Monday, February 23, 2009

My letter to the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal regarding the removal of the Estabrook Dam on our Milwaukee River

I wrote this letter as a rebuttal to a deceptive and disingenuous letter written on behalf of property owners eager to protect a contaminated impoundment.

The original letter to the editor can be found here.
Read it first, then my rebuttal.

Removal of the Estabrook Dam will benefit us all

By Erik Helm

The removal of the dam on the Milwaukee River at Estabrook Park, and its restoration to a free-flowing state will benefit us all with a natural asset, cleaner water, and increased recreational opportunities, but if one reads the recent letter to the Journal Sentinal by Glen Goebel of the Milwaukee River Preservation Association (MRPA) one might think otherwise.

The MRPA has some legitimate concerns, mainly regarding the river levels adjoining their properties, flood control, and property values, most which have already been addressed, but if the letter represents their opinion, they seem to have to cloak their real concerns with obfuscation. At the end of the letter Mr. Goebel writes “Don’t be fooled by selective science…” which sounds suspiciously like “Don’t let the facts confuse you.”

Uninformed citizens reading this letter would be led to believe that dams and their resulting impoundments lead to cleaner water, that the silt and toxic PCB filled ‘lake’ upstream of the dam constitutes “A beautiful historical and recreational gem”, that the removal of the North Avenue and other dams led to the outbreak of cryptosporidium and algae blooms in Lake Michigan, or that free-flowing water contributes to pollution by moving and scouring sediment.

On the contrary, free-flowing rivers cleanse themselves. The removal of the North Avenue Dam led to the river speeding up, scouring and cleaning the sediment, creating riffles and pools and natural river-flow structures. This led directly to the emergence of aquatic insect life, and a change in fish population from rough species such as carp to an explosion of clean water gamefish. With the fish came fish-eating birds such as herons, osprey, and mergansers, a true indication of cleaner water. The river in this stretch became a recreational and natural asset with the removal of a single dam. Visit the river in the heart of the city at Hubbard Park, where it flows unobstructed and free, and be amazed at the treasure we now enjoy. This is what awaits us upstream of the Estabrook Dam if it is removed.

The impoundment created by the dam, by comparison, creates an artificial pool of stagnant water, degrades fish habitat, warms the water, lowers dissolved oxygen levels, and allows sediment accumulation. Full of highly toxic PCBs, the sediments must be removed, a plan the Wisconsin DNR has in place. This toxic ‘lake’ which dates back to the 1930s was intended for recreation, but the ladies with parasols rowing boats in Lincoln Park disappeared long ago. Where they docked their rowboats sits a smelly mud flat on which nothing will grow. Dam removal and cleanup would lead to increased park area and usability here.

The implication that the removal of dams on the river contributed to or caused cryptosporidium outbreaks and algae blooms in Lake Michigan is a simple scare tactic, and disingenuous. Cryptosporidium outbreaks have been traced to heavy rains, sewer overflows, and agricultural runoff, while the algae bloom is due to changing lake conditions.

Finally there is the Estabrook Dam itself; an aging structure badly in need of repair and constant maintenance, which is a financial drain on the county and the taxpayers. It is estimated that repairs will exceed 1.3 million of our tax dollars. The PCB laden sediment must be removed according to remediation plans already written. Why not restore the river in the process instead of throwing good money after bad trying to repair and maintain a dam that’s purpose has long ago faded away? The financial costs for removal need not be born entirely by taxpayers. Funds are available from federal and state sources. Otherwise, the maintenance costs of the crumbling dam will be born by county taxpayers in perpetuity.

The special interests of the few residents concerned with motor boating and property values, and seemingly deaf to the reassurances of the Wisconsin DNR and other experts, should not outweigh the long-term benefits to the entire community of an unobstructed and free-flowing river. A river, which in places has already returned to its native beauty due to a single dam removal.

Let us all enjoy the benefits of a clean free-flowing river gracing our urban community. Call your County Supervisor and tell them that you support removal of the Estabrook Dam.

Erik Helm is a life-long Milwaukee County resident, writer, and concerned taxpayer. He lives in Shorewood.


