Listen to the Grand: River revitalization much more than a kayaker’s dream

What started as a group of kayakers seeking to create a great spot for their sport has evolved into project can restore priceless habitat, respect local indigenous people, and make spaces where all residents can partake and enjoy. As Grand Rapids Whitewater cofounder Chip Richards remarked during the River Rally presentation, “The more we listened to the river, the more we realized this project is something good for everyone and everything.”
The Grand River gets its name from the Europeans who first colonized Michigan. “Before the river was changed by the work of man, the rapids had a nearly uniform descent for about a mile…sufficient to give a decided turbulent and wild appearance to the waters, and to make a noise that broke the stillness of the forest and echoed from the neighboring hills,” wrote Charles Whittemore of Kent Scientific Institute in 1895.

Ron Yob“The Grand River was our Garden of Eden,” says Ron Yob, tribal chairman of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians. “Everything you needed—food, animals for clothing, medicine, everything a person needed existed there. It also served as a highway for the 19 villages between Lansing and Grand Haven. Treaties were signed by the Grand River.”

In the decades preceding the Civil War, white men forcibly removed Yob’s people to Muskegon, Oceana, and Manistee counties. When war came, a shift in priorities allowed some to remain. Many others have since returned to the river of their ancestors. Because of this heritage, Yob supports revitalizing the Grand. “It’s a clogged artery,” he says. “They should let the river flow in its natural state as it was created.”

River restoration projects apply technical know-how to re-wild rivers that have been degraded by industry and municipal infrastructure.The process makes them better places for their communities. Benefits can include restored wildlife habitat, increased recreational opportunities, environmental remediation, and historical place-making. Yob notes that a revitalized river will foster the resurgence of aquatic life that is currently being choked out by one large and five small dams.

Of special note, sturgeon will return in abundance as the river revitalization allows them access to ancient spawning grounds. These fish commonly grow to eleven feet in length and can weigh up to 300 pounds. “Sturgeon are king of the water world, a very respected animal in our culture,” Yob says. “At one time, they swam all the way from here to Jackson. Now they get bottled up in Grand Rapids.”

As the people behind Grand Rapids Whitewater (GRWW) first contemplated revitalizing the Grand Rapids portion of the Grand River, sturgeon weren’t their priority—kayaking was. During an April 9 panel presentation at the 2017 River Rally, they shared how after beginning work on their plan, the emphasis quickly shifted. Sturgeon aren’t the only species expected to return in abundance. Native fish, like logperch, and stocked salmon and steelhead will also thrive. Native mussels, including the endangered snuffbox mussel, will make a comeback, as well. (Grand Rapids was once considered a “Clam Capitol” in the Midwest.)

Matt Chapman“The river revitalization project is so much more than just kayaking,” says Matt Chapman, GRWW project coordinator. “It really provides recreational, ecological, and environmental benefits that will be felt throughout the region.”

When GRWW enlisted River Restorations LLC, an engineering firm that has revitalized more than 60 rivers across the nation, it became apparent just how grand this river is. “What started as a recreation idea became an understanding of the legacy of the project, from cultural to habitat to historical significance,” says Jason Carey, principal river engineer.

“We discovered that [a] rapids habitat is really rare in Michigan and serves some important life cycles for a number of sensitive species, for example mussels, sturgeon, and native fish. After talking with tribal liaisons, we realized the significant cultural value. The return of the sturgeon represents the return of the native people.”

Bedrock of ages

One of the engineering firm’s first tasks was to test the riverbed for expected toxic sediment. Instead, they found clean bedrock. The huge limestone bedrock shelf lying under the Grand Rapids’ portion of the Grand River is a rarity in North America and unique in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Carey believes that this feature alone provides historical and ecological rationale for restoring the river.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon. We just can’t achieve that anywhere else in the Lower Peninsula,” he says. “In the St. Claire River area, they are spending a million dollars an acre to create synthetic spawning reefs. In Grand Rapids, we have eight to ten acres of that reef hidden behind Sixth Street dam.”

The firm also looked into the area’s history. In 1866, before Grand Rapids was founded, the logging industry dammed the Grand near what is now Sixth Street to make it easier to transport logs downstream. As the city began to grow up around the river, so did the amount of raw sewage dumped into it. During summer, low water levels exposed its stench. Five low-rise dams were installed to keep the water deep enough to cover the sewage. Because the booming metropolis required building materials, the riverbed was scoured of boulders and limestone. This narrowed the river so concrete floodwalls were built to control the altered flow.

