County Executive Chris Abele
Op Ed

Why I Want to Remove Estabrook Dam

It’s better for the environment, better for the county’s budget.

By - Dec 19th, 2016 11:23 am
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Estabrook Dam

Estabrook Dam

The conversation around what to do with aging, obsolete, non-functioning dams is not specific to Milwaukee County, or even just to Wisconsin. All over the country, dam owners are weighing the fiscal and environmental costs of dams that serve no useful purpose, especially as we balance other more pressing infrastructure needs.

Milwaukee County is responsible for maintaining nearly $2 billion worth of buildings, including ones critical to public safety. That’s on top of the 156 parks, nearly 600 miles of highways and parkways, 96 bridges, not to mention hundreds of buses, and dozens of snow plows and sheriff’s squads that the County maintains. The Public Policy Forum recently reported that capital needs for County arts, cultural facilities and parks alone total $246 million. In the coming years we as a community will reimagine what is possible in Mitchell Park, make significant improvements in safety, service, and efficiency at the courthouse and safety building, and we will invest in modernizations and improvements that will ensure the future sustainability of our transit system.

In the face of these crucial infrastructure needs, and with declining financial support from the state and federal governments, it would be an affront to the taxpayers who trust public officials to spend their hard-earned money in a smart and responsible way to essentially throw $4.1 million away by rebuilding an unnecessary dam that provides a nominal benefit to a handful of property owners upstream.

And that’s to say nothing of the ecological cost associated with rebuilding a dam that impairs the free flow of the river.

Scientists and environmental advocates have correctly argued for years that dams have a profound negative ecological impact, as they block the movement of water, sediment, fish, and other species. This can impair water quality, temperature, and composition, as well as diminish recreational opportunities. In short — dams like the Estabrook Dam can pose a serious threat to river ecosystems.

The dam is also an eyesore that invites constant graffiti, litter, and unsafe conditions. Some of the things that are continually found in the river because of the Dam include old tires, empty prescription pill bottles, beer cans, Styrofoam cups, and other garbage. Repairing the Dam won’t solve this problem. It would simply require even more time and money to be spent on maintenance.

These reasons and more are a big part of why the trend nationally has been for dam removal. According to American Rivers, since 1912, more than 1,300 dams have been removed across the U.S., and 62 dams were removed in 2015 alone.

Even with science and sound fiscal policy solidly behind removal, some people still want to rebuild the Estabrook Dam. Mostly, they have cited concerns about the potential impact on property values. The good news is we have a case study on dam removal right here in Milwaukee. More than a decade ago, the North Avenue dam was removed. At the time, we heard similar concerns about the impact on property values. Not only did property values not decrease, they’ve actually gone up.

Those results seem to be backed up on a wider scale by a 2008 study by William Provecher and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin which found that small dam removals actually improve nearby property values. Specifically, they found that “shoreline frontage along small impoundments confers no noticeable increase in residential property price compared to frontage along free-flowing rivers and that residential nonfrontage property located in the vicinity of a free-flowing river is more valuable than identical property located in the vicinity of an impoundment.”

The benefits of dam removal are economic and ecological. In government we often have to make tough choices. This should not be one of them. It’s time to remove the Estabrook Dam.

By Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics, Real Estate

12 thoughts on “Op Ed: Why I Want to Remove Estabrook Dam”

  1. It’s worth noting “property owners” thought the development of the Highline in New York would hurt their property values. Instead it became the biggest tourist attraction in New York and fueled a real estate boom in the neighborhood.

  2. Joe says:

    It’s also worth noting that the primary roadblock to dam removal, Theo Lipscomb, is neighbors with the very people complaining their property values will be impacted. His position has nothing to do with river health or budgetary concerns, which should always outweigh the private interests of a few riverfront landowners.

  3. Casey says:

    If the dam is removed it would nice if the made nice portage trails at both Kletzsch and Estabrook falls/dams.

  4. mbradleyc says:

    You had me at “remove”.

  5. Dan says:

    Well, at least the billionaire’s son-politician stopped calling the middle and working class families of the neighboods he’s trying to destroy “Rich”.

    These families can’t afford to be upside down on their mortgages when their property values drop, to say nothing of the increased flood risk. Be forewarned Milwaukee, unless you live on Lake Dr, he’ll be after you next!