  1. yeah Eric,
    Great letter! I hope the editors at the paper find space for it. The original op-ed is misguided and again reflective of a few short-sighted property owner who unfortunately appear to have the support of some glendale and milwaukee county officials. See:

    Hopefully we can get enough of our voices heard to set the record straight and tip this thing in the right direction.

    Where would you prefer to own river frontage: just above Hampton or above Cty T? The latter is what they might someday have with a little long-term thinking and some patience.

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  5. Awesome letter Erik! I can only imagine the BS this guy Glen is going to preach at his meeting Thursday night. What an idiot. I wonder if there are any riverfront landowners that would like to see the dam go and have a more natural river setting... instead of pontoon boating in toxic impoundment?

  6. Great work Erik!!!
    I'll be needing signatures from as many MKE county residents as possible in the next few weeks. Any help would be appreciated.

    Hopefully we can get this eyesore removed.

  7. Eric--

    Excellent post. For the record, Milwaukee Riverkeeper (formerly Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers) has taken a formal position in favor or removal of the Estabrook Dam. Our entire position paper should be posted on our website tomorrow at We also have an editorial running in the Sentinel tomorrow on behalf of Riverkeeper, Trout Unlimited, Milwaukee Steelheaders, and Sierra Club Great Waters Group. Thanks for the article, and your blog is beautiful!

  8. Eric, I grew up in Milwaukee and remember "fishing" on the Milwaukee River as a kid. I now live in Eau Claire and have been involved with TU and stream restoration for a number of years in this area. We deal with many kinds of impoundments from hanging culverts to small dams, all of which restrict the upstream movement of fish, impound and warm the water, and reduce the natural run, riffle, pool morphology of the stream or river. I learned the science of why restoring run, riffle, pool, is a natural and healthy state, but anyone standing along the stream is able to hear that this is good. As one landowner we worked with said "I just know the creek sounds right again, like when I was a kid".

    The improvement in the Milwaukee River after removement of the North Avenue Dam is astounding. Removel of the Estabrook Dam can only continue the improvment.

    Ask folks from Vernon County or any other county in the Driftless Area what healthy free-flowing streams do to property values.

  9. I am a lifetime resident of Milwaukee and an avid fisherman. I also lived and worked in the downtown area and recall the days of the smelly, muddy carp infested river. There is a row of condo's on the east bank of the river below Juneau Avenue we used to refer to as "Carp Condo's". The only thing you could catch from the docks were carp and an occasional body that would float up! Now the river runs swift and clean and the bird activity has improved. Goebel and members of the MRPA should take a drive down to the river below and above the North Avenue dam if they are not afraid and get out of their Lexus's or Porsche's to observe the astonishing difference.

  10. Cheryl,
    Thank you for your comment!
    Your op-ed piece which ran today Feb. 25th was quite excellent.
    You are my hero!

    Anon from Eau Claire
    Thanking you as well for leaving your comment and observations.
    I especially like the quote: "I just know the creek sounds right again, like when I was a kid".


    Tom M.
    Your comments are dead-on. I used to work at John Hawks on the new riverwalk during the last semester of college. When the wind shifted the diners ran for the restrooms! All it took was a blob of flotsam made up of rotting logs and carp to float by and everyone ran for cover.
    I wish I could influence the MRPA members by showing them the river, but I think their hearts are hardened against any rational arguments.

    Hopefully we can win this thing.
    The only leg MRPA has is to push their petitions into the hands of County citizens ignorant to the true issues.
    The truth is on our side. But, the right thing has lost more than it has won due to marketing, lobbying, and $$$.

  11. Great letter, Erik. I think you did a great job being civil, even though it is a chore on these sorts of issues!


  12. After looking at the website of this property rights group pretending to be an environmental group, it is interesting to read Supervisor Lipscomb's letter to them. It becomes quite apparent after reading the letter that he has more than one dog in this fight and he is willing to use bogus scare tactics to protect the dam.

    He starts his letter off by claiming that the economic loses and catastrophe on Lake Delevan last year could happen along the Milwaukee River if the dam is not repaired. This comparison is completely nonsensical and clearly put in there to 'scare' citizens who don't know any better.

    He then goes on to describe how his grandfather helped to build the dam and actually was in charge of operating the dam for many many years. This suggests that he has a very personal connection to the dam and will do everything within his power to keep it there. These preferences align perfectly with those of the property rights group.

    anyhow, thanks for the link Eric.

