Fate Of Controversial Dam Is Part Of Milwaukee County’s Budget Debate

County Executive Plans To Veto Dam Renovation Project, Push For Structure's Removal

The Estabrook Dam
Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

A controversial river dam in southeastern Wisconsin might once again be at risk of getting demolished.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said he’ll veto $750,000 from the county budget that was targeted for a fish passage at the Estabrook Dam along the Milwaukee River. Abele said he instead wants the nearly 80-year-old structure torn down and for that stretch of the river to become free flowing.

“You’re not going to find any environmental groups who won’t favor restoring the natural flow, and we’ve seen examples already in Milwaukee,” Abele said. “When the North Avenue Dam was removed, you got cleaner water, less flood risk, higher property values, more trails.”

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Small dams that aren’t used to generate electricity, like the Estabrook, have been removed from many U.S. rivers over the last 15 years. Backers of removing the Milwaukee River structure have long been making their case.

Milwaukee riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn said removing the Estabrook, located just a few miles from Lake Michigan, would help fish swim to upstream spawning areas.

“The problem is our fish aren’t reproducing,” she said. “Part of that is they really can’t get to their spawning areas, and they can’t get to their spawning areas because of all these dams and, frankly, other impediments.”

However, some members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors have taken steps to keep the dam intact. People living along the waterway or impoundment behind the Estabrook Dam have also been asking the board to override Abele’s veto of the fish passage.

Glendale resident Dave Dorner said if the dam comes down, water levels in the Milwaukee River will drop, as will nearby property values.

“We’ve surveyed 40-some realtors in the area, and they’ve said with the dam out and loss of use of the river, property values would drop maybe 10, 20 percent,” he said.

Dorner said water levels in the county’s nearby Lincoln Park would also go down.

If the county board upholds Abele’s veto during the board’s meeting on Wednesday, that doesn’t mean a quick tear-down of the dam. The cost of removal and stabilization of riverbanks above the dam is estimated at $1.7 million. Backers of dam removal said much of that money has been secured from various sources, but as much as $700,000 may need to be raised.