A Grand River Poem, with regards to Dr. Seuss

Sixth Street Dam to Pearl Street

Oh, how diverse our Grand River will be!

Waves, riffles, runs, galore —

glides, and pools, and even more!

There is a difference, as you soon will know,

impressing your friends as downriver you go.

Knowledge of the river is so much fun,

a wave is not a riffle, a riffle is not a run, 

a run is not a glide, and a glide is not a pool,

they are all different, and different is cool.

A wave is formed when water jumps from fast to slow,

the spot this jump occurs will be fun for those in the flow.

A riffle is formed when water flows over gently sloping areas of riverbed,

through coarse cobble and boulders and then on ahead.

A run is formed downstream of waves and riffles, 

as the water becomes deeper and relatively swifter.

A seam is created between a run and the slower water that is adjacent,

it may hold fish so don’t be complacent. 

A glide forms upstream of a riffle,

when water speeds up and depth starts to shrivel.

A pool is a deep area of water that is slow-moving,

that forms after riffle and waves and can be quite soothing.

Oh, what a diverse Grand River you will see, 

when at last our plan comes to be!

Perseverance and other Grand Rapids WhiteWater values

It has been a significant couple of weeks for Grand Rapids WhiteWater. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) determined that, as of September 9, 2022, our application to revitalize the Lower Reach (130 feet upstream of Bridge Street south to Fulton Street) is “Administratively Complete.” 

To get here, over the past two years, GRWW and the City modified the design, answered questions, provided hydraulic models and other scientific support, and filed literally thousands of pages of material. We feel confident we have balanced the many, complicated project constraints and demonstrated the overall environmental impact of the project is positive. 

While we are confident the application meets every applicable law and regulation, we are not done yet. Multi-partner, collaborative work takes time and effort. 

To that end, the board of directors of Grand Rapids Whitewater revised its bylaws at its September meeting to add the value “perseverance.” A little unusually, GRWW includes our mission, vision, and values in our bylaws. 

The newly added value states that 

“GRWW values …. (f) Perseverance – the ability as an organization to have the grit and tenacity to overcome all barriers, challenges, and delays to accomplish the mission and vision.”

The GRWW mission, vision and values in their entirety are: 

Section 2. Mission. 

GRWW’s mission is to recreate the spirit of the iconic grand rapids; to make the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids a more natural river environment and to enhance the sustainability of fish, wildlife and natural resources and provide access to recreation and fitness opportunities to all. Specifically, GRWW’s mission is to:

  • Reduce public safety hazards generated by low-head dams by removing the dams, 
  • Create diverse riffles, runs, waves, and pools to restore aquatic riverine habitat and diversity,
  • Improve fish passage,
  • Recapture the sight, sound, and spirit of the historic and iconic rapids, for which the City is named, and
  • Enhancing distinctive recreational opportunities such as wading, angling, and whitewater paddling sports, that are safe, interesting, and substantial enough to engage residents, attract tourists, and serve as a catalyst for local, regional, and equitable economic development opportunities.

Section 3. Vision. GRWW envisions a clean, accessible, eco-friendly river flowing through the center of the City of Grand Rapids with rapids that justify the adjective Grand. A river that contributes to the City’s natural beauty, the health and recreational opportunities of its people and the continued success of Grand Rapids.

Section 4. Values.  

GRWW values 

  1. Nature – particularly the beauty and power of a free-flowing Grand River with more natural structure, fauna, and firma. 
  2. Stewardship – of the Grand River itself, the heritage of the river and of the resources entrusted to GRWW. 
  3. Health and recreation – the health benefits, both physical and psychological, realized by individuals who have access to a natural river and the individual and community benefits of ready access to multiple forms of water recreations within the river.
  4. Equity and inclusion – in all facets of GRWW’s mission, including project development, construction, and recreational and economic opportunity. Seeing the river as a community asset that creates health, recreational and economic opportunities for all, both during the project and after its completion.  
  5. Strategic community building – participation in a thoughtful, collaborative, broad based and objective-oriented community project.
  6. Perseverance – the ability as an organization to have the grit and tenacity to overcome all barriers, challenges, and delays to accomplish the mission and vision. 

As of today, the EGLE public comment period is closed. We are excited to reach this important milestone and look forward to working with EGLE to resolve any outstanding questions as they review our permit application.