  13. I must respond by saying that it is sad to see that you and some of those who commented, feel you must punctuate your points with insults and rhetoric that does nothing to promote a workable solution to this problem. I guess I am one of the "greedy homeowners" you refer to. But let me set you straight. My family and I don't "run motorboats up and down the river", (we canoe, kayak and fish like you), we don't drive Lexus' or Porsches (last time I checked it was an 11 year old Honda on my driveway), and we don't live on the river because we want to live on a "toxic cesspool". We live here because we love the river, and we (unlike you and those commenting) have a vested interest in knowing the TRUE impact on our property and on the area in general,of removing this dam. I have a mortgage and a family, just like you I suppose, and my children are learning firsthand how to respect, protect and yes enjoy the natural beauty of this river. It's a fact that this stretch of river impacts hundreds of homeowners and property values and for you to dismiss our concerns so flippantly does not serve to legitimize your arguments - it only draws the lines of "us" and "them" and does nothing to help us progress to a workable solution. Questions regarding flood control, water levels and PCB remediation have NOT adequately been answered by the DNR or environmental supporters of the removal of the dam. And as for expense - certainly you must consider decreased property value (and subsequently then decreased tax revenue - a burden then passed on to everyone else in the area) - not to mention remediation of pollution (I don't think the PCBs go away just because you uncover them or move them from here to there), as well as flood control measures (the original wetlands in the area were removed when the channel was created and the dam installed). So it's not just the "cost" of ripping out the dam. Let's not oversimplify this problem and let's not resort to name calling (your letter to the editor might have been civil, but your blog certainly is not). A solultion that promotes a healthy, sustainable and yes - usable resource is what we ALL desire.

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  15. Christine,
    I respect your comments, and thank you for leaving them. I don't see the world in black and white, and as I wrote in my letter, I respect the legitimate concerns of the homeowners as to flood control, property values, and water levels, but believe very strongly that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I have explored most areas of the Milwaukee River from its headwaters to the estuary. Is it possible that together we can visualize the benefits and beauty of a free-flowing river in your area of the river? My references to the stretches at Hwy C. and T in Cedarburg and Grafton, and the Hubbard Park area serve as examples of what we all can enjoy.
    The rhetoric I see coming from the side of the proponents of dam preservation represented by the MRPA is full of catastrophic reference. I don't see the dam removal as causing anywhere near the issues brought up. Quite to the contrary, I believe it will be a boon to Milwaukee County. I apologize if some of my comments offended you and others, but emotional issues tend to spur passions. Milwaukee Riverkeeper has posted an excellent position paper explaining flood control, sediment movement, history, and even addresses property value studies.It is available on their website.

    Once again, I have nothing against the effected homeowners, and believe that civic duty, involvement, and concern is an important thing. Kudos to you and others for getting involved and making your voice heard. However, as a lover of nature and of rivers, I can't support the preservation of a dam that in my opinion degrades water quality, fish habitat, and adversely effects aesthetics.

  16. Christine,
    thanks for your comments. As to your comments about decreased property values with removal of the dam. This is not necessarily true, in fact there are academic studies that were done in Wisconsin, showing the riverfront properties INCREASED in value after removal of dams. There are relatively few homes (a few hundred maybe) along the free flowing sections of the Milwaukee River, and I would be willing to bet there are just as many people who would be willing to pay some premium to live along a free-flowing river, just as there are people who will pay a premium to own property on an artificial impoundment. You say you have a vested interest in knowing what the impact of dam removal would be on your property, but your conclusions on this matter seem to based on pure assumption and not really based on any facts as far as I can tell.

    The question remains: what is the impact on your property value from moving from a river state that is free-flowing half the year and impounded half the year versus a river state that is free-flowing all year long? Plus if the dam is removed there is surely going to be plenty of restoration efforts that will likely increase the value of your property. None of use want to see the dam removed without subsequent restoration of the river affected by dam removal.

