Milwaukee River Basin Dams

There are approximately 3,800 dams in existence in the State of Wisconsin. Since the late 19th century, more than 700 dams have been built, then washed out or removed. Since 1967, approximately 100 dams have been removed.

Almost 60% of the dams in Wisconsin are owned by a former company or private individual, 9% by the State of Wisconsin, 17% by a municipality such as a township or county government, and 14% by other ownership types. The federal government has jurisdiction over most large dams in Wisconsin that produce hydroelectricity – approximately 5% or nearly 200 dams. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates the rest of the dams.

Why is Dam Removal Important?

While once serving a valuable function, many dams in Wisconsin have outlived their economic usefulness and have become structurally unsafe, leaving hundreds of communities facing the decision of whether to repair or remove their dams. Removing these dams that no longer serve a purpose is now considered an important alternative by dam owners, local officials, citizens and resource agencies. Public appreciation for free-flowing rivers is increasing, and more communities now realize that a healthy river can be the focal point of a healthy community.

A Few Key Reasons for Dam Removal

  • For safety reasons. Dams are under the constant pressures of water and time and gradually deteriorate. As a result, many of Wisconsin’s dams have not been properly maintained and are now public safety hazards. The DNR is responsible for dam inspections, enforcing compliance with safety standards, and for issuing repair and removal orders.
  • To save money. In Wisconsin, repairing a dam typically costs 3 to 5 times more than the cost of removal. The on-going costs of maintenance, repairs, operation, liability, and dredging the impoundment further increases the true cost of a dam.
  • To restore recreational and natural values. Dams severely fragment river ecosystems, degrade water quality and devastate fisheries. In fact, the DNR has identified dams as one of the biggest threats to Wisconsin’s aquatic biodiversity. Dam removal re-creates recreational and aesthetic opportunities — from canoeing and kayaking to fishing and wildlife watching. Restoring the land flooded by dams can also create great parks and wildlife habitats.

(most information from River Alliance of Wisconsin)