DNR reviews new dam proposal

Paul Boechler
(Paul Boechler) A recent proposal aims to remove the ancient dam, which is a significant concert for environmentally aware inhabitants of Milwaukee.

Representatives of various environmental organizations, as well as Milwaukee County officials, have been evaluating new options to respond to the current state of the Estabrook Dam. The dam is in such a rough state that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WNDR) has ordered that the decaying dam be removed, or rebuilt.

The Estabrook Dam was constructed in 1937 and resides just south of Hampton Rd. and west of Estabrook Pkwy. After a county project to remove bedrock in Lincoln Park failed, water levels began to rapidly decrease, resulting in the construction of the dam. When fully operational, the dam allowed for the creation of a large pool by Lincoln Park. At its peak, the pool was as deep as nine feet and home to recreational activities for residents on the river, such as water skiing and the use of motorized boats, both of which have stopped since 2008.

These activities ended after a safety inspection of the dam shed light on the failing structural integrity of the dam and showed that the dam needed maintenance. Shortly after this inspection was published, the WDNR deemed the dam dangerous “to life, health and property.” The sluice gates were ordered permanently open in 2009 and have stayed that way since. The opening of the gates has led to a significant drop in the water level north of the dam, which brought it closer to the natural level.

When the WDNR filed the inspection, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a pro-removal organization, filed a suit against Milwaukee County for its lack of action as the dam deteriorated. The Milwaukee County Circuit Court concluded that the dam was a public nuisance and requested the county to submit a proposal to Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the court. The court had requested this information within 30 days of the case on May 24, 2012. The County Park Officials as well as supporters of removal and reconstruction are currently investigating the three options available for the dam.

The first option is the removal of the dam. According to AECOM, an engineering design group, the cost of removal would be about $1.7 million. The removal of the dam would allow fish to swim upstream to spawning habitats, as well as restore the natural habitats of the fish and river based wildlife. In addition, the removal would reduce flooding upstream of the dam and improve the water quality. It could potentially increase recreational opportunities as well, such as canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

“Removal of the dam should be an easy choice for the board … It’s the cheapest alternative,” said Chris Liegel, resident.

The second option is complete removal and reconstruction of the dam. The cost of this project would near $5.1 million with total maintenance costs of $2.6 million over the next 20 years. This project would restore the pool-like area north of the dam to enjoy recreational activities and property enhancements that for many had been what attracted them to the area. The reconstruction prices, however, does not factor in the fish ladder necessary for the reproduction of the fish and organisms native to the river.

The third and final option is a rock ramp. This project would cost the village anywhere from $2.4 to $3.3 million. If constructed, this would allow fish to pass through while still maintaining water levels near the natural levels near the natural levels and those desired by Lincoln Park residents.

The main concern that arises for environmentalists is the sedimentation. Dams create a large buildup of sedimentation when the sluice gates are closed and when they are reopened, the massive amounts of sediment can destroy eggs, microorganisms and disrupt the nutrients and ecosystem balances in the river. The rock ramp and reconstruction options both classify as dams, which means they require maintenance costs and are at risk of debris jams and safety hazards. Both are very expensive and can lead to large buildups of sediment.

(Paul Boechler) The current dam rests in the Milwaukee River. The County Board will decide to remove the dam; remove and restore the dam; or construct a rock ramp, in November.
(Paul Boechler) The current dam rests in the Milwaukee River. The County Board will decide to remove the dam; remove and restore the dam; or construct a rock ramp, in November.

The concern that the removal rises is the loss of property value for nearby residents of the area. Although the numbers have not been confirmed, the total estimation of all property value losses nears $21 million. This is in addition to the loss of motorized recreation such as waterskiing, tubing, use of pontoon boats and swimming.

Jennifer Bolger Breceda is the Executive Director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a non-profit grassroots organization that promotes the protection and improvement of water quality and life in the Milwaukee River Basin through advocacy, education, outreach, targeted cleanups and ecosystem stabilization.

Bolger Breceda is in favor of removal of the dam for many reasons. She believes that this option is best for the environment, county parks and taxpayers as the cost for reconstruction is near 3 times as large as removal. In addition, the homeowners would face higher flood insurance costs with a dam that cannot react quickly enough to flood conditions.

Liegel is also in support of the removal of the dam.

“In its natural state, the river will have increased natural diversity and the most recreational options. The argument that property values will decrease by removing the dam is simply wrong,” Liegel said.

“The only argument for restoring the dam is that homes behind the dam are worth more on an artificial lake than on a natural river. That is ridiculous,” Liegel said.

Glen Boebel of the Milwaukee River Preservation Association supports rebuilding the dam. Goebel feels that if rebuilt, the dam will allow for more river recreation that is not possible without the dam.

He and other homeowners are concerned that their recreational opportunities will diminish without a functioning dam as they have since the gates were opened. Both Goebel and Bolger share common ground in their concerns about the long-term integrity of the rock ramp.

Bolger feels strongly that the rock ramp and the reconstructed dam are unable to accomplish what is needed to achieve a healthy river basin. WDNR regulations require sluice gates to be opened a maximum of six inches at a time. During strong rainfall, the dams are incapable of opening fast enough to prevent flooding.

“It’s time to move forward. Every structure in this world has a useful life, and the Estabrook Dam has outlived its useful life. We don’t believe that every dam can or should be removed but we think that in this case, a fresh look as the facts is essential to determine the best cost. Spending millions to fix a dam for maintenance issues that are just going to continue doesn’t make sense,” said Bolger.

On October 28, the County Board will meet with the parks department and hear the recommendation; they are scheduled to vote on a decision on November 6.

by Zach Lipo Zovic

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