    As to the increased tax burden argument, how much of our tax money is currently being used and would be used in the future to basically subsidize your property value IF there is actually a large premium for riverfront properties along that section of the river that is half river/half lake. My guess would be that properties above the Kletzch dam that are not impacted by dam, actually have a higher premium on river frontage than river frontage along the impacted section of river, all else equal. However that is an assumption on my part, just as you are assuming that the long-term effect of dam removal is going to have a negative effect on your property value. There are two sides to the argument.

    As to removal of the PCBs, I think we can all agree that those should be removed regardless of whether there is a dam or no dam.

  17. Christine,

    I appreciate your comments and would like to address a few of your concerns if I may.

    It seems to me, from your post, that your major areas of concern are PCB remediation, land value, flood control, water level, and recreational use.

    First, we could all agree that any dam removal project would only be successful with a full remediation plan that includes shore stabilization, silt removal in the area where the river will flow, and habitat creation.
    Wetland grasses, trees, and natural flora will only add to the stabilization and remediation effort.
    If you believe that all the PCBs and Heavy metals would have to be completely removed from the area at a high cost, I believe you are mistaken. (refer to the area above North Ave. for a similar situation)

    When speaking of land values being reduced, you are speaking as if it's an absolute. Both scientific and anecdotal evidence shows dam/impoundment removal to BENEFIT property values. I would urge you to read up on this subject. Anecdotally, I claim that in the mid term, 5-20years, the removal of the North avenue dam has not negatively impacted property values for riverfront and surrounding landowners.

    Regarding Flood Control. As far as I am concerned, the original intent of the dams creation along with the river diversion and modification in Lincoln park is still in question. One book that I've reviewed, stated that the diversion and dam construction occurred in conjunction and that they were both CCC Works projects. The funny thing is that this books stated that the flooding in the area was caused by ice damns on an 's' turn in river in Lincoln park(above the current dam location). Since they straightened the river in that area, I suspect the flood prone area is no longer in existence. This is not to say flooding will not occur on the river, but I still have yet to see viable data that supports an argument that the dam prevents flooding. With the dam being open from approximately October to May, how does that alleviate flood events?

    The "normal" water level after the complete removal and restoration is still somewhat in question. Historical photos I've reviewed that were dated 1920 (prior to the dams creation) show a river much like that in the section near Hubbard Park. Maps I've reviewed from the pre-dam era show river widths in Lincoln park narrower than the area below Port Washington rd. This would tell me that the currently straight and dredged area directly upstream of Hwy 43 was in fact faster flowing than it is today.
    If by 'water levels' you are implying that the river will be shallower thereby reducing your ability to kayak as if it were a lake. I suspect this would be the case.

    As far as your ability to fish. I can say with 100% certainty that if the river were free flowing and that sediment on the rivers bottom were replaced by gravel, rock, and rip rap, your fishing opportunities would improve.

    Recreational opportunities would change, but by no means be eliminated. The loss of a lake would be replaced by a free flowing river.

    Regarding the cost of the project. Long term, removal of toxic sediment will be required, regardless of the dams ultimate fate. It's false to claim that the toxic silt held back by the dam is of no consequence, and will not be a problem as long as the dam remains. So, the silt will have to be taken care of whether the dam stays or goes. I expect that the overall cost of remediation through stabilization and habitat restoration is less expensive than dredging and removal of the dirt by mechanical means.

    In the end, I suspect the cost of the whole project will be a critical factor in the decision process.

    I hope these thoughts will spur you to do further research and not buy into the 'fear mongering' created by some.