  6. Glen Goebel says:

    The county executive continues in his campaign to confuse the casual reader about this dam. He couldn’t succeed with the county board so he underhandedly side-stepped our government and sold Estabrook Park.
    He’s attempting to bolster his phony claim that removing a lake wouldn’t harm property values in the surrounding area, by citing the Provecher analysis, but Abele fails to even acknowledge that the study he referred to clearly says “The conclusion should not be extended to large impoundments where such activities as fishing, boating, and swimming are especially attractive”. That 10+ year old study only used data from small dams on small shallow rural rivers and 82% of the properties had no frontage. Estabrook Dam is a large dam on a large river with a sizable lake in which boating and fishing have been prevalent.
    Abele’s claims of water quality are also false. His Parks department used the Riverkeeper’s amateur tester data, (which wasn’t even gathered in the impounded area) rather than the readily available professionally tested data from MMSD. Since 1981, MMSD testing data was systematically collected twice a month from two sites inside the impoundment as well as multiple upstream and downstream sites. MMSD data, if properly analyzed, show very little evidence of either heating within the impoundment, oxygen depletion, or it acting as a sink for lead. Additional analysis is being conducted at this time, but none of Executive Abele’s water quality claims appear to be true.
    The cost to tax payers is Abele’s biggest whopper. In most dam removals, upstream restoration accounts for the largest cost, yet the Parks department, under the county executive didn’t attribute any cost to this at all. The City of Glendale is the most affected upstream area affected by this dam and has already passed two resolutions regarding problems already caused by the dam draw-down. Flooding hazards caused by the lowered river and channel overgrowth are already a huge concern. Upstream restoration costs will easily be $20 million dollars and will likely be significantly more. Lawsuits by property owners could double that amount.
    Our government funded a $34 million PCB remediation and cleanup of the Milwaukee River but if the River elevations drop, that cleanup will no longer meet Wisconsin DNR NR720 requirements and another huge and costly cleanup may be required.
    Abele has always hated this dam and his reelection campaign falsely portrayed the dam as benefitting a few rich people, when in reality 74% of the frontage is public land, mostly parks for the recreational benefit of all.
    Why is our county executive not telling us the truth and why is he so opposed to the only navigable lake inside our county?

  7. Tim says:

    The real issue here is rote-educated simpletons that are afraid of change. All the ignorant bluster doesn’t care the county doesn’t maintain the dam, that it’s been causing more flooding than preventing and even Scott Walker’s own corrupt DNR could see that this thing has to go. The County doesn’t have the money to re-build a mistake that will continue to harm water quality while probably just falling back into disrepair in 10 years.

    Also if you’re keeping score, making awkward pot shots as Abele and what your idea is a rich area (East Side is the richest in the county? You need to get out more.), does not make you some type of ‘liberal’ crusader. It shows that you’re ignorant, close-minded, and pandering to a bunch of retirees… speak to the facts or go to jsonline.

  8. Glen Goebel says:

    Pay attention: Self important loud mouthed people with short attention spans, inability to understand complex issues and knees that jerk too quickly are snow balls rolling down the mountain, when it comes to fake news.

    Regarding your comment about the dam affecting a rich area, you must not have any idea of where this dam is located. Also, it was Abele and Walker’s control of the Parks department that prevented the dam from being maintained. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars in a special account that can only be used for dam maintenance, and they refused to do it.

    If it is too expensive to repair, then how can we afford removal, which is at least ten times more? The biggest problem is cronyism and lazy reporting of the truth when it comes to a complex issue.

  9. Jason says:

    Is not the dam only a few blocks from River Hills where all the rich, fat cat, Democrats live. Maybe, Hillary and Abele could toss their supporters a bone.

  10. Ryan N says:

    @Glen you’re spreading lies, it’s much cheaper to remove the dam than to repair, far cheaper. The dam has basically been “down” for years now, I would suggest we check the property tax rolls and I bet the people’s land and home values have risen in the period since the dam has been open.

    If they still want to rebuild the dam I would suggest they have to pay among themselves full price and divide up the $4.1 million among themselves and leave the rest of the county out of it. Thankfully it appears the dam is coming down, and the environmentally and fiscally better option won.

  11. Removing the dam will have a minimal effect on most of the property owners and allow the river to start the natural process of cleaning itself up. It is my understanding that the soil under the river north of the dam contains a large amount of PCP’s which would be much easier to remove once a lake is replaced with a naturally flowing river. Once this is done the property owners will have gained a significant amount of new land though they will have to do their speed boating elsewhere. It will also provide a much easier time for spawning fish to make their way upstream. Perhaps in my lifetime fish taken from the Milwaukee River will be edible. For those critics I suggest you look at the area around the former North Avenue Dam. that removal seems to have spurrd development while maintaining a natural landscape on the east side of the river.

  12. Frank here from, South Milwaukee, we have our Mill Pond dam in South Milwaukee, We see Abele and the DNR coming for it, with the help of a SEWPAC study. We will be ready to defend the dam using historical significance argument.

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