Press Coverage of EGLE Public Comments

Ciarra C. Adkins, JD Awarded the 2022 Athena Young Professional Award

Every other Wednesday from 8:00am – 10:00am, the “River Project Team” meets for a checkup on the whitewater project.  This talented and committed group of people include folks from the City, Grand Rapids Whitewater, McAlvey Merchant & Associates, and Grand Valley Metro Council.  Jay Steffen (and in his absence Juan Torres) capably facilitates the group’s discussion of all facets of the project.  The notion is to assure that everyone has current information as they go about performing their distinctive role within the project.   

The whole group attempts to keep an eye on equity issues as we contemplate this transformational project.  Equity is important in this project, in contracting and construction as well as in the need to make the resulting amenities welcoming to all.  Further, there is a sense that Grand Rapids is turning a corner and must consider equity issues in all things, especially efforts like whitewater that will help define Grand Rapids of the future.  

But the eye on equity is not just left to the group conscience, it is embodied in the presence of Ciarra C. Adkins.  Ciarra, who is an Equity Analyst for the City of Grand Rapids, is an integral part of the RPT.  While focused on assuring that there is a voice for equity in the project, Ciarra participates in every discussion, whether it is river engineering design, legal strategy, communications approach, or any of the myriad other issues the group contemplates.  Her presence and contributions are effective and positive.  She helps make the meetings productive, enriching, and inspiring.   

Her talents have not been unnoticed by the community.  Recently, the Grand Rapids Chamber awarded the 2022 ATHENA Young Professional Award Recipient to CIARRA C. ADKINS, JD.  They said, “As Founder & President of AQUME Foundation, Ciarra C. Adkins is a change agent working to effect equitable systems transformation in West Michigan. Ciarra is committed to racial justice, economic equity, inclusive higher education, civic engagement and voting rights, and legal accessibility for low-income communities. Ciarra strives to live by the quote from Angela Davis: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

Congratulations to Ciarra!  

Reflections on 2020

If you have not had a chance to read Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, The Horse, The Fox and The Mole, I highly recommend it. Described as “a book of hope for uncertain times,” the author presents vulnerability, kindness and hope in a beautiful, easy way.

(e.g. “I’ve discovered something better than cake.” “No, you haven’t,” said the boy. “I have,” replied the mole. “What is it?” “A hug. It lasts longer.”)

Like the boy on the horse, I can report that while Grand Rapids WhiteWater has a long way to go, we have also come a long way. It has been over a decade of work happening in the form of permitting, project management, research, collaboration with local partners, collaboration with engineers, regulatory agencies, local and statewide fishing agencies, tribal councils and city, state and federal governments. The work has been extensive. And the work has been worth it as we achieved major milestones in 2020.

These are just a few of the things we celebrate as achievements as we reflect on 2020.


The river restoration project is a catalyst for the City of Grand Rapids equity work and for the community’s contemplation of its future. We spend a considerable amount of time thinking about our relationship to our river, to nature and — most importantly — to each other.

  • We presented to more than 100 businesses of color and increased Micro Local Business Enterprise registrations
  • Contracting is being pursued with equity principles

This year, despite COVID-19, we have continued with extensive public outreach and presented virtually to over 500 people. This includes expanded environmental education which reached K-12 classrooms on virtual platforms.

As we continue working to reach more people, our most current communications have been focused on increasing awareness of the project on digital platforms.

  • Email – There are currently 448 individuals signed up for the monthly e-newsletter communication, and growing
  • LinkedIn – We went from 0 followers to 187 and a regular posting cadence.
  • Instagram – Pre-2020 displayed only two posts on our profile. There have been 68 posts since July 2020.
  • Facebook – 2019 saw only four posts. There have been 76 posts since July of this year and our followers are up 10%.
  • Website – Traffic is up 45% and referral traffic from social platforms is up 4,000%. Of that traffic, 28% of visits are going to view our Status or reading The Plan. We are also successfully converting 45 new subscribers to our email list and growing that each month.
  • Blogs – Since inception, we had only updated content on our site 18 times. In 2020 alone, we have added 18 posts.

Our staff has been working with local agency Highland Group and Kennari Consulting to more comprehensively develop plans for the public campaign once EGLE (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) officially accepts our application.


