The Path Forward for Estabrook Dam
It’s a golden opportunity for Milwaukee if we tone down the rhetoric and consider the potential.
The term “saga” was used by Riverkeeper in a recent legal filing related to the Estabrook Dam, and seems appropriate for the contentious technical, legal and political process that’s unfolded over the past eight years regarding the choice to repair or remove the dam. As we’ve explained the story of the dam is linked to a complex sequence of geologic events dating back 360-420 million years. These events resulted in an ancient limestone reef being located in the path cut by the Milwaukee River at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation. The erosional resistance of the bedrock, and its location in the post-glacial landscape, led over thousands of years to the creation of an exceptional hydrologic feature – a three-mile long drainage lake surrounded by hundreds of acres of wetlands prone to flooding, and characterized by a wide, deep channel with a slow flowing current. A natural “dam” formed at the downstream end of the drainage lake (at the approximate location of the Port Washington Road bridge) and was later replicated through construction of the Estabrook Dam, the crest of which was exactly equal in elevation to the high point of the ridge.
Other articles in this series presented a critical review of arguments made to support removing the dam, which heavily influenced resolutions favoring that option by government entities including the City of Milwaukee, Village of Shorewood, and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District – as well as near universal support by local environmental groups. Furthermore, although coverage by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been frequent, the level of analysis has been shallow, with no critical assessment of the arguments being made regarding costs, flooding, or environmental impacts. The arguments in favor of removal has also benefited from an on-going (and apparently well-funded) campaign led by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the most recent phase of which was launched in late January, with a news release and email blasts, in combination with radio and digital ads.
This story, the last in the series, will summarize some of its key findings, analyze the dam in relation to Milwaukee’s ongoing water initiatives, and suggest an alternative path forward.
The Good News
Given the negative tone of most of the debate, it’s easy to lose sight of some significant positive outcomes regarding the dam that have occurred over the past eight years. These include:
- Hundreds of Milwaukee-area residents on both sides of the debate have devoted significant time and energy in efforts to improve this segment of the Milwaukee River. Even though they may differ significantly in their vision for the river and what constitutes the best path forward, public apathy has not been an issue.
- After nearly eight years of work (and over $40 million in expenditures), sediment cleanup efforts in this section of the Milwaukee River are now complete. The multi-phased project achieved removal of over 160,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the impoundment and the lower portion of Lincoln Creek. The presence of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in this area has been known since the early 1980s, but was not a priority for funding until 2008 – when the need to repair the dam perhaps served as a catalyst for finally moving forward with this enormous and costly cleanup effort. The scope of the cleanup project may not be fully appreciated by most Milwaukee-area residents. The estimated 364,000 lbs of PCBs and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) removed from the Milwaukee River and Lincoln Creek will potentially exceed the total quantity of toxic chemicals to be removed as part of the $1 billion-plus sediment cleanup project currently in progress on the Fox River.
- The vast majority of the sediment cleanup was funded by state and federal funding, relieving local taxpayers.
- Completion of the sediment cleanup project is a significant milestone in efforts to eventually end the fish advisories that have plagued this segment of the Milwaukee River since 1981.
- Completion of the project also represents a milestone in long-term efforts to make the Milwaukee River wade-able and swimmable.
- The project coincided with other major projects completed by Milwaukee County Parks in recent years to improve recreational amenities available in Estabrook and Lincoln Parks. These include the construction of the $8.4 million Schultz Aquatic Center in Lincoln Park, restoration of the Blatz Pavilion, establishment of a nationally recognized beer garden at Estabrook Park, and completion of the final three-mile section of the Oak Leaf Trail.
- Another positive is the conservative approach that is now being used by the county to estimate and budget for future operation and maintenance costs for the Estabrook Dam, if repaired. This includes the establishment of a maintenance trust fund for the dam that receives $51,000 in rental income per year from the TV towers located in Lincoln Park, and which will have a balance of over $250,000 by the year’s end.
