A Freshwater Controversy

The Path Forward for Estabrook Dam

It’s a golden opportunity for Milwaukee if we tone down the rhetoric and consider the potential.

By - Feb 10th, 2016 02:37 pm

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.

View (facing northwest) of the east oxbow area and natural “drainage lake” in Lincoln Park in early 1930s prior to construction of the Estabrook Dam.

View (facing northwest) of the east oxbow area and natural “drainage lake” in Lincoln Park in early 1930s prior to construction of the Estabrook Dam.

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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22 thoughts on “A Freshwater Controversy: The Path Forward for Estabrook Dam”

  1. M says:

    Kudos to David Holmes for trying to dissect this complex issue and analyze reams of data, scientific and fiscal issues, etc. I hope his goal of productive dialog and innovative thinking about this might be achieved.

  2. The REV says:

    Wonderful summarization to this contentious issue. Simply stated, easily understood…the goal should and must be a win win resolution. All of us must come out winners. Not one side or the other. Continue the dialogue with the community. Not special interest groups.

  3. AG says:

    It is unfortunate how easy it has been for the pro-removal group to overly simplify the topic and control the discussion. Ever since I paddled the Milwuakee river for the first time a few years ago I knew the “lake” created by the dam could be a real asset if cleaned up. I hate that people are making up their minds on this topic simply based on the information put out there by the Riverkeepers, et al. without knowing the full scope of the decision.

  4. Tim says:

    This series of articles has played fast & loose with the facts. Their goal is to convince people the dam should stay, obviously people in support of that will praise the series.

  5. Mike Hennick says:

    Linking the Estabrook dam issue to Milwaukee’s desire to become a leader in freshwater initiatives (Global Water Center) is critical. If we cannot leverage this expertise to resolve a long-standing local issue to world-class standards, we have no business to aspire to host a “Global” water center. Kudos to Holmes to bringing clarity and historical perspective to this debate. Dismissing him as an apologist for the dam is misguided. Instead we should thank him for demonstrating a rare trait in our community: leadership. Restoring a “swimmable” Milwaukee river would be a powerfully symbolic achievement worthy of global attention.

  6. AG says:

    Tim, curious what you think about the information pushed by Riverkeepers?

  7. John Chamberlain says:

    So the crest of the Estabrook Dam exactly replicated the high point of the original “natural dam”. Sounds like the Estabrook Dam construction restored the river to its natural state. Removing it would not be natural … unless the original natural ridge was rebuilt. Am I missing something?

  8. Casey says:

    You know….I’ve really enjoyed these articles. I travel through Lincoln Park daily and with reading these articles I began check out some of the properties. My family just put in an offer on a home in Glendale.
    Repair the dam, raise waterfront properties’ taxes and off set the taxes for the rest of the city. Plus my kids prefer blue gill fishing over fly fishing for trout.

  9. Tim says:

    AG, balancing one biased source with another is a fool’s errand. This series hasn’t been about the facts but cherry-picking. Has Riverkeepers been doing the same?

  10. Willie Ray says:

    I find it difficult to understand how Tim can say with a straight face, “This series hasn’t been about the facts but cherry-picking.” For me, David Holmes’s cogent article seems to have left no cherry unpicked. Mr. Holmes examined methodically the FACTS separately and in their nuanced interconnectedness with each other through the past and into the future. It’s obvious that no amount of clear analysis can or would change Tim’s beliefs on this subject, nor the Milwaukee RiverKeepers with their blinkered vision.

  11. Marie says:

    Tim, Based on the author’s research as presented, does the series seem like cherry picking, as defined below? Perhaps you say that because you are a scientist and you believe some facts have been intentionally overlooked.

    “Choosing to make selective choices among competing evidence, so as to emphasize those results that support a given position, while ignoring or dismissing any findings that do not support it, is a practice known as “cherry picking” and is a hallmark of poor science or pseudo-science.”
    — Richard Somerville, Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, March 8, 2011

    However, if I recall, the author said he started looking at this issue without a preconceived bias and without a vested interest. If so, it sounds as if he approached it as a scientist and came up with different conclusions than some other scientists. Maybe the next step, if not yet done, is a peer review of his findings.