Grand Rapids WhiteWater and the City of Grand Rapids meet regularly with state and federal regulatory agencies for both the Lower and Upper Reach portions of the river project.

Much work has been done regarding the Environmental Impact Statement for the Upper Reach:

  • Collection of sediment characterization, bathymetry, and bedrock profiling data
  • Drafting EIS metrics framework
  • Dam risk assessment 
  • Distribution of 30% designs, models and reports for project team review
  • River Restoration coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers and included a 30% grading plan for in-river features in the Upper Reach to be included in the ongoing EIS process
    • The AHS design plans submitted to the Corps were greater than 30%

With respect to the Lower Reach (Bridge to Fulton), we have reached the following milestones in 2020:  

  • The revised Biological Assessment was submitted to the USFWS on June 9, 2020
    • Following a 135-day statutory review period, the USFWS issued a Biological Opinion on October 22, 2020
  • The WPP/EA was submitted to the state office of the Natural Resource Conservation service on September 21
    • A revised WPP/EA addressing the state office comments was submitted to the state for submission to the National Watershed Management Center on November 13, 2020
  • The Joint Permit Application package was submitted to EGLE on October 30, 2020
    • We are already responding to their list for more information
    • A complete set of construction drawings and impact drawings were finalized as part of the Application package 
  • Completed 2020 mussel, macroinvertebrate, fish and habitat surveys
  • GRWW & the City continue to hold bi-weekly meetings with the RPT to manage the project
  • The City of Grand Rapids is currently negotiating the Construction Management contract with AnLaan Corporation as well as a Professional Design Services contract with River Restoration
    • GRWW was actively involved in the development of those contracts prior to negotiations with the individual parties
  • All construction QA/QC will be coordinated through River Restoration


We currently have commitments of 71% of the private sector funding goal (over $13 million) and a total of 90% of the original $45 million goal.

This investment in our project is immensely important as the work that we are doing is being incorporated as a major part of investment planning in the future of Grand Rapids and Western Michigan.

Even under COVID-19 related challenges, project timelines have largely been adhered to thanks to hard work and collaboration.

No matter what next year brings, we have a lot of work to do and we are prepared to make it happen. We look forward to a big year to come, and we hope you stay tuned to our project status forums – on social media or our website – as we share exciting progress to come. Forward, to 2021!

*Thanks to Jay Steffen for his compilation of accomplishments.

*Here is an interview with Mr. Mackesy on BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/v/uk-55305286

How Grand Rapids City Residents Perceive the River Revitalization Project: A Clean Water Action Survey

If you watch the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids today, its users are primarily people on the shoreline, walking the paths, enjoying open public spaces, taking graduation and wedding pictures on the bridges and enjoying the parks along the shore. Anglers who can trailer their boats to an access point downriver can fish up to the Sixth Street dam, when the water is high enough to allow passage over the four low-head dams. Many also walk into the river and line up in front of the dam to fish, and some fish off of the floodwalls or bridges. 

We hear from many folks who are excited about the revitalization of the river. We also hear from some current users of the river who would prefer to leave things as they are, who do not really relish the thought of more people in the river.  

So, how about everyone we haven’t heard from? How do the people of Grand Rapids perceive the Grand River revitalization project? 

To find the answer, a partnership between Clean Water Action, Grand Rapids WhiteWater, Grand Valley Metro Council and the City of Grand Rapids came together (with the generous support of the Wege Foundation) to connect with residents directly through a survey. Clean Water Action chatted with 10,000 Grand Rapids residents and received 2,600 completed surveys.

Everyone surveyed was a Grand Rapids resident and 44.3% of the respondents live within a mile of the Grand River.  

The results were strong and encouraging:

  • An overwhelming majority of participants – 85.4% of respondents – visit the riverfront at least once a year.     
  • More than half visit at least 5 times a year. 
  • The group identified recreation and natural/wildlife habitat as the preferred uses of the river.
  • 76.8% are aware of current efforts to revitalize rapids to the Grand River. 
  • Support for the project is overwhelmingly positive.

  • As is the value that participants place on the Grand River as a community asset.

When asked, “What activities would you enjoy if the rapids were restored?” respondents noted that activities such as canoeing, kayaking, rafting, surfing, swimming, wading and fishing would be the most popular.

