Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The County Board’s Anti-Environmental Boondoggle

Its Estabrook Dam decision will cost taxpayers millions and harm environment.

By - Feb 17th, 2015 10:09 am
Estabrook Dam

Estabrook Dam

There’s a smell of hypocrisy emanating from the Milwaukee County Board and its decision to repair rather than tear down the Estabrook Dam. The decision will needlessly cost the taxpayers millions. It will also stand in the way of the remarkably successful, ongoing effort to return the Milwaukee River to its natural borders, which is broadly supported by the environmental community. Yet here is this liberal-leaning board, led the self-proclaimed “Queen of Green,” Board chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic voting for the un-green, un-environmental option. Why?

For Dimitrejivec, this may simply be a gift to her loyal lieutenant, Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, whose district includes Glendale residents who enjoy the artificial lake the dam creates which they can use for boating. For other board members, their vote may be about knee-jerk opposition to County Executive Chris Abele, who favors tearing down the dam, or they may not want to buck Lipscomb, who has his own power base as co-chair of the Finance Committee. But whatever their reasons, these supervisors are not serving the broad interests of the county.

The Estabrook Dam has been falling apart — and a source of controversy– for years. For fiscal conservatives, the issue is pretty simple: it would cost at least three times more (about $5.2 million) for repair and maintenance of the dam, compared to about $1.6 million to tear it down. The latter figure could be even lower, however, as there is federal funding “available as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for dam removal and restoration of dewatered areas,” notes the Milwaukee Riverkeepers, a non-profit environmental advocacy group.

For environmentalists, fishing advocacy groups and river enthusiasts, maintaining the dam makes no sense. Over the last few decades “two-thirds of the 15 dams on the main stem of the Milwaukee River have been removed or otherwise made passable to aquatic life,” as Urban Milwaukee contributor David Holmes has written.  “Dams in Newburg, Campbellsport, and Grafton (were) removed during the past four years alone.” As a result, “native fish populations have rebounded and a large run of migratory trout and salmon are found in the river each year.” After the removal of the North Avenue dam, “the river went from four species to 44 species of fish,” notes Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeepers.

The reclamation of the river has also has a big economic impact, helping make the downtown RiverWalk a success, which has raised real estate values and helped city tourism efforts.

So who wants to save the dam? Residents in Lipscomb’s district, including those who enjoyed boating on the mini-lake it created above the dam. “It’s been an important issue in my last two elections, and was important to my predecessor as well,” Lipscomb says.

Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb, Sr.

Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb, Sr.

But not all the residents in that district support the dam, Nenn says, because it causes flooding upstream. “We hear from people living in Glendale who want it taken down because they pay more for flood control.”

The deteriorating dam, built in the late 1930s, has actually been open since 2009, which has turned the banks of the river upstream into mud flats, raising understandable concerns about its impact on real estate values along the river. But over time, as proven downstream, vegetation will grow and area will become green.

If the dam is maintained, the lake it re-creates will become “hot and nutrient rich and low in oxygen,” Nenn notes, which makes it less likely to support fish. “Removing the dam would yield the greatest positive impacts on river ecology, flood management, water quality, sediment management, fish and aquatic life, terrestrial wildlife, and recreation,” the Riverkeepers website notes. “Dam removal will help restore the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River for current and future generations.”

In short, removal of the dam should be a natural for environmentally concerned board members, yet as Nenn notes, “the enviros on the Board have consistently voted to keep this dam with the exception of Gerry Broderick and Pat Jursik, who have been great supporters (of removal). We are largely being supported by fiscal conservatives that object to the costs involved,” she adds, including Deanna Alexander, Mark Borkowski, Steve Taylor and Anthony Staskunas. Meanwhile liberal “enviros” like Dimitrijevic, Lipscomb, Jason Haas, John Weishan, Peggy Romo West, Martin Weddle, Michael Mayo, Khalif Rainey, and Willie Johnson, Jr. have supported repair of the dam, Nenn notes.

Lipscomb’s latest move has been to include approval of Estabrook funding within a bill that included dozens of construction projects. “Lipscomb inserted the dam repair project into the list without public notice last week at a finance committee meeting,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Don Behm reported.

The bill was approved on a 15-1 vote because supervisors didn’t want to vote against all the other construction projects. Broderick described the dam as a costly albatross for county taxpayers, telling the JS it’s “throwing good money away.”

Abele has vetoed this bill and sent down a version with all the construction projects but the dam included, which supervisors could take up and approve instead. Will they?

Pension Vote Today

The board, as I’ve previously written, also supports spending an estimated $10 million to legalize pension boosts illegally given to about 200 county retirees who “bought back” past years of work (often for part-time or seasonal work done when in high school or college).  That includes former county clerk Tom Zablocki, famous for working half days while drawing a full-time salary, who later bought back this time and since his retirement in 2004 has collected $714,276 in retiree payments, county statistics show.

