The Grand River is a fixture in the downtown Grand Rapids area, the reason we have our name, and the reason our city grew here in the first place. Ever since the 1990s, and really gaining traction in 2010, there has been a project that aims to restore the rapids that we are named for and make the river more accessible to public use. It also aims to remove several safety concerns along the river. To understand more about this project, I met with Jay Steffen and Michael Staal to learn about the more technical side of the project and the administrative side of the project.
Grand Rapids is situated on a very unique stretch of river, dropping roughly 18ft in 2 miles. (comparatively dropping 2 ft within the next 40). The unique nature of our river is what makes the dams and this project especially interesting. Grand Rapids currently has five dams, the biggest one placed at 6th street and the other four intermittently placed between Bridge St. and Fulton St. The goal is to eventually remove all the dams in two projects to allow for the river’s natural rapids to return. The first phase of the project is to remove the four smaller dams (ranging from 3.5ft to 1ft). The second phase will be to remove the larger 6th Street Dam. Both phases will come with a lot of change to surrounding riverfront areas.
It is first important to understand the reason behind the dams. The 6th Street dam was constructed in the 1920s in order to help with logging practices in the area. The low head dams down river were constructed in order to keep water moving on hot summer days. The river used to be a drainage spot for all the city’s sewers, and if any sewage got caught in stagnant water, it would stink and people would file complaints. As the years progressed, the river was no longer needed to support logging companies and the sewage system was rerouted to stay out of the river, leaving all the dams with no real purpose.
These dams are also roughly over 100 years old, and as Jay Steffen pointed out, concrete structures only have a 100 year lifespan. They are reaching the end of their road as it is.
Many might not think of a Dam as a potential threat, but that is part of the reason that these dams are being pulled out. As Michael Staal described, if you were to fall in, you could easily get stuck in the rolling waves on top of the dam, “just like the logs that get stuck on the 6th street dam.” The dams also prevent any sort of kayaking, canoeing, or stand up paddle boarding that could be an opportunity for the area. Not only are the dams a threat to safety and preventing certain activities, they also cause harm to the environment. Dams break the natural flow of the river, making it harder for species of fish to make it up stream. Weaker jumping fish cannot jump over the dams, so their populations slowly dwindle, hurting the diversity of our ecosystem. Because these dams cause problems, serve no purpose, and provide great benefit to remove, the River Rapids Restoration project was formed.
The ultimate goal is for the river to look almost how it does in the picture above. To achieve this, first the four low head dams need to be removed. Next, as depicted, boulders need to be set in place. Just removing the dams would not create the natural rapids effect the project is looking for and that amount of uncontrolled flowing water could cause damages to bridges and surrounding riverfront properties. The boulders are put in strategic places to help slow the water and to create habitats for the river’s native animals. The same process will be followed with the removal of the 6th street dam.
Currently the project is in the permitting phase. Permits for a project of this scale need to be pulled from both the local and federal level. These permits ensure that everything done in the project is up to code, and that everything is being done correctly as far as the environment is concerned. The project has also started looking for contractors and landscapers to employ for the construction phase of the project.
What happens without the dams? What new safeguards are in place?
After the project is all said and done, the community can expect a lot more riverfront access. The hope is to allow the community to have a new congregation location. Restoration of the dams means that people will be able to go kayaking, paddle boarding, or canoeing whenever they want and do so safely. It will also increase access to fishing, and is expected to increase the amount of tourism coming into Grand Rapids. With a centrally located river, prime for recreation, our city will become a more attractive option for people to visit. Not only will new activities be directly increased, there are going to be new options for riverfront restaurants, entertainment, and outfitters. The increase in recreational activities are estimated to bring in a new 15-19 million dollars in recreation revenue. There is another expected 117 million dollars in property value increases expected as well.
After the river rapids have been restored, there are many plans for improvements to surrounding parks and green areas in the works. Prime examples of these improvements are places like the Water Reservoir Site, Lyon Square, and North Monroe (the proposed plan pictured here). All of these places are currently industrial, more automotive places that are going to be converted into new green spaces and parks. Old parks like the Fish Ladder Park (which will be left in as it is an iconic Grand Rapids art fixture) and Ah-Nab-Awen Park are going to be given face lifts through this project.
The last thing that is going to be added are safeguards put in place to protect the wildlife of the Grand River. Currently the 6th street bridge acts as a barrier for the invasive Sea Lamprey, so, while the DNR is working on catching as many of the species as possible, there is going to be a new barrier put in place about a mile upriver. The new water feature will be an adjustable hydraulic. When the sea lamprey are known to be more active, they will be able to raise the top above their jumping height without hindering the passage of water or other fish.
In conclusion, this project is going to do a lot of good for the Grand Rapids area. While it is going to cost roughly 40 million to complete in entirety, I believe that it is well worth the investment. The Grand River is the cleanest it’s been in the past 30 years. Now is the time to capitalize on the resources we have been given and enjoy a unique feature our city has to offer. To learn more about the project and to voice support for the project, you can visit the website linked below.