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Milwaukee County Considers Solutions for Ailing Estabrook Dam on Milwaukee River

S Bence

The Estabrook Dam has been a fixture on the river since the 1930s. Today, it is mired in debate.

The dam, located near Port Washington Road and Hampton Avenue in Glendale, is in poor shape. In fact a few years ago, the DNR ordered Milwaukee County to open the gates until it came up with a permanent solution.

In Lincoln Park, the dammed water created an impoundment, essentially a small lake. It became popular for recreating. Then upstream, people built homes along the river because the dam slowed the flow and water levels rose.

The most vocal group calling for the dam’s removal is Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Biologist Cheryl Nenn works with the organization. She says Riverkeeper tried to push action through circuit court, calling the structure an irreparable nuisance; and the group has generally dogged Milwaukee County.

“The DNR came out here and did some inspections in 2008 after a set of really bad storms and realized the dam was in really bad condition and they were afraid it could fail and cause harm downstream so they ordered the County to open it. So, the gates have been open since 2009,” Nenn says.

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A serpentine structure holds back logs and debris so they don’t damage the dam. Cheryl Nenn calls it “dragon’s teeth.” 

The teeth are working and right now it’s holding back a lot of material, from a tangle of fallen trees to boards. Plants appear to have taken root in the thick of it.

Nenn says maintenance of the teeth has been a steady concern.

“As a paddler, it’s often hard to get through those because there’s so much debris. The problem is there’s really no place to take it, so it’s created this enormous pile behind us," Nenn says. "I think historically, they used to burn it, but now there’s regulations that make it difficult for them to burn, so it just sits."

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Debris removed from serpentine "teeth" plunked above east bank of Milwaukee River

Milwaukee County is considering three alternatives. One, is to repair the dam; two, is to remove it. Some consider the third proposal a compromise measure. It would create a rock ramp to allow fish to pass through, but still create an impoundment, but a more shallow one than the original version.

On Wednesday, the county parks department will hold a public meeting on the dam at Nicolet High School. 

Cheryl Nenn describes Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s position calling for the dam’s removal as “one of the rare circumstances where the cheapest option is also the best for the environment."

"It often feel like I’m asking people to spend more money to do good things for the river. But in this case the cheapest thing is also the best thing for the river – to take down the dam," Nenn says. "Let the river flow, it’s the best thing for the river, it will improve water quality, it will improve water quality, it’ll improve fish passage.”

Glenn Goebel is one of the homeowners near the dam who wants to see it brought back to life.

Goebel’s home is three-fourths of a mile upstream and says he’s lived there since 1986. He is  part of a group called Milwaukee River Preservation Association.

Goebel says he’s read the lengthy environmental assessment that will be reviewed at Wednesday’s public meeting – and he’s not happy with the document.

“My neighbors and I – especially me – are so upset because we feel that it is untrue and inaccurate portrayal and they have cherry-picked information so as to mislead the public,” Goebel says.

Goebel says a functioning dam allowed visitors to enjoy the impoundment or lake in Lincoln Park and raised the comfort level of homeowners along the river.

“We don’t have to fear for our houses being flooded in high rain events. So one aspect was flood protection,” Goebel says. 'Another one was a serene urban lake right in our city, and not far from the inner city and a lot of people were enjoying it; a lot of people were fishing."

Now a study the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission released this year, found that the Estabrook Dam increased the probability of flooding.

But Goebel doesn’t believe SEWRPC’s findings; his group has gathered its own data. He says it shows flooding risks are higher when no dam is present.

“We got them some information and they did not use the proper engineering coefficient – it’s called 'Manning’s Roughness Coefficient.' They minimally changed that, but not enough and when we got back with them and we said can you run another projection. They wouldn’t take the new information; that Milwaukee County Parks would have to ask them to redo it,” Goebel says.

Residents can also weigh in on Estabrook Dam’s future, online or by mail, through September 17.

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View of Estabrook Dam from upstream on the Milwaukee River.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.