On the other hand, the survey reflects that a majority of respondents continue to be concerned or unsure about the water quality in the Grand River despite the City’s successful efforts to clean the water over the last 20 years or so. 

Sounds like a good topic for our next narrative.

Project Design: Restoring the Spirit of the Rapids in the Grand River

T.S. Elliot, The Dry Salvages, Nº3 of Four Quartets

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.


The beginning of T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages” which he takes from a boyhood memory of a spot he once enjoyed, could well have been written to describe the Grand River. The Grand is strong and intractable. It once was a wild and bountiful fishing ground for the Ottawa Indian tribe. Through furs, logs and other industry, the river was a conveyor of commerce but, once that work was done, it became largely forgotten as the City grew around it.

With this revitalization project, the Grand River will be forgotten no more. We honor its history by recapturing fish habitat and the spirit of the rapids that once prompted Captain Charles E. Belknap to recall, “…made a noise that broke the stillness of the forest and echoed from the neighboring hills.”

At the same time, we look to the future of a river that is safe and accessible to kids who want to learn how to fish, boat or swim. A river that is a great fishery for salmon and steelhead but also for walleye, bass and many other species. A river that attracts people to its waves, shores and to the City for which it is the centerpiece. We mean to respect the history of the river by recapturing the spirit of the rapids, while at the same time becoming a catalyst for Grand Rapids’ continued success long into the future. Never have I been involved with a project that required such clear perception of the past and vision of the future.


We mean to respect the history of the river by recapturing the spirit of the rapids, while at the same time becoming a catalyst for Grand Rapids’ continued success.


There is an excellent summary of the River’s history in pictures and drawings in an article originally posted in 2017 and updated in 2019 from then-MLive writer Amy Barczy (Biolchini).

The article includes a drawing in which the rapids are depicted in the heart of downtown. The caption notes that, “This portion of a hand-drawn map circa 1830 depicts the rapids in the Grand River. In this map, north is on the right. The small island in the river is the approximate location of the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids.”


Figure 1: This map from 1830 shows the Grand River coming through downtown Grand Rapids. Today, the JW Marriot stands (approximately) in the location of the small island in the river.

[IMAGE CREDIT: Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, MI]


Ms. Barczy’s article also provides these references:

  • “These rapids are about a mile in extent and 300 yards wide and must have at least a 10-foot fall, some think 15,” said an 1826 article about the river that appeared in the National Intelligencer. “They are crowded with huge round rocks, among which the water roars and foams with great fury.”
  • The rapids still made their presence known in 1838, when a visitor, Frank Little, wrote that the “incessant, impressive roar of the rapids” kept him up at night as he slept.

There is now a city in the way so we cannot duplicate the actual historic rapids. There simply is not enough of a record of the natural state of the river prior to European settlement to know with confidence where every rock lodged. Nor would that be the only factor in this project. Considerations of safety, flooding, prevention of invasive species and betterment of fish and wildlife habitat are all important matters that strongly influence the design. We are confident that the design we are proposing recaptures the spirit of the rapids while meeting the other goals of the project.


The rapids in the Grand River can never be exactly restored. But the spirit of it can be revitalized.


As discussed in a previous blog the Grand Rapids WhiteWater project is effectively divided in two: the Lower Stretch, which is roughly from Bridge Street to Fulton Street, and the Upper Stretch, which is planned from the North end of the Lower Stretch to the proposed Adjustable Hydraulic System between Leonard and Ann Street. Since the federal government is determining the placement and design of (and paying for) the sea lamprey barrier that anchors the Upper Stretch, we will not complete the design for the additional in-river features in the Upper Stretch until we have better direction from the federal government.

Shortly, however, we will submit the proposed design and associated permitting documents for the Lower Stretch to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as part of our permit application. The proposed design, depicted below, is the culmination of over ten years of scientific study and research and has been developed in close coordination with multiple state and federal agencies.


Figure 2: Image depicts proposed substrate sizes with red representing large boulders and smaller sizes of rock and alluvium depicted in the other colors.


