The fate of the Estabrook Dam on the Milwaukee River has played an outsized role during the 2016 campaign for Milwaukee County Executive.
That’s especially true because, despite a 6-year-old order from the state Department of Natural Resources to either repair or replace the 80-year-old structure, and a circuit court order declaring the dam a nuisance, the issue has not been resolved.
County Executive Chris Abele wants to tear the dam down, but the County Board has voted to repair the structure. When Abele challenger Chris Larson was on the board, he voted to repair the dam, but now says he’s willing to consider removing it because public sentiment seems to have changed.
But Larson, a state senator, also has been sharply critical of Abele’s leadership on the issue. Both are Democrats running for the nonpartisan office in the April 5, 2016 election.
Abele "has had five years and he’s done nothing" about the dam, Larson said during a March 29, 2016 appearance before the Rotary Club of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Press Club.
That echoed what he wrote in a March 15, 2016 email to supporters: "The current county executive has provided no leadership in forging a consensus on what to do with the dam, he has no urgency in addressing this problem."
Is Larson correct that Abele has "done nothing" on the matter?
There are two major alternatives before county officials.
Removal: The Milwaukee Riverkeepers, a coalition of environmental groups, has urged the removal of the dam. They note that the removal of the North Avenue Dam, a few miles downstream, led to improved water quality and a thriving fish and wildlife population.
Advocates also argue the Estabrook Dam primarily benefits a small number of property owners who enjoy the impoundment, or lake, that the dam creates. They say that is unfair -- even illegal -- because a public facility is creating benefits for a few private property owners.
Repair: The Milwaukee River Preservation Association, a group that includes riverfront property owners, and others, including County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb, favor repairing the dam. They argue the dam creates an important water recreational area and say its removal could lead to the release of toxins built up behind the structure over the decades.
Under orders by the federal government, the county hired a consultant, AECOM, to conduct an environmental assessment of the dam. The $250,000 report, released in early 2015, did not recommend an option.
But it did note public sentiment at meetings held in September 2014 was about 2-to-1 in favor of removal and said that over time it would cost twice as much to repair and continue operating the dam than it would be to remove it.
The report also cited the environmental benefits to allowing water to flow freely and called removal the most "environmentally protective alternative."
The report was conducted during Abele’s tenure, under orders from the federal government, because it was believed, at the time, that the feds owned an island that is connected to the dam.
There’s considerable disagreement between Abele and some members of the County Board -- especially Lipscomb, who represents the area -- over how to address the dam.
If you had to describe Abele’s record on the dam in one word, it would be "hamstrung."
On at least two occasions involving the 2015 budget, Lipscomb succeed in getting the board to insert money into the county budget -- first to repair the dam and later to build a fish passage, which is a component of one of the rebuilding options. Abele vetoed both, with one overridden and one sustained.
In between the votes and vetoes, Abele’s parks department sent a memo to the board urging it to take action and noting the board itself had changed its position from remove to replace several times.
Abele also sent the board a resolution to remove the dam, noting that repairs had become increasingly expensive. And Abele’s chief of staff, Raisa Koltun, followed up with several emails to Lipscomb, but the matter was never scheduled for a vote.
Beyond the stalemate with the County Board, Koltun said Abele has worked to forge a consensus with local units of government that have an interest in the dam, including the city of Milwaukee, villages of Shorewood and Brown Deer and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District.
He has also worked with groups like the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, as well as pursued private and federal funding to help pay for the dam’s removal.
Larson says Abele has had five years in office and "done nothing" about the Estabrook Dam, with an earlier statement blaming him for a lack of consensus.
But records and news accounts show Abele has been consistent in wanting the dam removed, has taken steps to make his wishes known and to build support for removal among nearby communities and other groups. Along the way, he has been thwarted by the County Board.
Larson’s statement was that Abele has done nothing. That rates False.