Dam removal project on Boardman River is biggest ever in Michigan
By Andy McGlashen • July 29, 2011
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on major dam removals planned or underway in Michigan.
Michigan has never seen anything quite like an ongoing dam removal project on the Boardman River.
Experts say it’s the biggest dam removal in state history, and the largest-ever wetlands restoration in the Great Lakes region.
All told, the removal of three dams in Grand Traverse County is expected to restore more than three miles of quality trout water, reconnect 160 miles of stream habitat, bring back 250 acres of wetlands and attract more than $3 million to the region in increased tourism, recreation and property values.
“It’s an exciting project,” said Byron Lane, chief of the dam safety division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The groups involved “have done one of the most thorough jobs I’ve seen of researching a project and getting local buy-in,” Lane added.
Going with the flow
The three dams slated for removal–Boardman, Brown Bridge and Sabin–generated hydroelectric power until 2005, when Traverse City Light and Power decided it no longer made economic sense to use them for electricity generation.
The utility’s decision sparked a four-year planning process that included more than 1,000 participants and 180 public meetings, and produced 91 different scenarios for the dams’ future. Based on that input and scientific data, city and county commissioners decided in 2009 to remove the three dams and modify another–Union Street Dam, the closest to the river mouth–to allow fish passage while still blocking unwanted species like sea lamprey.
The project is expected to cost about $8 million. Nearly $5 million has already been lined up, with close to $3 million in grants pending, said Rick Westerhof, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The USFWS has provided nearly $1 million for the project through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, including $160,000 announced in July.
Up first is the Brown Bridge Dam, the furthest upstream. A $1 million grant from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust allowed Traverse City, which owns the dam, to move forward with its removal. The trust is a fund established in a court settlement to compensate for fish kills at a Ludington power station.
Westerhof said state and federal permits are pending, but the physical work at Brown Bridge should get underway this summer with a drawdown of the pond behind the dam. The plan is to begin removing the dam itself next spring.
The timeline for the other dams is less clear because funding will come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though Westerhof still hopes for a drawdown behind Sabin Dam late this summer, and deconstruction next year.
“The Corps does great work,” he said. “It just takes a little longer.”
Removing the dams will have a huge impact on ecosystem health in the watershed, said Todd Kalish, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who chairs the project’s implementation team.
“When we remove those impoundments, you’re going to have a clean, coldwater stream, and wetlands, and upland habitat. So you increase the biodiversity of the watershed,” he said.
“The wetland restoration alone is extremely significant, because wetlands by far provide more habitat for more species than any other habitat type in Michigan.”
Kalish said restored wetlands would help limit flooding by absorbing precipitation, and would filter pollutants from the river, which contributes a third of the volume of Grand Traverse Bay.
Beneath the ponds created by the dams lie what once were–and what would again be–oxygen-rich rapids, “and there are a lot of fish and invertebrate species that require that habitat to survive,” he added.
Project leaders say those rapids and other features of a more natural Boardman will lure anglers, paddlers and others to the region.
Removing the dams also would open upstream tributaries for fish spawning, and land now buried beneath ponds would eventually become 60 acres of upland forest habitat.
Not everyone is on board with the project. The ponds behind Brown Bridge and Sabin dams are bounded by public land, but much of the Boardman Pond shoreline is private property. To some, that upland forest habitat sounds more like the loss of their lakefront property.
“They had a lake in their backyard, and now they don’t,” said the DEQ’s Lane, referring to a 2007 partial drawdown of the pond for safety reasons. “But the decision to remove a dam is almost never unanimous.”
Kalish said a legal team advised project leaders that newly exposed bottomlands following dam removal should become public property, but it’s not clear exactly how that would play out in the courts.
Westerhof of the USFWS said he can relate to property owners who aren’t entirely swayed by arguments about ecosystem health and increased tourism.
“We understand there’s some sentimental value involved, too,” he said. “We understand that some people prefer an impoundment and some prefer a river.”
At this point things look good for fans of a free-flowing Boardman.
More info: www.theboardman.org