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Estabrook Dam Decision to Be Revealed

Judge orders Milwaukee County to deliver plan for repair or removal

Jun. 20, 2012
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The deadline for a decision on Milwaukee County's crumbling Estabrook Dam is June 24, according to an order made by Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Conen, which declared the dam a "public nuisance."

The decision was the latest move in a years-long dispute between those who want to repair the dam and retain that portion of the Milwaukee River's lake-like environment and those who want to remove the dam and improve the natural flow of water. Removing the dam would help fish swim upstream to spawn, improving their chances of survival amid threats from invasive species, and end the county's costs to maintain the dam going forward.

The Estabrook Dam, built as a New Deal-era public works project, was intended to raise water levels after the removal of a limestone ledge had been blasted out to lower water levels and prevent flooding.

The dam was part of a broader project to create recreational opportunities along the Milwaukee River and Lincoln Creek, at the intersection of Hampton Avenue and Green Bay and Port Washington roads.

Federal Civil Works Administration engineers re-routed the S-shaped river to create islands, then erected bridges, a golf course, sports fields, swimming areas, a game refuge, a boat landing and a beer pavilion—a "playground for Milwaukee," according to a 1938 Milwaukee Journal headline.

While Lincoln and Estabrook parks had been popular destinations for Milwaukeeans seeking a lake-like refuge in the city, the area has declined in recent years, thanks to a cash-strapped county government and contaminants from old industrial sites upriver.

Multiple state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) studies and orders over the past 20 years have documented the deterioration of the Estabrook Dam, studies and orders that the county failed to act on. When the Milwaukee Riverkeeper decided that the DNR wasn't enforcing its own orders, it sued the county under the public trust provision in the state constitution. The group argued that the county's neglect of the Estabrook Dam was impeding the public's right to enjoy the Milwaukee River. In May, Judge Conen agreed, and he is ordering the county to come up with a plan.

Reclaiming the River, Preventing Flooding

The focus on the Estabrook Dam can be seen as part of a much larger effort to reclaim the Milwaukee River watershed by cleaning up contaminants, improving fish passage and making the river a destination for paddlers, hikers and anglers.

The final phase of cleaning up contaminated sediment in the Lincoln Park section of the Milwaukee River is winding down with a $29 million price tag paid by the state and federal governments.

The next goal is to rehabilitate Estabrook Park, which is just south of Lincoln Park, where the dam on the Milwaukee River is a crumbling "public nuisance" that hasn't operated since a 2008 state DNR order shut it down.

The latest court order doesn't dictate whether the county has to repair the dam or tear it down. That decision is in the hands of the dam's owners, Milwaukee County, and will be filed with the court by June 24. Then, the county and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, which brought the lawsuit, will discuss the county's plans and face the judge at a status hearing on July 31. If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, it could be litigated further.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who has taken the lead on saving the dam, said that past votes by county board members to repair the dam means that the issue is settled. The board approved $2.1 million in bonding authority in the 2010 budget and engineering studies are already under way, Lipscomb said, showing that repairing and upgrading the dam would cost $1.5 million, plus ongoing maintenance costs.

He said he wants the dam to be repaired because it's part of a water-management system that helps to prevent flooding during heavy rainstorms.

Lipscomb said a dozen people had lost their homes during the heavy July 2010 rainstorms as a result of flooding along that stretch of the Milwaukee River.

But Karen Schapiro, staff attorney for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said her organization wants the dam removed because it's harmful to public safety and was never intended to mitigate flooding. According to old news reports, the dam was installed to artificially raise the water level during the summer months for boating after the removal of the limestone ledge had lowered the water level to prevent flooding. More current analyses show that the dam submerges during 100-year rainstorms, making it ineffective during more serious storms.

"In July 2010, when we had several 500-year storms, had the dam been in pool condition, with the gates closed with an artificial lake, those property owners upstream would have flooded in a big way," Schapiro said.

She said removing the dam is the best bet for taxpayers, since the county could apply for funds for dam removal, but not repair, and wouldn't be required to pay an estimated $80,000 in ongoing operations and maintenance costs annually.

Removing Toxins, Aiding Fish

Although the county and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper disagree on whether to repair or remove the Estabrook Dam, they do agree that the contaminated sediment needs to be removed no matter what.

"I say, even if you aren't with me on the dam, please be with me on getting this polluted sediment out of here," Lipscomb said. "What we really need is for that to be part of a second-phase project."

Fish passage is another area that appears to be negotiable, both Lipscomb and Schapiro said separately, so that native species can swim upstream and spawn.

In Mequon-Thiensville, a fish passageway has been installed around a high dam that had prevented fish from swimming to spawning areas. The 800-foot fishway, located on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, provides a meandering water route for fish, along with resting sites, that allows the fish to bypass the 9-foot-high dam and get upstream. The fishway is so active that Ozaukee County is streaming live video from an underwater camera on its website (www.ozaukeefishway.org). The camera has caught salmon, trout, bass, pike and muskies passing through the fishway.

Will Wawrzyn, a DNR fisheries biologist, said that a fishway including a series of step pools could be created in the Estabrook Park area to allow fish to swim through that area unimpeded, although he said a careful study needed to be conducted and debated first.


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