    I have great respect for Riverkeeper staff and others who say the dam must go. I also respect a freshwater scientist willing to wade through what seems relevant data and other perspectives. Although reading this has made me uncertain of my position, I still prefer having more info.

  12. Bill Sweeney says:

    I too have been impressed by the amount of research and analysis Mr Holmes has put into writing this series of articles. I hope that there are some other environmental scientists from the UWM School of Freshwater Science or elsewhere who could weigh in and give an opinion as to the soundness of his work. I have also been impressed by the tone he has used, striving to be objective and fair. In our current particular political climate, it is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps I should say a taste of clean water.

  13. damn_dam says:

    I find it interesting that Mr. Holmes purports to have no vested interest in the dam even though he works for Stantec…

  14. Willie Ray says:

    That Damn_Dam would like us to doubt David Holmes’s motives for writing these articles because of his involvement with Stantec. Maybe DD even whispers that Holmes has skin in the Estabrook game .

    About Stantec from their website, “We combine urban development and environmental solutions to serve private and public sector clients in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region.

    We offer interdisciplinary services in urban engineering, environmental assessments, landscape architecture, land planning, health and safety assessments, brownfield redevelopments, ecosystem restoration, and construction services to improve the communities around us.

    Our team of experts enhance the design and efficiency of our surroundings to improve the places where people live, work, and play.”

    Maybe if Holmes worked for White Castle and moonlighted as an environmental scientist that Damn_Dam could have more confidence in Holmes’s conclusions.

  15. truth fairy says:

    David Holmes, Environmental “Scientist” has not done his due diligence communicating with the other scientists at SFS. From what I have gathered he works with water policy but has not actually sat down for a fair critique of the facts with those scientists who are actively working in the Milwaukee River system.

    He recently sent an email with a link to this article which states, “Warning – I advocate for repairing the dam (a position that appears to be in opposition to every environmental group in the Milwaukee area).” But he has done so without seeking input from other researchers and instead written a series of articles in which his own opinion is clearly voiced.

  16. Kyle Roller says:

    The series of articles that David Holmes has written on Estabrook Dam is the basis of his Doctoral thesis that he is working on at UWM-Freshwater Science. His research on Estabrook Dam will examined and scrutinized by UWM facility chair and committee for quality and accuracy when he defends his dissertation.

  17. Jeremy says:

    I’ve found some practical issues with these articles. Specifically comparing the property values in Milwaukee or Glendale to those in Mequon Theinsville is absurd. There is a near-new swimming facility right in Lincoln Park, where is the clamoring for a swimming hole in the area? If those that live around the impoundment will receive the greatest benefit then they should be assessed as a group for the repairs. A well paved alley in the City of Milwaukee improves property values but everyone else doesn’t pay for it. I also haven’t heard a single report of the economic drain the lack of boating/fishing north of the dam has had on the area since the gates have been open.

  18. Dave Franz says:

    All property owners in the state of Wisconsin, whether they live in Glendale, Thiensville, Madison or Green Bay, have their property assessed at a higher value and subsequently pay more in property taxes if they have lakefront property, and the Wisconsin DNR classifies the water in Lincoln park and north of the park as a lake.

    “Use of the term “lake” for this section of the Milwaukee River as it existed prior to the flood control project is accurate, as it meets the definition of a “drainage lake” used by the Wisconsin DNR.”


  19. David Holmes says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I’ll address several of the comments in a series of separate responses.

    13. I have received no payment or other compensation for this article series. I work for an environmental consulting firm which has provided me with the opportunity to work on two dam removal and two fish passage projects on the Milwaukee River and it’s tributaries. However, this article series has nothing to do with my work which is primarily focused on brownfields redevelopment and urban revitalization.

