Treasure or trash? The debate over Estabrook Dam rages on

MILWAUKEE COUNTY -- It's a debate that's been raging for years, but it's now getting even more attention. That's because Estabrook Dam is now playing a prominent role in the race for Milwaukee County executive.

Estabrook Dam

Chances are you've seen it mentioned in a campaign ad.

That new-found exposure may be tuning more people into a battle that's been raging for the better part of the last decade.

"I've got this beautiful vintage boathouse that's got a boat in it that's been sitting in there for eight years," said Clark Blachly, who owns a home near the Estabrook Dam.

Blachly lives along the waterfront, just a short distance from the deteriorating Estabrook Dam. When he moved in 25 years ago, he couldn't believe the gem he'd found.

Clark Blachly

"We used to be able to canoe, fish, boat. There was even a water skiing group that used Lincoln Park for their competitions. That's all gone," said Blachly.

Blachly says these days, the water's barely deep enough to fit a canoe in.

"You'll see about 30 feet of exposed bank on both sides and you can see that now weeds, trees have grown up. You can't keep up with it anymore. Trash has been collecting down here," Blachly said.

Estabrook Dam

Built in the 1930s, the Estabrook Dam is badly in need of repairs. In 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ordered Milwaukee County officials to either repair it or abandon it. Estimates for repairing the structure and other related costs now top $6 million. The price tag for removing it is thought to be around $1.7 million.

Estabrook Dam

"We've been advocating to remove the dam for probably the better part of 10 years," said Cheryl Nenn, with Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

Battle lines on this issue were drawn long ago. And passionate advocates on both sides are still standing their ground.

"Removal is $1.7 million or about one-third of the cost and frankly much better for water quality, much better for fisheries, and also will substantially reduce the flood risk upstream to properties," Nenn said.

Nenn says the dam gates have been open for years. Because of that, she says water levels would probably be similar to what they are today if the dam were removed. Even though the gates are currently open, she says the structure is still piling up sediment.

Cheryl Nenn

"It's not really suitable for a lot of fish and aquatic life," said Nenn.

Instead of repairing it, Nenn would like to see the dam removed and the money saved passed onto other park projects more residents could enjoy.

"If you're putting a lot of money into the dam, that means less money that would be spent in Lake Park, be spent on Mitchell Domes, be spent on a lot of other smaller parks that also need a lot of work done," Nenn said.

Estabrook Dam

Blachly argues that restoring the dam and allowing the water to return to its previous levels would benefit more than just the waterfront homeowners.

"There's so many thousands of people that enjoy Lincoln Park for one, and there's so many other people that use the river that don't live along it," said Blachly.

He also says restoring it would be good for property values and area businesses.

The issue is continuing to get screen time in the race for Milwaukee County executive. Chris Abele favors pulling it out.

"Removing dams is always better for the health of the river, better for the environment and in this case is going to save you a lot of money," said Abele.

Chris Abele

Chris Larson supported repairing the dam when he was on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, because he felt that was where the public's support was. He says he'll support whichever side his constituents favor.

"If the public has shifted on this like I think that they have and if the science shows that it makes sense to remove the dam, then we'll get it done by the end of the year," said Larson.

Chris Larson

There is a public hearing about this issue scheduled for this coming Tuesday, March 22nd. It's supposed to run from 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. at Glen Hills Middle School in Glendale.

All of the people we interviewed for this story say they plan to be there.