Why I Want to Remove the 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.