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A watershed moment for dam removals in Michigan

Feb 7, 2017

In the state of Michigan, chances are good that if you live near a river or stream, you also live near a dam. There are nearly 2,600 dams in Michigan. Many of them are small and privately owned. And nearly all of them are getting old.

According to 2014 report, 90% of Michigan’s dams are going to meet or exceed their design life — the length of time for which they were designed to operate — by 2020. Beyond that design life, the dams become increasingly likely to fail. That can lead to catastrophic flooding, erosion, and the spread of toxins trapped behind the dam.

So why were all of these dams constructed in the first place?

Patrick Ertel calls that the “golden question. He’s a resource analyst with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, where he specializes in stream restorations. He said many of these dams serve little practical purpose.

“A lot of people, when they think of a dam, they immediately think of hydropower facilities,” Ertel told us. “I think there’s only 110 [hydropower dams] in the state of Michigan ... Most often what people find is that dams were built for recreation, to create a large impoundment.”

Now, with the help of the DNR’s dam management grant program and similar federal initiatives, many communities are pursuing what may seem to be an obvious solution: they’re getting rid of their dams. In Grand Rapids, the Whitewater project aims to restore the city’s namesake rapids by, among other things, removing several dams in the downtown area.

Further up the Grand River, the 160-year-old Lyons Dam came down during the summer of 2016 after it began to fail.

And in Traverse City, the Boardman River Renewal project may be the largest dam removal effort in the state’s history. That project began with the removal of the Brown Bridge Dam in 2013. Two further dam removals along the Boardman are scheduled for the next two years, while a fourth dam, the Union Street Dam in downtown Traverse City, will be modified.

Becky Ewing is associate director at Traverse City Rotary. She has been involved with the Boardman River Renewal since the idea for it was first hatched in the mid-2000s.

She told us the removal of the Brown Bridge Dam has already had a multitude of benefits beyond eliminating the risk of a dam failure. Native brook trout are thriving in the improved ecological conditions along the uninhibited portion of the river. And economic activity has likewise grown.

“I work right downtown Traverse City and I can tell you there is so much use on that river right now,” Ewing said. “We have lots of little companies that have sprouted up providing those opportunities, specifically for tourists. They’re doing bike and brewery tours and then going down the river in a kayak. So the visible use in downtown Traverse City on the urban portion of the stream is significantly increased.”

Of course, these efforts are not without their detractors. Homeowners who live along the ponds or lakes created by the dams are often the first to object to projects that will permanently alter their landscape. In the case of the Boardman River Renewal, some residents on the Boardman Pond had worries about the way their property values would change once the pond was drained.

“There was a very vocal minority of folks who were part of the public process to make the decisions on what to do with the dams,” Ewing told us. “They were concerned about a number of issues, including property values. Although, there was a lot of data that would indicate that property on a stream is just as valuable if not more so than property on an impounded dam.”

Another issue is cost. The price tag for the Boardman River Renewal is somewhere over $20 million. The Grand Rapids Whitewater is projected to cost more than $35 million (although part of that is going to portions of the project unrelated to dam removal). Even on smaller projects like the removal of the Lyons Dam, costs can reach into the six figures.

Often, these communities pull together funding from an amalgam of sources. In the case of the Boardman River Renewal, some funding has come from public and private foundations, including the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and the Oleson Foundation. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians also contributed to the effort by bringing in federal funds unavailable to the city or county.

Then there is the state’s dam management grant program. Ertel told us that the program has become so popular that it has trouble keeping up with demand.

“We receive requests for money upwards of 5 or 6 times the amount of money that we have to give out, because the demand is there,” he said. “It could be a small city with a little five foot mill pond, or very large dams that used to produce hydropower like the Boardman, and they’re all starting to make people scratch their heads and say ‘what are we gonna do here?’”

Listen to our full interview with Patrick Ertel and Becky Ewing above.

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