Questions and Answers on Estabrook Dam

Part 2 of analysis disagreeing with our series and arguing dam should not be repaired.

By - Mar 22nd, 2016 02:58 pm

Will alternatives to dam repair eliminate unique recreational use opportunities for the impoundment?

Mr. Holmes argues that removal of the dam would result in significant impacts on recreational values within the impoundment, and specifically mentions lost opportunities for recreational boating, kayaking and other paddle sports, ice skating and swimming. In my opinion, repairing the dam to create a “natural lake” will not provide any unique or additional recreational opportunities that all County residents would be able to participate in.

There are no adequate public boat launch and trailer parking facilities along the impoundment that would allow all County residents an opportunity to participate in power boat recreation. Those opportunities are generally available to river property owners that typically launch once during the boating season. Unbeknownst to most boaters, there is a public launch located at the end of Apple Blossom Lane in the Village of Glendale. However, the launch is in fair condition at best and is not always maintained. Vehicle and trailer parking is very limited along the residential street.

If the County chose to adopt an ordinance that is consistent with state boating safety laws, power boat speeds would be limited to slow no wake within 100-feet of shoreline, and within 200-feet of a shoreline for personal watercraft (jet skis). These rules also have the benefit of reducing waves breaking on the shoreline that cause erosion, most of it along publically owned shoreline. By my estimates, power boats would be limited to wake speeds for a river mile or 34-acres between the dam and the confluence of the east and west “oxbows”, and personal watercraft would be limited to just 0.2-miles or 9-acres. Given these limited areas, encouraging more public power boat access and operation would only cause congestion and compromise safety.

The Milwaukee River will continue to be navigable for recreation should the dam be removed; just not by power boats. Recreational boating by paddle boats such as kayak and canoe is and would always be possible. So the question remains, should Milwaukee County taxpayers subsidize the few riparian landowners who wish to operate powered boats on a limited portion of the impoundment for six months out of the year?

Mr. Holmes describes how the dam and resulting impoundment was constructed, in part, to provide swimming opportunities and that the swimming beaches were eventually abandoned because of poor water quality. Similar public beaches and private swimming schools were operated along the North Avenue Dam and its impoundment and were also abandoned because of poor water quality and, I might add, filling in by polluted “mucky” sediment. He is also correct in saying that billions of dollars have been spent abating water pollution and making waters “fishable and swimmable”. The investments and accomplishments to date are impressive, but unfortunately absent a similar financial and political investment to abate stormwater and leaking sanitary sewers, we are decades away from meeting water quality standards protective for full body contact. As a group, fecal coliform bacteria are present in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals. Although fecal coliform bacteria are not harmful, their presence indicates that other pathogenic organisms may be present in the water. Fecal coliform bacteria levels can be very high in the Milwaukee River and the Estabrook impoundment, especially following precipitation and runoff events.  While providing safe swimming opportunities is a laudable goal, promoting a return of swimming beaches in Lincoln Park without first addressing high levels of bacteria and sedimentation which the dam contributes to, is not feasible, or effective from a public health perspective.

While ice skating is more feasible on an impoundment than a free-flowing river, neither is an ideal site from a safety perspective. Even on impounded water, river currents, flow and freeze/thaw cycles, and water inputs from storm sewers affect the quality and safety of ice. While the County would have difficulty controlling all access points along the impoundment, they would likely restrict formal ice skating to backwater areas that are easy to monitor. The County has approximately 33 park ponds totaling 144-acres well distributed throughout the County of at least 1-acre, many of which are located in neighborhoods with limited resources. According to the Parks web site, the County operates nine formal ice skating facilities, of which four are on ponds and the remainder land-based. Most park ponds are degraded by failing banks, sedimentation and nuisance vegetation. Some experience winter fish kills, and most could benefit from the County following through with existing management plan recommendations for improving their condition. All of these ponds have limited habitat and fisheries, and all are in need of improvements. It could be argued that investing in improving park ponds in our neighborhoods would be a more cost effective way of improving recreational opportunities for all County residents than keeping the Dam Impoundment. Shouldn’t our County Supervisors be looking for taxpayer savings and potential funding for needier, more cost effective and sustainable water-based projects that will benefit more County residents closer to their residences?

Recreational fishing opportunities for game fish would be expected to improve in the absence of the dam and impoundment. Overall fish diversity and abundance should increase for native game and non-game fish species less tolerant of degraded habitat; while numbers and relative abundance of fish species tolerant of degraded habitat would decrease especially common carp. Similar results were observed along the Milwaukee River following the removal of the Milwaukee River Woolen Mills Dam at West Bend in 1988 and the removal of the North Avenue Dam at Milwaukee in 1997.

Will constructing a fish passage be effective?

By amendment, Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. added $750,000 to the County’s 2016 budget to construct a fish passage at the Estabrook Dam. While including funds for an engineered fish passage facility at the Estabrook Dam may have been done by the Milwaukee County Board with good intentions, an engineered fish passage would only partially address one of the many negative environmental impacts from the Dam, and none of the flooding and drainage impacts of repairing the Dam.