- On a similar note, the current budget estimate includes not only $50,000 in annual funding for removal of debris, but $30,000 for minor repairs, which will help minimize the problem of debris accumulating behind the spillway, as well as the temptation to defer future maintenance (resulting in small repairs growing into larger, more costly repairs).
The Bad News
The good news of the past eight years has also been accompanied by some bad news, attributable in part to the acrimonious process that has characterized the debate over repair vs removal. That includes:
- The adversarial process seems destined to leave a wake of distrust and anger, whichever outcome occurs. If the dam is repaired, environmentalists seem likely to attribute this outcome to political maneuvers that they believe placed the interests of a small group of homeowners above the public at large and the environment. Similarly, if the dam is removed, hundreds of homeowners will attribute this to a well-funded advocacy campaign based on inaccurate or exaggerated claims of environmental, flood mitigation, and economic benefits and which characterized the homeowners as a group motivated solely by narrow minded self-interest, and completely ignored or dismissed legitimate concerns regarding impacts on property values and diminishment of future recreational uses. The distrust and anger may be very slow to dissipate and could impede future opportunities for collaborations to improve this segment of the Milwaukee River. (Based on discussions last year with several residents and public officials in West Bend, there is still resentment after 25 years regarding the process that led to removal of the Woolen Mills Dam on the Milwaukee River, against the wishes of the majority of local residents).
- The significance of the impoundment as what may be the last best place to reestablish a public swimming facility on a river in Milwaukee County appears to have been entirely absent from any public discussion or technical analysis completed to date. Achieving water quality goals alone will not make the Milwaukee River swimmable. The other requirements are water that is deep enough for swimming and swimming areas with a gently sloping shoreline and bottom combined with a slow moving current. The Estabrook Dam impoundment appears to provide the only remaining location on a river in Milwaukee County with these physical attributes. Yet this is getting no discussion within the context of a more than four decade and $5 billion effort to improve the water quality in Milwaukee’s rivers with the stated goal of making the rivers swimmable.
- The fact that this section of the Milwaukee River is bordered by neighborhoods with what is likely the highest percentage of African American residents of any major waterfront area in Wisconsin also appears to have been absent from the discussions to date. The outreach efforts conducted as part of the environmental assessment for the dam appears to have largely excluded these neighborhoods in a decision process that could significantly impact future recreational use of the river in this area. This is both a lost opportunity, and a process that if the dam is removed, could undermine efforts by the Milwaukee Water Commons and others to enhance access to water-focused recreational amenities for underserved neighborhoods.
- The analysis of the impact of dam removal acknowledged the loss of recreational boating opportunities, but was not appropriately weighted given the impoundment may be the only boat-able inland water feature within Milwaukee County (outside of the Milwaukee Estuary). The decrease in water levels in Lincoln Park if the dam is removed, in particular during reduced flow conditions that may exist during the 2-1/2 month summer period (when water and air temperatures are suitable for swimming) would likely eliminate swimming as a future recreational activity if the dam is removed. The use of this portion of the river for paddle-sports would also be diminished.
- The analysis of costs for dam removal versus repair dismissed the cost that is of greatest concern to owners of property on the impoundment – namely, a potential reduction in property values that could result from removal of the dam and loss of the aesthetic and recreational value associated with the 103-acre impoundment. The studies used as the basis for dismissing these costs appear to have almost no relevance to the urban setting and physical characteristics of the Estabrook Dam impoundment. Analysis of properties in the vicinity of the Mequon-Thiensville Dam (the impoundment in the Milwaukee area with the greatest similarities to the Estabrook Dam impoundment) suggests that homes on that impoundment are worth approximately $65,630 per lot and $74,188 per acre more than waterfront parcels on the same street but downstream of the dam and lacking access to the impoundment. If similar valuation differences apply at the Estabrook Dam impoundment, the cost in terms of permanently reduced property values and property tax revenues if the dam is removed could be great enough to increase the overall cost for the dam removal alternative by a factor of ten.
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