  18. In response, thanks for the suggestion to look at the MilwRiverkeepers position paper, and for the other input from "coulee" and "permaskunk" very useful info/thoughts which address many of my questions - though not all. I should be clear that I have in fact reached no conclusions as of yet as to which option works best to promote the "greater good" of both the river and the community, as well as homeowners. Bottom line - I want a healthy river in my backyard. I want my children to know and appreciate the incredible beauty of this river and to create a lifetime of memories interacting with it. It was with the intent of conducting my own search for better information that I stumbled upon this blog in the first place. I was disturbed by the negative tone and characterization of riverfront homeowners as "greedy polluters" in some of the comments when nothing could be further from the truth. I also found the description of the "toxic cesspool" very misleading. We live just south of Kletsch and the biodiversity and "health" of this stretch of river has improved with each passing year. Now I am not a biologist so I can only go by what I see every day - and it's definitely not a toxic cesspool. On the contrary, it is virtually teeming with wildlife. Dozens upon dozens of migratory birds, including herons, wood ducks and mergansers; red tail fox, coyotes, possums, groundhogs; turtles, frogs, snakes and yes plenty of fish. We see them all. And I've not found any information that addresses how a dramatic change in year round water levels affects all of this? Do you contend that the only loss that would occur by permanently lowering the water levels and speeding up the flow of the river would be an inability to "motorboat". In theory, the idea of "naturalization" and creating a free flowing river sounds pretty - but in practice, what does that mean?? What will water levels be? 2feet? 4feet? 8inches? How much erosion is expected with freeflowing "faster" flow. Who knows and how can I find out? The "natural" state of this part of the river was irrevocably changed decades ago, and while you may have faith that "surely there will be plenty of restoration efforts" that would result in improved health, aesthetics and property values - I say, show me the plans. Eric mentions a "backyard of mud and concrete abuttments" exposed when the water levels are low and this is indeed the prospect we face in our backyards without dedicated plans for restoration. So far I have yet to uncover any such plans beyond the PCB remediation in Lincoln Park, so it's a bit difficult to jump on board a bandwagon that seemingly stops there. I think we basically want the same thing - but the difference is I will be looking at and living with and exposing my children to the consequences of this decision every day, not just when I'm out fishing or paddling; so if you think you're passionate about this - stand in my shoes on this one for a while. I'm trying my best to see this from all sides. This has been an interesting dialogue, given me much to think about.

  19. Christine;

    Thank you again for your excellent comments. I certainly don’t have all the answers either, but I can address some questions and topics you raised.

    Part of the answer depends on how far you live downstream from Bender Road. For the first couple of hundred yards downstream of the bridge, there is good gradient, the river narrows, and the water runs clean and clear. Silting here is not as much a problem, as the natural stream flow washes the gravel clean. However, as the river begins the bend to the east it slows as the effects of the Estabrook dam begin to be felt. The silt begins to settle, instead of naturally being carried away by water flow. As one approaches the area known as the ‘Boat Launch’ one begins to experience what I referred as mud flats and concrete abutments. This is not the state if the dam comes down, but already is the state now, as the silt has nowhere to go. The bottom changes from clean gravel to mud. As one crosses silver spring the situation remains the same. The ‘toxic lake’ I refer to is not your comparatively placid stretch of river, but the Lincoln Park impoundment. Stroll along the west oxbow to see how the work by the CCC is now a nasty mudflat. This is primarily the area that carries the major PCB contamination. The source is Lincoln Creek. I am not certain how many of the PRPs or Potentially Responsible Parties have been identified to plan the remediation effort at this point.

    Most likely, the farther you live north of Silver Spring, the less in my opinion you should be effected by flow and river level fluctuation if the dam is removed. After all, the river will still flow over Kletch Park falls at its own chosen rate, depending on rainfall, ground saturation, snow-melt and other characteristics of the ‘spate’ river it is. It is only due to being slowed up by the impoundment that it deepens. This is the effect of the dam, and why I advocate for its removal. Tracing the river from the dam to Kletch park, the change is amazing where the river has moving water. Those ducks you mentioned eat algae and plant life that is fed by the oxygenated riffles. From Kletch falls and directly below Bender.

    As to your concerns, regarding what is an unknown, the final look and state of the river in your back yard. I certainly relate. When the impoundment was drawn down at North Avenue, it amazed me how the riparian habitat came back with prairie grasses and other flora on the side of the old river banks. I don’t blame you for wanting to see some sort of model. I am certain that will be part of this long process.
    I expect though, and my experiences show, that the beauty that you already enjoy and appreciate, will only be enhanced.

    Your quote:
    “Bottom line - I want a healthy river in my backyard. I want my children to know and appreciate the incredible beauty of this river and to create a lifetime of memories interacting with it”

    We are on the same side here and share the same vision. I spend three or four evenings every week hiking and fishing the river in spring, summer and fall. What a beautiful natural resource!

    I think some of the tone that you object to may be due to the initial reaction many of us had to the rhetoric coming from MRPA, which I for one did not feel was a free, open, and fair discussion of the options available to the County. Those of us who knew the issues were confused and angered by some information in the Feb 20th Op-ed.

