Joining a larger trend of Michigan cities improving their waterways by removing dams, Grand Rapids is planning a $27 million project to remove dams and improve the waterfront of the Grand River. This project is larger than many others in the state, but is similar to a variety of other Michigan dam removal projects.
“There has been more interest in river restorations and dam removals in the past five years than there was in the previous 10 to 15 years,” said Jim Hegarty, a civil engineer and dam removal expert for Grand Rapids-based engineering firm Prein & Newhof, to bridgemi.com.
Michigan cities such as Big Rapids, Detroit, Lansing and Mt. Pleasant have already removed dams from their rivers and capitalized on the water quality improvement in a variety of ways. Detroit and Lansing improved waterfront parks and trails, Mt. Pleasant improved outdoor recreational activities such as kayaking, and Big Rapids eliminated unnatural rapids that had claimed the lives of several canoers.
Public and private organizations have been pouring money into dam removal. Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2013 budget included $2.5 million for dam removal, Michigan’s Great Lakes Fishery Trust and the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded several dam removal projects, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has $2.35 million in grants to help fund dam removal projects in six areas, including Traverse City and Shiawassee.
The Grand Rapids project is a little more involved than other projects, involving the removal of one large dam near Sixth Street and four low-rise dams spaced throughout the downtown area, as well as the addition of nearly 200,000 tons of natural material to create a more natural water flow. These boulders and islands would more faithfully recreate the environment of the river over a hundred years ago, when it provided fish, clean water and irrigation for Native Americans.
“It was kind of our Garden of Eden,” the chairman of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, Ron Yob, told Mlive.com. “The river provided everything we need to live. It was the life source for our tribe.”
Dam removal is likely to be on the rise: a 2007 study by Public Sector Consultants in Lansing and Prein & Newhof suggested that the average lifespan of dams is 50 years and 36 percent of the dams in Michigan are 50 years old or older. The four low-rise dams in the Grand River are more than 70 years old, and removing dams costs less than replacing them.
Proponents of the Grand Rapids dam removal project also argue that it would bring more revenue into downtown by continuing to revitalize the downtown area, which already showcases the Grand River waterfront.
Mayor George Heartwell is behind the project, saying, “A natural asset like our river can be an economic tool for the recreation economy as well as for its shoreline development potential.”
Besides the commercial considerations, Heartwell also noted the role that the project could play in enhancing the community for progeny. “Generations of Grand Rapidians will thank us,” he said.
Dam removals are not universally popular, however. Some critics have suggested that the Grand Rapids project might undermine the popular Grand Rapids fishery. Other dam projects have occasionally led to flooding and residents often worry about the rationale for removing historic dams. Dam removal projects can also be somewhat costly, although often less costly than repairing the dam.
The Grand Rapids project uses no city funds but is still the largest, and arguably most important, dam removal project in Michigan.
“The Grand Rapids project is huge in capital letters,” Hagerty says. “The sheer cost and magnitude of the project is unprecedented in Michigan, but the most significant part of the project is that it has the potential to elevate Grand Rapids’ status as a tourist attraction.”
Sophomore Rachel Johnson is also enthusiastic about the dam removal project. “These damn dams need to get out of the river so we can restore the natural rapids and have more opportunities for outdoor recreation like white-water rafting.”