The design of the Lower Stretch removes four dangerous low-head dams and includes four channel-spanning hydraulic features designed to increase flow diversity, improve aquatic habitat and aesthetics, and create and enhance recreation opportunities in the Grand River. Specifically, four wave features, two in front of Ah-Nab-Awen Park , one in front of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and one in front of the L.V. Eberhard Center of Grand Valley State University have been incorporated into this design to provide whitewater recreation opportunities.

  • The Lower Stretch is about 400-500 feet wide and the wave features represent approximately 60-70 feet of the channel width. This is important as most of the river will not be punctuated only by rapids for whitewater recreation, but by large riffles (riffles are the shallower sections of a stream where rocks break the water surface and are very important to fish habitat) and areas of quieter water.
  • The intensity of the rapids is indicated by color in the image below (the red being the most intense, the blue the least), and the speed of the water decreases as the river flattens out from North to South. (Because of the natural gradation, the most intense rapids will be in the Upper Stretch just below the present location of the 6th Street dam.)


Figure 3. Computerized hydraulic modeling software was used to predict the speed, depth, and direction of flow for the proposed design. Red shows areas of faster water and blues and greens show areas of slower water.


  • The riffles are on the east side of the river, primarily to aid in fish passage but also to enhance user safety. There will be ample room in the river for both fish and people to avoid the more intense water if they should choose to do so. An advantage of this design is that we were able to address specific agency concerns for fish passage by incorporating areas of slower moving water along the edges of the river and around the wave features. We believe this design significantly improves fish passage opportunities compared to the low-head dams currently in the river.
  • Another significant advantage of this design is the ability to provide safety for users. Behind every wave, there is a small eddy and pool of water to allow users a chance to collect themselves. There is also easy access to shore shortly after each of the wave features. RiverRestoration.org, our hydraulic engineers, are able to design the augmented wave features to provide for maximum safety while also creating a much more diverse river bottom that benefits fish and other aquatic species.


Figure 4. Renderings of the first and fourth waves that approximate the level of intensity for each of the areas noted in the design. Note that the waves on the Grand River will not cover the entire river width. These examples, from other projects outside of West Michigan, have waves that cover the river’s entire expanse.


While he may not be a poet of T.S. Elliot’s stature, Captain Charles E. Belknap described his boyhood memories of the Grand Rapids.

… My first view was in June 1854, when from the top deck of the river steamer we came up the east channel to land at the Eagle hotel dock. A few days later I was getting acquainted with the town and near the Butterworth foundry met Harry Eaton and his gang, who by way of initiation to the west, proceeded to push me off a slab pile into the river to see if I could swim. I could and struck out for the head of Island No. 1.

… Sitting on a rock in the sun to dry my clothing, I studied the rapids and hundreds of large boulders of granite and lime rock about which the waters rushed.

… In after years I often thanked Harry Eaton for pushing me off that slab pile because it gave me my first day under those wonderful water maples. I was somewhat older before I really appreciated the great sycamores at the water’s edge, the island plateau of giant water elms, the almost tropical mass of grape vine that festooned the trees, and in every depression the wild plum and crab apple that crowded the elder bushes and sumac, and that I came to love the tinkle of bells, on cows that had waded the river to feed on the abundant grass, blended with the music of blackbirds and bob-o-links swaying about the cattails.

— Capt. Charles E. Belknap, The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids, GR Press Sept 9, 1922


When we complete this project, kids will again be able to “study the rapids and hundreds of large boulders of granite and lime rock about which the waters rushed,” enjoy the trees and the music of birds swaying about the cattails.


Embedding Equity into the River Restoration Project

In his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the question of when civil rights advocates would be satisfied. Dr. King answered, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

What great imagery when thinking about the need to embed equity into the Grand River restoration project. The goal is inclusion for everyone, which can be achieved only by embedding equity into the fabric of the project. It’s not just the “what” and “how” that are important. The “who” matters as well.

The “what” of the project is the removal of unneeded dams and restoration of rock structure to recapture the spirit of the iconic Grand Rapids and make it a “mighty stream.”

The “how” is a design that opens the river to broader recreational use and expands fish habitat while building a more viable lamprey barrier. So often, conversations normally stop at that point. However, this project is intentional about the necessity of going beyond the usual standards.

That’s why we must thoroughly understand the “who.”

Who, indeed?

