The Path Forward for Estabrook Dam
It’s a golden opportunity for Milwaukee if we tone down the rhetoric and consider the potential.
Estabrook Dam Repair Could Complement Milwaukee Water Cluster
The public television documentary “Milwaukee: A City Built on Water” helps explain and illustrate the historical and enduring importance of the Milwaukee River, Lake Michigan and other water resources in this city’s development as we move forward with various water initiatives. In researching Estabrook Dam’s history, one of the most surprising findings for me were parallels between the recent water initiatives (that have transformed Milwaukee’s riverfront areas, and led to establishing the School of Freshwater Sciences and the Global Water Center), and the flood mitigation and park improvement projects completed in the 1920s and ‘30s which included construction of the dam. Consider these similarities:
- Collaboration has been a key attribute of the current water initiatives. Likewise, the projects completed in the 1920s-’30s were the result of more than a decade of collaboration between the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, and a host of federal agencies, to design and construct projects that not only reduced flooding but significantly enhanced recreational uses of the Milwaukee River.
- Whereas the current water initiatives are motivated in part by an ambitious goal — to establish Milwaukee as a global leader in water technology, research, and innovation, the projects in the 1920s-30s were inspired by a similarly lofty goal – to provide high-quality amenities for swimming, boating, and ice skating in Lincoln Park that would be unmatched by any other U.S. city.
- Collaborations involving universities are a key component of today’s water initiatives and the 1920s-‘30s project, where the city and county collaborated with the hydraulics lab at UW-Madison to develop an innovative serpentine design for the spillway that combined beauty (a resemblance to a natural waterfall) with improved functionality (a greatly increased hydraulic capacity). The spillway design is an early Milwaukee water innovation.
- While many recent projects have focused on creating more naturalized habitat suitable for wildlife within the lower reaches of the Milwaukee River lying upstream from the estuary, the earlier projects included creation of a wildlife refuge on islands within Lincoln Park (a first for Milwaukee County?).
- Whereas community based organizations are playing key roles in Milwaukee’s current water initiatives, the Lincoln Park Advancement Commission played a key role in the earlier projects – by lobbying for changes in state law related to flood control projects, and submitting the first petition for flood relief under the new law.
- Whereas over $5 billion has been spent in recent decades for water quality improvements intended in part to help make the Milwaukee River more swimmable, the earlier projects shared the goal of making the Milwaukee River more swimmable, and achieved this through construction of public swimming beaches and support facilities at Lincoln and Estabrook parks that for a period were used by several hundred thousand residents per year.
- While the success of the current water initiative is partly dependent on leveraging scarce federal and state funding, the earlier projects were accomplished in the midst of the Great Depression through the strategic leveraging of the Civilian Conservation Corps and other federal, state, and local public works programs.
While the significance of these historic similarities to the current controversy is subject to debate, there is a human tendency to underestimate the achievements (and technical sophistication) of earlier generations. Swimmable rivers is still an unachieved goal for Milwaukee’s current water initiatives, whereas the projects completed in the 1920s and 1930s along the Milwaukee River (shown in the above photo) included construction of swimming beaches at both Lincoln and Estabrook Park, which were enjoyed by several hundred thousand residents per year during a brief “golden era” for swimming on the Milwaukee River. The Estabrook Dam should at least be considered in the context of Milwaukee’s history of water innovation, and the goal of a more naturalized river weighed against the achievements of these earlier projects – which mitigated flooding, enhanced recreational uses, preserved the drainage lake, while respecting the rights and concerns of property owners.
The current challenges associated with the dam appear well suited to innovations in systems to guard against power failure, to improve automation of the gates and to provide “real-time” control in response to rapidly changing flow conditions during a storm event, and to design a fish passage that could enhance recreational opportunities as well as reduce upstream flood levels. The possibility for this type of innovation to occur here seems even more plausible given Milwaukee’s status as a leading global center for industrial controls (Rockwell Automation), advanced batteries (Johnson Controls), emergency power systems (Generac and Kohler Power Systems), and use of real-time control systems for managing the flow of stormwater (work by the Milwaukee sewerage district). Estabrook Dam could provide a golden opportunity to demonstrate Milwaukee’s water-related innovations related to designing engineered systems to alleviate flooding while minimizing negative environmental impacts.
