summary and Opinion of Probable Costs from Estabrook Park Dam Evaluation Report, STS Project Number 5-87996. September 8, 2006.

Cryptosporidium, PCBs & Water Quality Effects of Dam Operations

Baird & Associates, 1997. Milwaukee River PCB Mass Balance Project. Prepared for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Curriero, Frank C., PhD, Jonathan A. Patz, MD, MPH, Joan B. Rose, PhD, and Subhash Lele, PhD. 2001. The Association Between Extreme Precipitation and Waterborne Disease Outbreaks in the United States, 1948–1994. Am J Public Health. 2001 August; 91(8): 1194–1199.

Steuer, J.S., S.A. Fitzgerald, and D.W. Hall 1999. Distribution and Transport of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Associated Particulates in the Milwaukee River System, Wisconsin, 1993–95. U.S. Geological Survey, Water-Resources Investigations Report 99–4100.

WDNR, 2005. Estabrook Impoundment Sediment Remediation Pre-design Study. Project Completion Report to US EPA. Publ WT 826

The Economic Effect of Dams and Sediment Clean Up

Born, S.M., K.D. Genskow, T.L. Filbert, N. Hernandez-Mora, M.L. Keefer, and K.A. White. 1998. Socioeconomic and institutional dimensions of dam removals – The Wisconsin experience. Environmental Management 22(3), 1998: 359-370.

Braden, J.B., L.O. Taylor, D.H. Won, N. Mays, A. Cangelosi, A.A. Patunru. 2006. Economic Benefits of Sediment Remediation. Final Report for Project GL-96553601, Great Lakes National Program Office, U.S. Environmental Projection Agency, Chicago, IL

Olson, C.G. 1994. Fair Market Value Report for the Village of Shorewood’s Hubbard Park: Milwaukee River North Avenue Dam Feasibility Study. C.G. Olson, Real Estate Consultant, 15835 Ridgefield Ct., Brookfield, WI.

Provencher, B., H. Sarakinos, and T. Meyer. 2008. Does small dam removal affect local property values? An empirical analysis. Contemporary Economic Policy 26:2 p.187-197. Also, available here:

River Aliance of Wisconsin. Financial and Technical Assistance: How can we fund a river restoration/protection project in our community?

Liability and Indemnification of Sediment Clean Up and Dam Removal

Morgan, Michael. 1997. Correspondence from Michael Morgan, Commissioner, Milwaukee Department of Development to Susan Baldwin, Director Milwaukee Co. Dept. Parks, Recreation and Culture September 30, 1997 referring to Exhibit B: Riverbank stabilization, access and maintenance easement Milwaukee County (Grantor) for City of Milwaukee (Grantee). Milwaukee Co. Register’s Office, recorded August 7, 1997: Reference Document No. 7403735 Reel 4112 Image 41.

Sarakinos, Helen. 2009. Personal communication regarding safety of other State dam removal projects. February 19, 2009.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 1997. Correspondence from Gloria McCutcheon, WDNR Southeast Region Director to Susan Baldwin, Director Milwaukee Co. Dept. Parks, Recreation and Culture June 1, 1997.

Effects of Dams on Fish and Aquatic Life

Catalano, Mathew, J., Michael A. Bozek and Thomas D. Pallet. 2007. Effects of Dam Removal on Fish Assemblage Structure and Spatial Distributions in the Baraboo River, Wisconsin. American Journal of Fisheries Management 27:519–530.

Hirethota, P.S., T.E. Burzynski and B.T. Eggold. 2005. Changing Habitat and Biodiversity of the Lower Milwaukee River and Estuary. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources PUB-FH-511-2005.

Kanehl, Paul, D. John Lyons and John E. Nelson. 1997. Changes in the Habitat and Fish Community of the Milwaukee River, Wisconsin, Following Removal of the Woolen Mills Dam. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, Volume 17, Issue 2 pp. 387–400.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. 2008. A Regional Water Quality Management Plan Update for the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds. SEWRPC Planning Report No. 50

Wawrzyn, William. 2007. Memo re: Post-Drawdown Inspection of Stranded Fish and Resulting Fish Kill-Estabrook Impoundment 10/17/2007. October 18, 2007

Wawrzyn, William. 2009. Personal communication regarding fishway cost estimates. February 16, 2009