On October 3, 2016, Milwaukee County Executive, Chris Abele, City of Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) Executive Director, Kevin Shafer, announced a plan to move forward with finally removing the Estabrook Dam.
Milwaukee Riverkeeper is supportive of the plan for two reasons:
the plan gives control of the Estabrook Dam, which increases flood risk to hundreds of upstream properties, to the federally designated flood management authority for the area (MMSD), and
the plan will involve only temporarily transferring land from one public entity to another, which after dam removal is finalized, will be transferred BACK to Milwaukee County as public park land and will be rezoned as park by the City of Milwaukee.
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Frequently Asked Questions
The Milwaukee County Parks Department conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), to identify and analyze a variety of alternatives for the Dam. The Parks Department hired an environmental engineering company, AECOM, to assess the range of alternatives the AECOM report narrowed those alternatives down to three:
- removal, and
- a “rock ramp” alternative.
The Parks Department continues to recommend removal of the Dam as the preferred alternative as does the County Executive. During the 2016 budgeting process, the County policy on the dam switched from repair to removal after a vote by the Supervisors. In early 2015, the Finance Committee switched the policy back to repair without debate or discussion after an amendment was quietly slipped into a “must pass” finance package.
The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is an important step in the environmental decision-making process that should not be ignored. Dams are regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). The WDNR issues an operational order or permit to any dam operator in the state. To issue an operational order, the WDNR is required by law (Chapter 31 of Wisconsin Statutes) to prepare an EIS. In other words, regardless of the alternative chosen by the County, the WDNR will need to prepare an EIS before issuing an order allowing the County to operate or remove the Dam.
The WDNR completed it’s EIS on the Estabrook Dam in early April. Unfortunately, the WDNR failed to consider removal as a reasonable alternative to repairing the Dam.
It should also be noted that Milwaukee County may also need Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA approvals for any major project affecting wetlands or water levels during flooding events, which would also likely require an Environmental Assessment.Furthermore, the EIS contains helpful, scientific data and facts to provide a road map for the County to make an informed decision, rather than one based on emotion or politics.
The majority of people do not want to keep the Dam. A small group of upstream homeowners have formed a group called MRPA or the Milwaukee River Preservation Association, and they are a vocal minority. They believe their housing values will be negatively affected by dam removal. In addition, several of these homeowners own motorized boats that they have historically usedon the impoundment. Dam removal would make it difficult to use most motorized boats due to lower water levels. Non-motorized navigation by canoes, kayaks, and other small watercraft would still be possible seasonally, similar to upstream and downstream sections of the Milwaukee River. While the number of affected homes in the impoundment has been stated as around 300 during public meetings, the vast majority of those homeowners would like to see dam removal due to the flood risk posed by the Dam and the requirement to purchase expensive flood insurance due to Federal FEMA regulations. These voices are being drowned out by MRPA’s loud (and often false) claims.
|Alternative||Estimated Capital Cost||Estimated Annual Operations and Maintenance Cost||Total Present Worth Estimated Cost (assuming 20 year life expectancy)|
|Rock Ramp Option (gate section removal and 6.3 ft. high rock ramp constructed)||$2,419,000||$55,000||$3,318,000|
The estimates in the table are 3 times higher to repair the Dam than to remove it. The operation and maintenance costs for repair do not include administrative costs associated with state and federal permitting, nor future dredging costs when sediment builds up in the impoundment. The repair option also does not include a realistic cost for fish passage. Leaving a few gates open does not mean that the fish will be attracted to those areas or that they will be able to swim upstream as proposed by MRPA.The EA states that repairing the Dam now will provide an approximate 20 years of additional use with proper operation and maintenance. The Dam will be nearly 100 years old at that time, rehabilitation costs are anticipated to grow, and rebuilding of the Dam will likely be the next option.
The most recent repair/abandon order from the WDNR in 2009 goes into significant detail about the structural problems of the dam in the “Findings of Fact” section of the Order, which is what we are relying on. This Order also identifies work that still needed to be done from 1995, 2004, and 2008 Dam Safety Inspection reports. Aside from the structural problems of the Dam, the original design and operational procedures for the Estabrook Dam are not good for the environment. Extremeincreases and decreases of water levels on a river or a lake wreaks havoc on the ecosystem as a whole. At the time it was constructed, the dam gates were not supposed to be opened and closed each season, despite how the County operated it historically. While some seasonal fluctuation in water levels is normal, the water level variability caused by draining the impoundment is not normal and is harmful. The Dam is an old, outdated structure that does not improve water quality or wildlife habitat. It wastes taxpayer money that could be spent on more worthy infrastructure improvements.