The Path Forward
Perhaps the most important factor to weigh in evaluating repair versus removal is that a decision to remove the dam will be permanent. Due to the regulatory challenges with trying to permit any new dam in Wisconsin, building a replacement dam at some future date would likely be impossible. The option to remove the dam after its repair will always be a possibility, and the decision could be made at some future date once there are better data available to document the negative environmental impact of the repaired dam (if any), the flood impacts (if any), and the preferences of residents in neighborhoods that should be included in any future evaluation process.
Overall, the greatest challenge for this section of the Milwaukee River over the past eight years was completing the sediment removal project, which was an overwhelming accomplishment. Repair of the dam is a far smaller, less costly, less technically challenging project. It’s unfortunate that the acrimonious process and all-or-nothing legal battle has made it nearly impossible for any discussions to take place on how to most effectively implement the dam’s repair while moving forward with a host of other improvements and/or opportunities for collaboration. If the adversarial process was replaced by a collaborative process that included repair of the dam, this alternative path forward might include:
- Application of new technological innovations to the challenges posed by dam automation that would reflect Milwaukee’s continued global leadership in industrial control systems, advanced battery technology, and emergency backup power systems.
- Carrying forward with plans initially put forward in the 1920s to transform the south bank of the river opposite Estabrook Park into a publicly accessible green space and environmental corridor. These plans were derailed in the 1950s by the City of Milwaukee’s decision to fill the 15-acre “Blue Hole” lake with municipal waste, and later by UW-Milwaukee’s needs beginning in the mid-1970s for the area to serve as a remote parking lot for commuters, as this story notes. The Blue Hole site and other underutilized areas along the south bank of the Milwaukee River across from Estabrook Park were identified as an environmental corridor in plans developed by SEWRPC more than four decades ago, and the eventual inclusion of the site in the park system was acknowledged by the city when it voted in 1955 to fill the site.
- Design and construction of an updated fish passage at the Estabrook Dam that not only improves access for fish and other aquatic organisms, but which also provides passage for canoes and kayaks, and incorporates an increased weir-length to further mitigate upstream flooding. And while we’re at it, let’s add fish and kayak passages at the Kletzsch Park Dam and the Rock Ledge Falls to create a river that is fish passable and kayak passable from the Mequon-Thiensville Dam to Lake Michigan.
- A potential collaboration by Milwaukee County with the Milwaukee sewerage district, applying the latter’s expertise in using real-time control technologies in the combined sewer and deep tunnel systems, to improving operation and adjustment of the gates of the dam in response to changes in surface water flow during storm events.
- Installation of one or more flood gages within the dam impoundment area to provide real-time flood level data within the impoundment that could be used to improve operation of the gates in response to flooding, as well as to provide data that could be used to further calibrate and refine the flood model for this section of the river.
- An expanded outreach process that once again leverages the involvement of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, only now to help fulfill the vision of the Milwaukee Water Commons in broadening Milwaukee’s water initiatives to include participation by residents of all income levels and backgrounds.
- Construction (once water quality measures are achieved) of a new public swimming beach at Lincoln Park that will help achieve the multi-decades goal of making the Milwaukee River once again a “swimmable river.”
- Construction of new boat launches and rental facilities that will make the impoundment a boat-able water amenity accessible to all.
- New collaborations with local universities to provide enhanced monitoring of water quality, flow, and ecological conditions in this section of the Milwaukee River to advance the science relevant to solving the continuing global challenge of balancing the needs of the human and natural communities in use and control of river systems.
- Renewed efforts to restore funding for researchers within the WDNR. According to its research, the Estabrook Dam is only one of approximately 3,900 dams (and 1,160 large dams) that exist in Wisconsin and for which additional research on the economic and environmental impacts of removal vs repair would be of use in future decisions. The decision over the fate of this single dam has generated significant interest and concern by thousands of area residents (and voters), and could have tens of millions of dollars in economic impacts.
The alternative path forward is removal of the dam. This will almost certainly lead to a series of lawsuits by property owners, and a continuation of the acrimonious relationship between environmental groups and property owners bordering the river. If a significant decrease in property values is proven to occur as a result of the dam’s removal, this will impact the long-term credibility of groups advocating for removal. More “bad news” will likely be reported on a regular basis, as other costs associated with removal become more apparent. For the Woolen Mills Dam in West Bend, the initial removal cost of $82,000 proved to be accurate, but ended up being less than 4 percent of a total of $2.3 million ultimately spent on improvements and restoration within the 61-acre former impoundment area.
All of which convinces me the decision whether to remove or repair the Estabrook Dam is hugely important to the future of this metro area. The issue deserves a full discussion of all the potential costs and benefits and collaborative opportunities of either decision.
Article Continues - Pages: 1 2