  • Who will determine all the potential uses of the river? Who will govern that use?
  • Who will do the construction? Remove the dams? Move the rock back into the river?
  • Who will benefit from the shoreline development?
  • Who will learn how to fish, boat and swim in the river? Who will teach those individuals?
  • Who will wade in the stream to connect with nature, or sense the generations of people who relied upon it for their livelihood?
  • Who will catch a walleye for dinner?
  • Who will catch a wave for the fun of it?
  • Who will quietly contemplate at the end of their day while listening to the sound and feel of water cascading through the rapids?

We know the “who” matters.

Equity, diversity and inclusion within the context of water recreation is about ensuring all people have access to clean, healthy life-sustaining waters. It is about bringing people together — a way for us to connect the pieces of our city that have been historically siloed. This is our opportunity to address recreation and inclusivity. This is a community project, creating an asset that will span generations. It is imperative that the project benefits the whole community and that every step is completed with an eye to equity.

Our work is to determine how we can reduce barriers. Far too often, water recreation is treated as a privilege for a select group of people. The time and cost, learning how to do it safely, being welcomed into recreational spaces and more are all barriers that exclude too many. This project, in the heart of Grand Rapids and within access of many neighborhoods of color, can — and will — ensure that people of color are encouraged to take part in the great outdoors from childhood on. We have a great opportunity to embed equity into the project and bring it to the people. There is no better project to use as a catalyst for change. It will have a monumental and generational impact long after the last construction truck is gone.

In its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement of Intent,” the River Network declares:

All people have a right to clean and ample water that sustains life. To achieve this right for all communities, it is imperative for the river and watershed community to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive movement … Biases and disparities disproportionately burden communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities with legacies of environmental damage and ongoing harm that limit their access to healthy life-sustaining waters … Just as biodiversity strengthens natural systems, water protection work is made stronger by the contributions, experiences, perspectives, and values of different people and communities.

Through the Equitable Grand River Restoration Initiative, with help from the Kellogg Foundation,  the ultimate outcome is to eliminate racialized disparities at the community level through wealth creation for persons of color. The initiative is designed to ensure racial bias doesn’t exclude residents, entrepreneurs and businesses from distressed neighborhoods from equitable access to the jobs, contracts and training that will result from this project.

To achieve these goals, the City seeks to increase its Micro-Local Business Enterprise (MLBE) list. An MLBE Registration Program was recently launched to assist 30 to 40 construction and professional services firms to register with the City to receive more exposure during the bidding and contracting phase. While the construction is atypical, the desire is to ensure all types of firms are able to bid and contract for the work, generating wealth as the massive river project develops. Before it is done, tens of millions of dollars will be spent and more than a decade of time will have passed.

And that’s not all. The river’s restoration will serve as a catalyst for additional equitable development and access opportunities — to trails, park improvements, etc. — as envisioned in the GR Forward community plan and the regional, state and national partners in River for All.

Restoring the Grand River is just the beginning. With great partnerships and continued focus and diligence on equitable opportunity, we believe this project can provide our whole community with improved access to the great outdoors and the Grand River.

Ciarra C. Adkins, JD, Equity Analyst at the City of Grand Rapids
Steve Heacock, JD, President & CEO Grand Rapids WhiteWater

It’s Been 10 Years, Where Are the Rapids?

“Time is a river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.” — Marcus Aurelius


Sometimes it’s hard to believe that an idea Chip Richards and Chris Muller had 10 years ago would still be in the works. No one said it would be easy, but no one said we would still be at it 10 years later, either. Why has this project taken so long? And what is going on today?


Chip Richards and Chris Muller, Grand Rapids WhiteWater founders, 2010


Grand Rapids WhiteWater (GRWW) was aptly named by the founders. The idea at the beginning was to create within the Grand River a place where midwestern kayakers could easily access whitewater for recreational purposes. But what started as a focused recreational opportunity became much more. The project is now about making 2 miles of the Grand River as natural as possible and better for all, including neighborhood kids, native peoples, anglers, visitors, residents, hikers, bikers, casual observers, naturalists and yes, kayakers.  Still providing an opportunity for recreational use, but with a much larger ambition.  


The river restoration project is about making 2 miles of the Grand River as natural as possible and better for all.