Back in 2007, when it was discovered that many of these buybacks were done illegally, the board passed a unanimous resolution “to cease any prospective payment of a pension benefit related to a buy in or buy back that has been determined to be in violation of Milwaukee County Ordinance or Federal law.” But neither the board nor then-County Executive Scott Walker took action to make sure the County Pension Board stopped awarding these illegal payments.

Abele’s staff have checked and about one-quarter of the 200 or so illegal pensions were actually awarded since 2007, when the board supposedly ended this giveway. Incredible.

Board members now point to legal advice saying the county can’t try to sue to recover any pension benefits that its own staff told retirees was legal. Straight-arrow county Corporation Counsel Paul Bargren has suggested it might be tough to win such a lawsuit, Dave Umhoefer of the JS has reported.

That certainly suggests the county should tread carefully here. But it doesn’t explain why the board has decided to give these retirees gilt-edged protection by passing a resolution legalizing these illegally granted benefits that supervisors once opposed. The justification is that they want to end any worries for these pensioners (including Zablocki, who has reportedly been heavily lobbying the board). The taxpayers apparently aren’t as important.

17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The County Board’s Anti-Environmental Boondoggle”

  1. David says:

    If you’ve ever boated down the river you’ll notice the terrible smell at the Estabrook Dam. Very chemically. It seems as though the river can’t flush itself and becomes a cesspool around the dam. Also, it’s pretty disgusting along stretches in Glendale that Theo is trying to save. The water is still and murky. I don’t believe, save a handful of residents, that recreational motor boating is a big deal along the river. Let’s not make this mistake…. the river has come so far. Tear it down.

  2. Gary says:

    I thought the whole argument was a no-brainer: remove a dam that was constructed to create an unnatural setting.
    Checking out the history of articles about the Estabrook dam I was surprised to read that the dam replaced a natural rock shelf, so there’s always been some level of water retention there resulting in seasonal wetlands in that floodplain.
    I get the advantage to the river for dam removal, but complete removal? This isn’t the same thing as removal of the North Ave. dam.

  3. I am confused, if the dam has been open since 2009, then how will taking the dam out will affect the “lake” up stream?

  4. bruce murphy says:

    Tom, restoring the dam will restore the artificial lake and cover the mud flats.

  5. Dennis says:

    Bruce Murphy always has Chris Abele’s back! At some point, your readers are going to catch on to the obvious corruption here.

  6. Gary says:

    Bruce, I’m all for permanent dam removal, but the recent plan to replace the original rock ledge with a shoal makes sense, although it would require upkeep.

    (If anyone wants to do some guerrilla engineering this spring, we could test that plan with some of those limestone chunks laying around down by the lakefront. I don’t drink beer so I’ll be the designated driver.)

  7. Cheryl Nenn says:

    It’s true that there was a natural rock ledge upstream of the dam. That ledge was blasted out to remediate flooding in the area. In addition, the river used to make an “S” curve in Lincoln Park, which also slowed down water and allowed it to flow out of its banks during big storms. That was also causing flooding–so a main channel was dug through the center of the “S”, which created the oxbows or side channels and islands that you see there today. There were also wetlands that were drained for people’s houses and for Lincoln Park. This is all to say that the river has been historically manipulated. But its not correct to say that just putting in a rock ledge in this area would restore natural conditions. That ship has sailed about 100 years ago. We need to look at what we have today and restoring as much natural function as we can to get the river moving more naturally. That will deal with a lot of the water quality problems and decomposition funk that David is referring to. The only way to do that is dam removal at this point. Keeping the dam to fix historical screw-ups is not logical–two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Putting in a rock ramp, which has been looked at, is an option, although it is twice as expensive as removal and would need maintenance (which the County can’t seem to do or hasn’t shown in the last few decades). It would also be regulated as a dam, which means that the DNR would still require a permit, etc. It would provide fish passage and better movement of water, which would be an improvement over the dam. That said, removal is the only permanent way to abate the public nuisance that the dam has become and is the cheapest and best for the environment. Note that voting for repair is really voting for repair + operations over 20 years + removal costs in 20 years, so would be even more than 3 times the cost of just removing it now. The last I heard the County had $200 million in deferred maintenance to existing structures. Do we really want to spend $6 million over the next 20 years (plus an additional $1.7 million to remove), when there is so much more need? It’s also a huge liability for the County now, as its been shown to increase flooding upstream in 100 year events by up to 1.5 feet with gates closed. That would require someone to respond during flooding events in a timely fashion, which has been a problem during the last few years. If not, people will flood worse than they would have without the dam and could sue the County. Lastly, putting any rock or fill in the river requires State and Federal permits–so guerrilla engineering is discouraged and actionable! I’ve got my eye on you Gary! 😉

  8. Michael says:

    Thank god we have vigilant commenters like Dennis to spot this obvious corruption Bruce.