As part of the environmental assessment, AECOM developed a fishway alternative that included the removal of the 222-ft long, 10-gated spillway section of the dam and lowering the 562-ft long serpentine fixed crest spillway by 6-inches. The gated spillway would be replaced with a “rock ramp” fishway that mimics a natural stream’s riffle run features. It is a “passive” design such that it operates “run-of-the-river” and because a large volume of river discharge can pass through the fishway, it is very effective and efficient at attracting fish to the fishway entrance and passing all native fish species regardless of river flow conditions. This alternative would not cause any increase in the 100-year flood elevation, and under median river flow conditions, water levels along the impoundment would decrease between 0.4 and 1.2-feet. Water depths would range from 1.9 and 7.9-feet, and would be adequate for power boats except near Bender Rd. Although this alternative has a 20-year present worth cost of $3.3 million or $2.7 million less than the County Board’s policy of dam repair with a fishway, it was rejected by proponents seeking repair of the dam because they are unwilling to compromise and accept any reduction in pool depth. In addition, this option was rejected by those seeking to remove the dam as it is roughly double the cost of dam removal, which would provide much cheaper and effective fish passage.

Absent the design and construction of a “passive” fishway, an “active” fishway design will have to be pursued by Milwaukee County. “Active” fishway designs are more expensive to design, construct and require daily to seasonal adjustments to flow control structures such as gates and weirs to ensure flows are not too high or too low for fish to get through the structure. The amounts of water active fishways are capable of passing is typically less than a “passive” design during higher spring flow and the peak fish migrating period. As a result, they can be less effective and efficient at attracting migrating fish to the entrance and therefore less fish are passed upstream. This can be problematic for the Estabrook Dam since an “active” designed fishway would need to be constructed along the gated section of the dam where the County owns property so their personnel are able to access, operate and maintain the facility. This design would be far removed from the fixed crest spillway where the existing fish attracting flows are located. Also, as was discussed earlier, the County has a $110,000 annual shortfall of funds to operate the dam much less the added expense and responsibility of operating and maintaining the added fishway. If a fishway can be designed and constructed to not increase flooding, important questions remain regarding its value. Will the fishway be effective and efficient at passing preferred fish stocks? Will the County have sufficient resources to operate and maintain the fishway as well as the Dam?  Is there suitable quality and quantity of spawning and nursery habitat in the Estabrook impoundment that preferred fish stocks will use?  Will the habitat be of suitable quality and quantity to create a self-sustaining recreational fishery?

The current best strategy for fish management is to pass fish from Lake Michigan, the Estuary and lower reaches of the Milwaukee River to where suitable wetland and riverine spawning and nursery habitats exist upstream. As the impoundment fills with fine sediment, habitat suitable for preferred species such as walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass and lake sturgeon will be poor, which means less fish will successfully reproduce and populations may decline. These preferred native species will likely and hopefully continue upstream in search of more suitable habitats. Less desirable fish species such as common carp, do very well in warm, stagnant and silty habitats, and these are the populations that will likely increase behind a repaired Estabrook Dam.

Billions of dollars have been invested by private entities and public tax dollars over the last several decades to enhance the beneficial uses of the area’s water resources. Notably, Ozaukee County and other stakeholders have spent over $10 million improving fish passage and habitat along their part of the Milwaukee River upstream. In general, dollars are decreasingly available for these types of habitat projects, and we need to invest in projects that offer the greatest benefits for the many at the lowest cost. For Milwaukee County residents and political leaders, we have ever increasing and competing fiscal needs and realities for our public facilities. A decision to maintain an 80 year old structure that offers limited benefits at great cost without considering other viable alternatives is not responsible. Keeping the dam because it seemed like a good idea over 80 years ago may not make sense now.  In the words of David Rosgen, a practitioner of river restoration, “We all tend to learn directly from past experience of trial and error, but if we do not understand – if we do not take a closer, quantitative look at our rivers over time – we have a tendency to unknowingly repeat the errors of the past.”

Will Wawrzyn is a former employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Prior to his retirement in 2015, he was a water resources biologist (1977-1996) and fisheries biologist (1997-2015) working out of the UW Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science.

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Categories: Environment, Op-Ed

3 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Questions and Answers on Estabrook Dam”

  1. Dan says:

    With the dam removed, and the river-bed exposed most of the year, who is going to clean up all of the brush and trees that take root in the river bed and all of the debris that collects in them?

    This will create ice dams, which will cause flooding each spring!

    Will the county dredge the riverbed prior to each spring flood season? How much will that cost?

    The recent brush cleanup in Lincoln park was a one time activity that was part of the EPA PCB removal project. Prior to that, the river flow was significantly impacted. This was never an issue when the dam was in operation.

  2. Rich says:

    @Dan, no one does that north of the former North Ave dam site and there are no problems, why expect any different?

  3. Dan says:

    @Rich – have you visited the areas north of North Ave Dam and North of Estabrook Dam? The topography is very different. The banks upriver of the north Ave dam are much taller and buildings are farther back. The better question would be, why would we expect one solution to work the same everywhere without assessing each individual environment?

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