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Views Collide on Future of Estabrook Dam

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S Bence
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People packed the Nicolet High School cafeteria Wednesday evening to consider three Estabrook Dam alternative plans - repair, remove or a hybrid.

The dam's owner, Milwaukee County is under state order to come up with a permanent solution.

Barbara Frank doesn’t live next to or near the Milwaukee River but says she’s concerned about its “well being”

“I came partly to get more information; I’ve been following the issue in general. I have tended to feel that the dam should come out because I think the river will be much cleaner. And while there’s a small group of people who love it for fishing and a view from their homes, and I empathize with them; I think that the overall wellbeing of our region Is more important than one particular group and we’d benefit from a cleaner river. I’m still reading material and I’m trying to be open, but that’s what I think at the moment,” Frank says.

Milwaukee County Parks director John Dargle urged attendees to share their views. He said the point of the meeting was to explain options and urged people to weigh in on line through September 17.

Ultimately, in addition to meeting state environmental standards, Milwaukee County must let the Bureau of Land Management know which alternative it plans to select.

The Bureau, a federal agency, is involved because it owns the island located mid-Milwaukee River on which some of the dam infrastructure rests. For that reason, the federal agency would have to approve any construction, or deconstruction, on the island.

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An attendee silently held up sign throughout meeting.

  Supervisor Theo Lipscomb wanted the assembled crowd to know that county board already voted to repair Estabrook Dam. Back in 2009.

"We went to the DNR and the BLM (Burea of Land Management) issue came up and we were told to do an environmental assessment and look at alternatives. But that does not change the policy, existing policy stands. The decision was made in 2009," Lipscomb says.

One attendee (reporter was unable to identify) questioned the $2,518,000 estimated cost of repairing the dam. He thinks it was set too high.

“It’s apparent that the costs have been inflated to make the repair of the dam look bad, while removal look good. The current cost estimates are almost 70 percent higher than the original estimate, yet the inflation index has only risen 16 percent.  Engineering costs have increased 210 percent although much of the engineering has already been done.”  

Peter Horgan lives upstream from the Estabrook dam. He escribes himself as an environmentalist who does not think the dam should be removed.

“The problem with the removal of the dam or the rock ramp is there is nothing there to back it up as far as a plan for restoration. I see in 20 years we’re going to be right back here again, and then we might have funding we need for a real plan. My problem has always been, we have no plan for restoration if we pull the dam," Horgan says.

Mike Kuhr has a different take on the readiness to mobilize a restoration plan. He represents the Wisconsin chapter of Duck Unlimited. The group supports dam removal.

“The conservation community it tied together, we all know where the funds are; we have specialized grant writers who know how to go out and get the money. We’ve worked extensively with the DNR on stream bank restoration projects. I know the local chapter here, it does 8 projects a year – every year, and it’s thousands of volunteer r hours that get put into these projects. I have know doubt that support would be here for the Milwaukee River and the conservation organizations would be there to make sure that stream bank corridor gets rehabilitated,” Kuhr says.

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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.