    How much is Chris Abele paying you to report on the county board’s continued bad governance?Did he offer you an illegal pension with a large backdrop if you agreed to take a common sense approach to your editorials? Why won’t you be a good beat reporter and just pass off county board press releases as your own hard hitting reporting?

    This is the last straw. I’m cannot in good conscious support you in your re-election campaign as editor of Urban Milwaukee.


  9. jim says:

    Then and Now.

    Near the end of Socialist Mayor Hoan’s 24 year tenure, 1916 t0 1940, the Estabrook dam was conceived.

    From and article (Paul Ringler, The Milwaukee Journal, November 13, 1938). Directed by the national park service and the department of the interior, the CCC men worked to construct the Estabrook Dam, which was of an innovative new design, conceived by the minds of engineers and recreational authorities of that time. For the purpose to remake a large “swampy area of willow growth” in Lincoln Park into a “ beautiful recreational area … to match any in the Land …. ‘We appreciate,’ said Jerome C. Dretzka, secretary of the county park commission, and Eugene Howard, chief engineer of the commissions planning department. ‘that Lincoln Park will be one of the finest places for swimming and boating and skating in the country.’ ”

    So it goes (went).

  10. Jeff says:

    Thanks for shining some light on these county board blunders, Bruce. To waste MKE taxpayers $$ when times are so tight is a shame.

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    This is stupidest group of people in state, laughingstock, fits right in with the rest of the white liberal racists though.. NML parking ramp?? NUTS. You have to spend time out state to understand what we are viewed from their lens.

  12. John Jansen says:

    As a tax-paying Glendale resident who has canoed that stretch of the river multiple times every year since 1987, I can say without hesitation that there is NO reason to keep this dam. I have never seen a motor boat upstream from the Estabrook dam all the way to Thiensville even when it was impounded – only canoes – and since I am the only regular canoer that I know of between the Thiensville dam and Estabrook dam I believe that if anyone should be upset about lowered water levels resulting from dam removal, it would be me. But even with the slats out, canoeing there now is just as WONDERFUL as it’s always been. So…Get rid of this dam, save some money, and let the river clean itself at the same time! This is a no-brainer. The only person standing in the way of this is our own County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who told me personally a few years ago that he is sentimentality attached to the Estabrook dam because his dad worked on it many years ago. This should be an embarrassment to everyone who pays County taxes in the city of Glendale. Supervisor Lipscomb needs to see the big picture here and stop his ridiculous crusade to save this useless dam. Stop damming up the process and let the river return to health. I am really done with this nonsense.

  13. David says:

    Excellent post WI Conservative Digest. Very helpful and thought provoking as always.

  14. Dennis says:

    It’s good of Bruce Murphy to stop reporting that the Board’s decision to continue paying senior citizens’ their pensions would somehow cost the taxpayers $10 million. The Pension Fund has clearly stated that continued payments would not affect the fund because their actuarial calculations had already factored in this small group. Therefore, the County taxpayers’ contribution to that specific group would be a miniscule fraction of the $10 million and would not come close to covering the millions in legal fees that would be guaranteed if Abele’s plan were to be implemented.

    Abele’s “compromise” was an attorney and consultant full-employment plan and a naked attempt at boosting his political stock through a manufactured pension “scandal” a la Scott Walker.

    If it wasn’t for hack journalists like Bruce Murphy, Abele’s political maneuvering on the backs of 200 elderly people would outrage the Milwaukee community. Instead, Murphy has provided political cover for his friend and/or boss.

  15. Dennis says:


    Which part of Supervisor Lipscomb’s argument do you disagree with?

    “These people were allowed to buy pension credit under an ordinance with origins dating to the 1950s, the pension office told them how much to pay and when, they paid the money as directed and their pensions were adjusted for the credit they purchased. The problem is that the pension office made a series of administrative errors and the effect is that some of these purchases did not comply with the rules that the pension office is charged with following. Now, decades later, County Executive Abele is leading a charge to nullify those retirement contracts.”

  16. Bruce Thompson says:

    It appears that the “liberals’ on the county board are intent on doing for liberalism what Dennis is doing for unions. With friends like these, who needs enemies.

  17. AG says:

    How is it that Thiensville was able to keep their dam, find a way to allow the fish to pass, keep the water clean enough for recreational use AND have a beautiful community asset? This little lake could really benefit the park and nearby communities and create an asset for more residents than just the landowners along it’s banks. How many cities have an urban lake to enjoy? The lakes in Minneapolis are wonderful assets and attract many people from outside the lake frontage properties.

    If we’re going to invest millions of dollars, lets go all the way, do it right, and create something really special that also serves sound environmental purposes.

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