    A former professional colleague of mine (who is a recognized expect on the ecology of the Milwaukee River) did complete a study in 2015 on “The Morphology of the Milwaukee River and its Influence on Estabrook Dam Management Options.” The conclusions of his study served in part as an inspiration for my further researching the dam, and ultimately writing this article series. The compensation to my firm for this report was $7,500 (which I believe is about 1/40th the cost of studies that have served as the basis for many of the arguments for removal of the dam). Financial incentive or vested interest is fair question to raise, but also one that should be directed at all parties involved with this controversy. I will note that writing for free about controversial topics is not necessarily a great business model.

  20. David Holmes says:

    Regarding comment 15: My advisor at the School of Freshwater Sciences (SFS) (one of three scientists who reviewed a draft manuscript of the article series in its entirely) suggested that I consider this topic for my dissertation research, but at present, I leaning towards other options.

  21. David Holmes says:

    Regarding comment #16. I assume that this comment may be from the same person that contacted me on my UW-Milwaukee email account, and to whom I committed to meet in person for a further in person “critique.”

    As noted above in my earlier response, I did have the entirety of the draft manuscript for the article series reviewed by my advisor at the SFS, as well as two other environmental scientists with 60 years of combined professional experience. I think that this was a reasonable standard of review for an article series on Urban Milwaukee (vs a peer reviewed article in a scientific journal) I firmly believe that good science (as well advocacy that truly serves the public interest) should be open to (and actively encourage) critical review.

    As noted, I sent an email to students and staff at the SFS, requesting feedback on the article series (and knowing that if there was any group in the Milwaukee area that could spot flaws or deficiencies in the analysis presented in the article series, it would be the scientists and researchers at the SFS). Depending on the feedback I receive, I will do a follow-up article if needed (subject of course, to consent by Bruce Murphy, who has had to suffer through editing these articles). I included a “warning” in my email as this is a controversial topic, and people with strongly held opinions who might prefer not to read the series (or who might be further motivated to read the series, and provide constructive criticism – also a good thing).

  22. David Holmes says:

    Regarding Comment #17. Jeremy – Restoring rivers and lakes in the U.S. to a “swimmable/fishable” condition is the fundamental goal of the Clean Water Effort – and arguablyfor the >$5 billion spent in the Milwaukee area over the past four decades to improve water quality in area rivers (including the Milwaukee River) as well as the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan. How important achieving swimmable rivers in the Milwaukee area should be is a good topic for discussion. My conclusion from having researched the historic locations for swimming in the area rivers is that Estabrook Park represents the best location to achieve this goal. There has been no discussion that I have found of this issue in the context of the Estabrook Dam debate.

    Regarding the comparison to the Mequon Thiensville Dam, this topic was discussed in greater detail in the 4th article in the series. The cost analyses used by advocates for removal of the dam contended that removal of the dam would have “little impact on property values in the area surrounding the existing water way and current impoundment.” I suspect that anyone in Wisconsin who has shopped for lakefront properties would immediately question this statement. It turned out that this contention was based on a study performed on properties located on or near 10 current or former dam impoundments in south-central Wisconsin (as well as 4 additional segments of free-flowing rivers).

    When I reviewed this study in detail, I found that only six of the sites studied were former impoundments where dams were removed, and four of these were located in small rural towns with fewer than 350 residents (the only exceptions being two impoundments located in the City of Baraboo [population 10,000]). Only two of the former impoundments were larger than 30 acres in area, and one of these (the Rockdale Dam in Baraboo) had a maximum depth of only 5 feet and an average depth of 1.7 feet (and therefore limited value for motorized recreational boating). Remarkably (given the study’s stated goal of evaluating the effects of dam removal on property values), of the 773 properties evaluated, only 116 were waterfront properties, and of these, only 6 were properties located on a former impoundment where a dam had been removed.

    The data for properties near the Mequon Thiensville Dam suggested that there was a significant premium for properties with access to a boatable impoundment vs those downstream (for which boating was not an option). The same premium on a percentage basis could certainly be expected for properties in Glendale, even if property values are somewhat lower than those in Mequon. The data presented appear to be far more relevant than any studies or data used to support a contention that there would be no impact on property values if the dam is removed.

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