We were named Grand Rapids, not Dammed Waters. The name was appropriate. There was a day when people found Grand Rapids by the sound of the roaring rapids. Charles A Whittemore, Kent Scientific Institute of Grand Rapids, said in 1895, “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.” 

Captain Charles E. Belknap recalled from his childhood, “Sitting on a rock (on island number 1) in the sun to dry my clothes, I studied the rapids and hundreds of large boulders of granite and lime rock about which the water rushed….”

That is the spirit we are attempting to recapture and the vision we pursue. A massive vision of again hearing and seeing rushing water, recapturing the spirit of the namesake rapids and making as natural as possible a river that winds through a significant metropolitan area.       

A big vision intends a big impact and requires big learning. The proponents of the project have had much to learn to move the project forward.  The way water flows, how one puts a structure together to produce rapids, the talent needed to design such a structure, the flora and fauna of the river, how fish habitat the river, how fish find their way upriver, endangered species and mitigation of any damage caused them, invasive species and how to block their escapement, how to avoid flooding to structures, cost and funding, etc.  Each element has constituted important learning, vital to completion of the project.  

Everyone involved in the project has been engaged in an iterative learning process over the past 10 years. Involvement has included not just the proponents and our consultants and supporters, but also the folks who oversee state and federal natural resources. As new ideas were proposed, better understanding was obtained or technologies were introduced, the plans were reconsidered and often recast.  

A big vision, particularly one impacting a natural resource, also necessitates big regulatory oversight. At last count, there are seven regulatory bodies that we must satisfy at the state and federal levels. Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) (EGLE) is the primary permitting agency and this project is unlike anything they have considered. The substantial regulatory issues revolve around flood control, escapement of the invasive sea lamprey, protection of the endangered snuffbox mussel, fish passage, hydraulic modeling, impact to wetlands and the environment generally.  


Project Overview

Grand Rapids WhiteWater has embraced the concerns of these regulatory agencies over the last 10 years and the plans today are far evolved from the original drafts several years ago, which were focused largely on whitewater recreation. Today, the plan is divided into two independent projects that address environmental concerns noted above: Lower Reach and Upper Reach. 

  1. The Lower Reach, from Bridge Street to Fulton Street, is also known as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project. Working in cooperation with the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS), a branch of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a $4.1 million grant was awarded to the Grand Valley Metro Council (GVMC) to achieve the objectives listed below. Working cooperatively, GRWW, NRCS, the City of Grand Rapids (City) and GVMC are preparing permit plans for the first phase of construction in the river. The City will submit permits to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), EGLE and other appropriate state and federal agencies for approvals. Project goals include:
    1. Restore aquatic habitat diversity and suitability for native Great Lakes drainage fish and mussel species, especially threatened, endangered, and special concern native species, in the Grand River from upstream of Bridge Street to Fulton Street
    2. Reduce public safety hazards generated by the existing low-head dams
    3. Install diversified hydraulic features that would improve aquatic habitat and aesthetics and create/enhance recreation opportunities such as paddling, rafting, tubing and angling in the Grand River. 
  2. The Upper Reach project, from Ann Street to Bridge Street, is being led by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), the international agency tasked with managing sea lamprey in the Great Lakes, to ensure protection of invasive sea lamprey remains a top priority. GRWW and the City are working closely with GLFC as they prepare an Environmental Impact Statement looking at different alternatives to prevent the upstream migration of sea lamprey, including the proposed Adjustable Hydraulic Structure (AHS). This area of the project will require approximately 18 additional months of study before a recommendation is made. Project goals include:
    1. Public safety and flood conveyance
    2. Serve as a barrier to, and with a goal of, preventing upstream migration of sea lampreys and other invasive species
    3. Fish passage and habitat restoration
    4. Public recreation.


Complex Process

Our biggest challenges over the past several years, largely resolved, have been:

  • Distinguishing Grand Rapids from typical full-stream, concrete based “whitewater” projects
  • Multiple and conflicting regulator desires and processes 
  • The challenge governmental employees have finding the time needed for a project of this magnitude, most recently given the challenges of Covid-19.   

While it has been a long road (with much more yet to do) we have been lucky in that the regulators assigned have been engaged, open-minded and hard working. They each have a job to do and sometimes their interests appear to conflict with one another, but they have drawn together and attempted to achieve all of the required regulatory processes in one massive process.  