Ownership of the island should not be a reason to ignore relevant, important, and up-to-date scientific data about the impact of the dam. Regardless of the island ownership issue, the WDNR will also need an EIS in order to make their decision on whether or not to issue an operational order for the Dam, should the County decide to repair. You can’t unring a bell and ignoring the science behind the EA would be foolish.
As mentioned above, the WDNR has done extensive dredging of contaminated sediments as a direct result of the build-up of sediment and they have plans to do more dredging directly above the Dam by early Fall 2015. If the Dam were removed, water levels would not be expected to change significantly from what they are today (and have been since 2009). Efforts to remove non-native invasive vegetation and encourage re-establishment of more desirable native vegetation would likely be required. There are also legacy piles of debris from the Dam that are unsightly and have been stacked next to the dam for years, if not a decade or longer. There are several groups that could help with this effort, as well as funding sources that could help finance this work, but none have been willing to fundraise without knowing the ultimate fate of the Dam. Significant restoration and shoreline restoration should be a component of any alternative.
Property values after a small dam is removed do not decrease. See Bill Provencher, Helen Sarakinos and Tanya Meyer, Does Small Dam Removal Affect Local Property Values? An Empirical Analysis. Contemporary Economic Policy (ISSN 1074-3529); Vol. 26, No. 2, April 2008, 187-197. This published study included an analysis of various small dam removals and the effect on property values in Wisconsin, and concluded that property values do not decrease with small dam removal. MRPA has made assertions about property value loss without conclusive support or concrete facts. The County is currently liable to the WDNR’s Order to repair or abandon the dam and the Court’s Order declaring the dam a public nuisance that needs to be abated.
Repair of the Estabrook Dam will not abate the public nuisance and Milwaukee Riverkeeper would continue to pursue its lawsuit against the County for a remedy that will satisfy the Court’s Order. A temporary fix of the Dam is not acceptable because the remedy must permanently abate the nuisance and as explained above, the repairs, as well as the dam structure, have a useful, limited life. Removal is the best alternative for addressing the concerns and issues cited in the WDNR’s Order to repair or abandon. Removal is the only option that will abate the nuisance permanently and avoid further litigation costs associated with the current lawsuit, it is the only option that would eliminate further operations and maintenance expenses and possible dredging expenses, and it is the only option that decreases the County’s liability with respect to increased flood risk posed by the Dam.
Documents & Additional Resources
Do you live in the floodplain?
Click here to view this map in Google Maps (type your address into google maps to see if your property lies in the floodplain)
1) When google maps opens, simply type your full address into the search bar at the top of the screen and then click the little magnifying glass next to the search box.
2) A placemark will appear on the map; use the ” ” and “-” buttons on the bottom right corner of the map to zoom in and out, and click the map and drag your mouse to pan across the map.
3) You can turn the 2 layers (100 yr flood and 500 yr flood, located in the upper-left portion of the screen), by checking and unchecking the checkbox next to the layer name.
The Parks Department is very understaffed right now and it has been for years. The Parks Department is in charge of operating the Dam, and they have said they cannot ensure that there will be a staff person available during a storm to open the gates. They are calling for removal. The Parks Department has concerns about how the Dam has been operated in the past and how it will be operated in the future. A responsible policy would take into account the limitations of the staff. Based on the facts, removal is best for the river and the community as a whole in order to avoid these issues related to flooding and the operation of the dam.
In the News
I volunteer for the Milwaukee RiverKeepers and they do a lot of work in this area to protect and preserve aquatic habitats. I believe that their assessment that keeping the dam in place is not a good choice for the river, is correct, and it should be removed.
I’m a Whitefish Bay resident and average two or more visits to the river on any given weekend to fish, hike, mountain bike, walk the dog, etc. The kids and I have participated in the Riverkeepers’ annual clean up event at Kletzsch Park. While the river is not perfect, it’s getting better every year, thanks to the efforts of friends groups, volunteers, etc. Removal of the dam would be a step in the right direction and I cannot fathom possibly spending money to rebuild it, then spend more to maintain it. Not only would that be environmentally and aesthetically unwise, it would be fiscally irresponsible.
As a naturalist and avid urban paddler, as well as an East Side resident, I have been impressed with the revival of the Milwaukee River corridor. Land restoration efforts by groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the River Revitalization Foundation, and the Urban Ecology Center have resulted in improved river cleanliness and health, a blossoming return of native plant and animal species, and a resurgence of the Milwaukee River as a ecological and recreational asset in the heart of our city.
Failure to remove the Estabrook Dam not only thwarts continued progress on the issues mentioned above, but also places an undue burden on taxpayers as we end up investing more money in preserving a useless relic, rather than focus on forward thinking and the best use of our fiscal means to ensure the broadest public benefit.
Considered from any of the angles, environmental, recreational, civic and fiscally responsible, removing the Estabrook Dam is THE BEST option.