Another discovery, the Grand River’s bed drops a steep 18 feet over the two miles it flows through downtown, compared to a modest four-foot drop over its 40-mile flow between Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan. Currently, this drop is stepped out in dams. The restored river will handle the gradient with rapids.

“When you pull out a dam you aren’t getting the whole function of the river back. We are trying to distribute the gradient across the City of Grand Rapids,” Carey says. “Rapids are like cities. Their diversity, complexity, and density come together and work in unison.”

The city goes with the flow

Around the same time that Grand Rapids Whitewater began rallying for the rapids, the City of Grand Rapids began updating its master plan. Topics of discussion included parks and recreation, mobility, and green infrastructure–themes that fit well with revitalizing the river. As the city engaged more than 4,000 citizens through its GR Forward initiative, river revitalization came to the forefront.

“Some of the most significant engagement was with neighborhoods adjacent to the river, talking with citizens about their vision for the downtown and the river,” says Jay Steffen, assistant planning director for the City of Grand Rapids. “The GR Forward plan of action appendix looks at 20 opportunity sites along the river.”

Jay SteffenSteffen is excited that the city has come up with a plan that will benefit all of its residents, no matter their income or ability, as well as visitors. No longer will tourists come to see the Grand River’s rapids and not be able to find them.

Engineers working on the project have consulted local anglers to map out where they currently catch the most fish. Proposed models will increase those areas by 500%. “Everyone will have access. It’s pretty remarkable how the consultants have taken community feedback to provide everyone better access to the river,” Steffen says. “This also is going to be a regional-wide draw. Our fishery is already known nationally. It’s a very exciting project. It’s going to have a catalytic impact of epic proportions.”

Next steps for the city include drafting trail design guidelines for the 20 sites, moving the sites from the conceptual to the schematic design phase, and crafting cost estimates. Outside of Grand Rapids, three riverside communities have signed letters of support for the project: Cascade Charter Township, the City of Grandville, and the City of Norton Shores.

The Grand Valley Metro Council (GVMC) is also actively working as a partner in the project. Wendy Ogilvie, GVMC director of environmental programs, is excited about the educational opportunities a revitalized river will provide area children and college students. She sees the project as having benefits reaching far outside downtown as the river becomes safer and more accessible to everyone. “When the dam is removed, the fishery will improve,” she says. “We’ll see more fish upstream, in Rockford, and downstream spawning grounds will improve.”

Wendy OgilvieThe dam plan

Carey notes that rewilding the Grand River will be an invasive, four-year process, akin to surgery. The river will be cut into two halves, with all flow diverted to one half. Then, the “dry” half of the riverbed will be restored. After the first half is completed, the flow will be diverted over that portion so the second half can be reconstructed. This not only involves taking dams out, but also means restoring 47 acres of substrate and boulders and uncovering 88 acres of rapids. Because of flood concerns, work can only be done between July and December. Access to some parks will be temporarily closed and some traffic will be rerouted.

After completion, projected for 2023, shoreline access to the river will greatly increase, whether for walking, biking, fishing, or boating. The project will also make fishing the river downtown a much safer pastime. From 2015 to 2016, 72 rescues, 40 civilian injuries, and five deaths took place in the downtown portion of the river. The Grand Rapids Fire Department deploys an average of 83 units and 172 personnel per year to river rescue—20 to 30 of these rescue calls specifically involve the Sixth Street dam.

Despite widespread enthusiasm for the plan, a major hurdle still exists—without the dam, lamprey eels could use a restored river to migrate further and do more harm to Michigan’s fish populations. In response, the engineering team has proposed what they are a calling a “darn,” a moveable structure that can block the lamprey during their migration season. The darn will also help with flood protection and fish passage—and can be put in place for specific recreational events.

The other major obstacle? The plan has a $35 million price tag. Those working on the project hope to get $6 million from the state, $14 million in federal dollars (of which $4 million has already been awarded), and another $15 million raised locally. However, the economic benefits from the project will far outweigh its costs. Organizers expect annual revenues from recreation-related spending to range from $15.9 to $19.1 million dollars per year while the tax base is expected in increase by $117.7 million.

Listen to the river

What started as a group of kayakers seeking to create a great spot for their sport has evolved into project that aims to restore priceless habitat, respect local indigenous people, and make spaces where all residents can partake and enjoy. As GRWW cofounder Chip Richards remarked during the River Rally presentation, “The more we listened to the river, the more we realized this project is something good for everyone and everything.”

The Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians owns property along the Grand River for their offices at 1316 Front Street. “When our people come to meetings, they walk back to the river, and stand there. I can see them meditating on the river and I can see them reconnecting with it,” Yob says. “I’d like to see it flow free again, with no encumbrances.”
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