Just to give you some perspective, here is a “simple” chart Dale Burkett from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission created after facilitating a streamlining process with all of the interested parties. (I realize that you cannot read it – I am just trying to impress you with the complexity!)

Significant Accomplishments

Despite all of the required learning and changes and the complexity of the project, much has been accomplished. Jay Steffen, Assistant Planning Director for the City of Grand Rapids, who facilitates most of the governance meetings for the project, shared the following list of accomplishments from the past three years.  

  • On April 24, 2017 Mayor Bliss and Great Lakes Fishery Commission Executive Secretary Bob Lambe convened the first AHS Annual meeting, which brought together, in-person, regulators and local project partners.
  • Informal agreement on governance of the process among the City, GRWW, GLFC, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and USFWS.  
  • Committees were formed, objectives and meeting schedules were set.
  • Developed Purpose Statement with priorities for the operation of the proposed AHS should that option be selected for the sea lamprey barrier.
  • GLFC, GRWW, City and others, through regular visits to Washington D.C., obtained funding commitments for the development of a new lamprey barrier.  
  • Completed Report on Sea Lamprey Control Needs and Considerations.
  • Developed the Integrated Permit Process, an important innovation to manage the many and periodically conflicting regulatory processes.

2019 Accomplishments

Lower Reach

  • River Restoration Org completed 90% design
  • Developed with MDNR and incorporated substantially improved Fish Passage 
  • Completed Biological Assessment for lower reach and submitted to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the USDA, who reviewed and then submitted to USFWS 
  • Completed hydraulic modeling for lower reach 
  • Secured EGLE permit to conduct sediment sampling 
  • All easements acquired from adjacent landowners 
  • Hired third-party Construction Manager to advise on project costs and construction methods 
  • Leveraged over $2M in partner in-kind matching funds for RCPP grant
  • NRCS approved a one-year no-cost extension for the RCPP grant. 
  • GRWW ended 2019 with financial commitments for 89% of the anticipated project budget. Notably, $13.3 million was committed at the end of 2019 from Private Sector resources.

Upper Reach

  • Began Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Process for Upper Reach with Public Scoping Event 
  • Approved Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)  
  • Refined Integrated Permit Process Schedule and Risk Register 
  • Established EIS evaluation criteria (“the matrix”)  
  • Consultant hired to consider alternatives for sea lamprey barrier

Accomplishments Common to Both Reaches 

  • Continued to gain private and public fund development to finance project
  • Grand Rapids Public Museum conducted outreach for future improvements focused on the river 
  • City received funding from Kellogg Foundation to hire Equity Analyst
  • Wege Foundation provided Clean Water Action canvassing with over 10,000 face-to-face conversations about the river and 2,600 completed surveys
  • River for All plan approved by the City Commission 
  • Strategic Equity Work Initiated 
  • Initiated Ordinance Work
  • Participated in Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. River Corridor Governance Study 
  • Made over 40 presentations reaching more 1500 members of the community
  • Held 2nd year of Summer Science & Leadership Program for High School students
  • City submitted final documents regarding flood control to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Set up monitoring protocol to assess habitat improvements of projects
  • City purchased a small piece of riverfront property adjacent to the Post office and an additional 12 Acres of riverfront property from Leonard to Ann St 
  • Completed nearly two-year long effort to resolve MDNR concerns regarding fish passage and habitat


2020 Plan

During 2020, we intend to complete the Biological Assessment for the Endangered Mussels process, assemble the Watershed Protection Plan/Environmental Assessment (WPP/EA) for various state and federal permits and file a Joint Permit Application to EGLE, hopefully to allow us to access the river for the 2021 construction season.  

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” — Jim Watkins

As you can see, putting the rapids back into the Grand River is a complex undertaking. It’s much more than just pulling down old dams or adding big boulders into the riverbed. Its scope has broadened from a limited use project for a few, limited forms of (expensive) recreation to one that ensures access to – and enjoyment of – the river for all Grand Rapids area residents. 

We’ll continue to post more detailed updates in this blog and look forward to sharing from the contents of our permit application for the Lower Reach when they are submitted for permitting, hopefully later in 2020.


Photo Credit: Brian Kelly Photo for Rapid Growth Media