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Future of Estabrook Dam on Milwaukee River Remains Murky

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S Bence
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It's difficult to keep up with the status of the dam, but probably not for the citizens of Glendale. It's where the dilapidated 70-plus-year-old structure stands in the Milwaukee River. Tuesday night, Glendale held a public information session to bat around the issue yet again.

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Commemorative plaque in Estabrook Park.

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb says many people don’t realize the dam has restored the Milwaukee River upstream to its more natural state.

“Historically there was a rock ledge approximately in the vicinity of the dam which held the water at that water level. The dam was built to restore the water level, but to provide the additional control of being able to spill off the water when needed,” Lipscomb says

Lipscomb says debate about the dam’s future raged long before his election to the County Board in 2008.

He stands solidly on the side of repairing the dam, even though Lipscomb says it comes with a price tag of more than $2 million.

“The problem had been that for decades the County wasn’t maintaining it as they should and they weren’t operating it as they should,” Lipscomb says.

As a result of the neglect, the DNR cited the dam as a safety hazard and ordered Milwaukee County to either repair or tear down the structure.

That was 2009.

Lipscomb says, since then, most supervisors have favored mending Estabrook and even appropriated the money for it.

“There’s enough money to repair the dam, so it’s only been through administrative delay that it hasn’t happen. Obviously more recently there have been some lawsuits. Neither of those at this point are impediments. So, I’m told it’s on track for repair in 2016,” Lipscomb says.

Lipscomb says a functioning dam would afford benefits beyond the people living immediately upstream.

“Most of the river frontage is within our public parks. Most of the access could be public and we should work towards enhanced access for the public so that it’s more broadly understood that this is a public amenity and not a private amenity,” he says.

Cheryl Nenn is standing on some of that public land in Estabrook Park.

Nenn works with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a group calling for dam removal.

Nenn maintains the change would benefit both human life – by reducing flooding risks upstream – and aquatic ecosystems.

“ It clearly blocks fish passage; whether or not certain fish can get past the dam also affects the different species of mussels that can grow in the river, because most of mussels life cycles are dependent on fish hosts. So it’s complicated situation and keeping the dam in here because you say it basically reestablishes the high water level of the area, kind of negates the fact that there a lot of problems caused by the dam itself,” she says.

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Cheryl Nenn stands next to pile of debris removed from Estabrook Dam area. "This is a several-story-high pile of trash and debris. Every once and a while it is removed from what we the dragon's teeth which are large structures in front of the dam to block major pieces of debris, like trees, from getting into the dam, especially when the gates are closed. This pile has probably been here for a decade," Nenn says.

She points to debris in the river and more stacked up above the river's edge.

Nenn says some supervisors took to political maneuvering. Last winter, County Executive Chris Abele vetoed the board’s provision to repair.

“Actually as part of the budget process, they were unable to have enough vote to override Abele’s veto, there was a separate process to provide bonding funds for all capital projects for the County for the whole year – for the airport, including the museum – and they slipped into that package a policy change to change the policy back to repair. And that was done at a finance committee in February of this year without any public notice. It wasn’t listed on the agenda,” Nenn says.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper sued.

Tuesday's meeting in Glendale was designed for further public discussion, and more will follow.

Nenn says in order to move from whatever plan is selected to positioning heavy equipment in the riverbed, will require a permit from the DNR.

“And as part of that permit, they’re being required to do an environmental impact statement. And the DNR is now in receipt of that, and they’ll be setting public hearings,” she says.

What started six years ago with a DNR order isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon. That leaves homeowners along the river’s edge and the life within in, in continued limbo.

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Lake Effect executive producer Mitch Teich discusses Estabrook Dam debate with WUWM's Susan Bence.

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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.