Estabrook Dam



Review the DNR Transfer Application for the Estabrook Dam.

Read the Open Letter of Intent from the City, County, & MMSD on the Estabrook Dam


What is the plan to remove the Estabrook Dam?


The City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD), and the County Executive are partnering together to enact a solution to the Estabrook Dam controversy that will result in removing the dam.  That solution includes 3 steps.


  • Rezoning – The land that surrounds the Dam will be rezoned by the City of Milwaukee, which will change the oversight of the Dam to a three-member panel, including the County Executive, the County Comptroller and a representative of the City of Milwaukee. This panel has authority to sell public works properties through a majority vote.


  • Selling the Dam – Once the Dam is rezoned by the City of Milwaukee, it will be sold to MMSD. The MOU between Milwaukee County (the seller) and MMSD (the buyer) will include the following provisions:

    • The Dam will be sold for $1;

    • Parkland will remain in public custody;

    • The Dam is sold under the condition that it will be removed by MMSD;

    • The County will continue to operate and maintain the dam and the surrounding park land;

    • The County will continue to provide park programming for Estabrook Park.


  • Removal of the Dam – MMSD will be responsible for removing the Dam once it obtains the necessary DNR permits. MMSD has experience and expertise in taking on large scale projects. MMSD will seek grant funds to pay for removal but initially will allocate funds that would have been otherwise allocated for a different County project.


Will the public own the dam?


Yes.  Both the County and MMSD are public entities.  Absolutely no land is or will be transferred to private parties.


How much land is being sold?


When this rezoning is complete, one parcel of Estabrook Park (about 45 acres) will be sold to MMSD.  Instantaneously, MMSD will split that parcel and sell back about 44.5 acres to the County.  MMSD will continue to own a half acre of land for purposes of removing the dam.  Once the dam is removed, the half-acre will be sold back to Milwaukee County.  After both transfers of land back to the County, the park will be rezoned to parkland.


Is this sale legal?  Why doesn’t the County Board need to be involved?


Yes.  The sale is legal and authorized under Wisconsin statutes 59.17(2)(b)(3).  That law allows county lands not zoned as parkland to be sold by the County Executive with the concurrence of either the County Comptroller or the resident land sale representative of the City of Milwaukee.


Unfortunately, the County Board has not had a chance to come to a transparent vote for several years, since the high costs of repairing the Dam have become clearer. The preferred option would be that the Board take a vote to change the County’s policy on the dam so that it can be removed as soon as possible. Timely Board action on the dam’s removal would allow for the reallocation of vital capital funding to go to other priority areas in the County Parks system.  Absent a timely and affirmative Board vote, however, this solution is necessary to ensure that both environmental concerns and millions in taxpayer resources are protected, and that flood risk along the Milwaukee River corridor is mitigated.


How are the people represented by this sale?


This solution requires the votes and support of the elected Common Council of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee mayor for rezoning and a majority vote of the County Executive, the independently elected County Comptroller, and a City of Milwaukee land-sale representative.


What is the timeline for this sale?


The City of Milwaukee will act on the rezoning portion in committee on October 25th with a vote in the Common Council on November 1st.  MMSD will act to authorize the sale contingent on City approval on October 24th.  Following these approvals the land sale panel will need to authorize the sale of the dam.  This process should be concluded by mid-December 2016.


Why does the dam need to be removed?


The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has declared the Estabrook Dam a public nuisance. Milwaukee County, as the owner and operator of the Dam, is required to abate the nuisance conditions created by the Dam. Although the Dam is located in the City of Milwaukee, its impact on our waterways, natural areas, and wildlife spans the City of Milwaukee, the Village of Shorewood, the City of Glendale, and beyond.  As well, both the County’s Office of Emergency Management and the City of Glendale's Certified Flood Manager have recommended removal of the Dam as in the best interest of public safety. Should the Dam fail, it could cause significant harm to property upriver and create unsafe conditions that put people at risk.


How much will taxpayers save by removing the dam?


Right now it will cost at least $4.1 million to repair the Dam, which is $600,000 more than the County has available in the budget for this project. That number doesn’t include ongoing maintenance costs for operation of the Dam. In contrast, removal would be a one-time cost of $1.7 million, most of which could be covered by grants.


Does removing the dam improve the health of the river?


In addition to being the better financial option, removing the Dam would restore the river to a more natural-looking and free-flowing condition, and also eliminate an eyesore that invites constant graffiti, litter, and unsafe conditions. As seen around the country, and locally after the removal of the North Ave dam, free-flowing rivers are healthier and improve the quality of the ecosystem centered on the river. Removal of the Estabrook Dam would reduce the risk of floods on the Milwaukee River upstream from the dam and help achieve the goal of better managing our waterways.


Is this the beginning of selling parkland?


Not at all.  As the County Executive has repeatedly stated, there is no intention to sell any parkland in the County system.  Immediately after the dam is removed, the property will return to the county and be zoned back as parkland.  The County Executive is committed to a sustainable and thriving park system that serves all the needs of Milwaukee County citizens.


How does MMSD pay for this project and habitat repair for the river?


MMSD has already budgeted for the removal of the dam in their 2017 budget.  Once the dam is removed, MMSD is eligible for a multitude of federal and private grants for habitat restoration and repair of the river that are not available if the dam is repaired and maintained.


If the dam is repaired, how much is the annual cost of operating the dam?


Estabrook Dam will cost $207,302 to operate and maintain each year.  That amount includes debris removal at $80,000, general maintenance at $45,000, monitoring of automated systems at $12,500, 24/7 Response Capability at $69,802.  This estimate comes from the 3rd party consultant named AECOM. 


Who is cleaning up debris before the dam is taken down?


The county has committed to clean up all debris before the transfer to MMSD.  For many years, the County has cleaned the sediment out of the riverbed and has been extensively involved  in preparing the site for future construction on the dam or removal.


Estabrook Dam - photo by: Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Estabrook Dam – photo by: Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


"Ice Guards" immediately upstream from the Estabrook Dam

"Ice Guards" immediately upstream from the Estabrook Dam.


The Spillway, located immediately west of the Estabrook Dam.

The Spillway, located immediately west of the Estabrook Dam.



Chris Abele
Milwaukee County Courthouse

901 N. 9th Street, Room 306
Milwaukee, WI 53233
Phone: 414-278-4211

Fax:  414-223-1375 

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