    I think that all of this has been very helpful. We may have opened up a few issues to you, provoked more questions, and found a forum for mutual understanding. The fact that you found my blog while intellectually curious speaks volumes. As to the civility part, this blog is really a literary effort, not a political forum. As you obviously treasure nature, please enjoy a couple of the posts regarding legacies, opportunities misused, poems and readings, and other areas where I don’t stray into contention ;)


  20. Christine,
    thanks for your great post. I two have kids and wish that I were lucky enough to live on the river where you do, so they could continuously enjoy what I consider to be of one our greatest assets here in Milwaukee. I spend a lot of time there south of Kletzsch falls throughout the year and can appreciate the beauty that is your backyard.

    I also agree 100% with you, that without knowing how remediation will proceed (if the dam were removed) that there is some uncertainty in your thinking. Rightfully so. I do know however, that there are multiple organizations and user groups within MKE county that would work hard to improve our river if the dam comes out. Actually they will work on these issue regardless of the outcome, but I am sure more focus would be on those areas potentially affected by dam removal. I hope that these groups can speak to their plans as the current situation unfolds.

    From the meetings I have attended and the op-eds I have read from the Milwaukee River Preservation group, it is my opinion that there is a substantial amount of misinformation being spread by the group. Yes - they, along with you, have some legitimate concerns and questions, but much of the information they are interpreting and passing on is simply false.

    Keep up your work gaining more knowledge on this issue. I encourage you to directly contact organizations like some of those that have mentioned to get a broader perspective on the issue and I hope you are comfortable with the decision you ultimately decide to support.

  21. Eric great job glad your in our corner you guys know how i feel about getting rid of this monster i do not want one penny of my tax dollars used to keep this dam in service HERON

  22. Erik, I am one of the homeowners that will be greatly affected if (when) the dam comes out and I really feel that a long-term, concrete remediation plan is needed for this- not just toxin removal- but real riverside remediation. It is going to take a lot of hard effort and capital to make this work. I am a paddler, not a polluter. This is a very frustrating issue for all of us along this stretch of the Milwaukee River.

  23. Erik, et al.,
    I want to say first, thanks for the info and opinions expressed of late in this ongoing dialogue - I do appreciate that this is a frustrating/emotional issue for all. I agree with "river otter" that the main issue is the bigger picture of handling the long term river restoration correctly, especially given these tight economic times. And since it appears that the DNR offers the county what boils down to no choice but to remove the dam - hopefully they will be more forthcoming with efforts at actual restoration. I for one plan to be in there voicing my opinion and helping in whatever manner I can to see this succeed. Perhaps we'll find ourselves all working together to achieve that common goal. Thanks again.

  24. Christine and River Otter,
    It certainly is a complicated issue!
    I agree with you that the restoration is key here in order to have this stretch of river look as beautiful as I believe it can. The last thing I want to see is for the dam to come down and the work not be completed. That would be entirely unfair.
    I spoke with some individuals concerned and suggested a 'concept model' (showing the river as it will look after the dam removal) was needed here. Not sure who can or will provide this. Possibly the WDNR?
    What I can tell you is that myself and others who advocate for the dam removal, would be willing to go to bat for you if remediation is not provided. That is critical for you and I and the river.

    On a positive note, I received some calls from people that were interested in the dam issue and found my website. They just wanted to state that this was the only civil discussion of actual issues rather than just anger that they had discovered...
    Thank you both for contributing to that discussion, and bringing us all closer together.

  25. Erik and Christine,
    Cheryl Nenn, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, has been kind enough to correspond with me and she does indeed have some photos of rivers before and after dam removal. I too have concerns about how any kind of removal or remediation would be handled and we need to see that this- obviously not my ideal scenario- would be handled in the best possible manner, planned, contingency planned, long-term-planned, and with plans for funding it. We watched the screwing up of the PCB removal in Lincoln Park with flooding- the heavy June rains were "unexpected"; well, guess what, global warming and climate change are here and heavy rains (like today, as a matter of fact) are something we have to expect now. Please feel free to read my blog to get my full position on this complex issue.


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