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.
Nature – particularly the beauty and power of a free-flowing Grand River with more natural structure, fauna, and firma.
Stewardship – of the Grand River itself, the heritage of the river and of the resources entrusted to GRWW.
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.
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.
Strategic community building – participation in a thoughtful, collaborative, broad based and objective-oriented community project.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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:
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
Reduce public safety hazards generated by the existing low-head dams
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.
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:
Public safety and flood conveyance
Serve as a barrier to, and with a goal of, preventing upstream migration of sea lampreys and other invasive species
Fish passage and habitat restoration
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!)
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.
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.
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
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.
“Anyone donning a pair of fishing waders has automatically made some concessions to fashion and personal presentation, but the nine area high school juniors and seniors gathered at Riverside Park this past July didn’t seem overly concerned with style points — their eyes were all fixed on the Grand River.
Each one had been selected to be part of Grand Rapids WhiteWater’s Little Mussel, Big City: Summer Science and Leadership program. The river restoration project began a few years ago as a creative, perhaps even playful, idea to create a downtown whitewater park for kayakers and surfers. Like many things in life, the proposal soon grew complicated. A lot more complicated. The Grand River is both metaphorically and literally the heart of the city, and its complex history of people, economy, and nature converged like a Class IV rapid.
Rather than abandon the idea, GR WhiteWater, its partners, and the city embraced the complexity, seeing challenges not as problems to be solved but as an incredible opportunity to create something new: a river restoration project that marks success according to sustainability and the triple bottom line:
People: Wellness, social equity, culture Planet: Healthy ecosystems Profits: Vibrant, diverse economic opportunity
In the past, the three were often seen in opposition or at best as a series of compromises. Better thinking sees all three as puzzle pieces to be fit together. As we rush forward in the 21st century, the problems inherent in what might be coined conquering capitalism — a system that emerged at a time when overpopulation and global-sized environmental threats were inconceivable — are at a tipping point. What actions the adult world takes now are certainly of critical importance. But it is perhaps even more important that we enable young people the opportunity to build something new: a worldview that embraces progress and growth alongside, not in spite of, social and environmental factors.
And so the students, strangers to each other until just the day before, stood on the banks of the Grand, huddled in a tight group ready to take a much smaller step toward saving the world: looking for federally-endangered snuffbox mussels. We were with one of the nation’s leading experts, Heidi Dunn, who explained how non-invasive freshwater mussels are keystone species that, when present, are significant indicators of healthy river ecosystems. Boundaries staked, students entered the river on hands and knees, catch bags looped over shoulders, running gloved hands through the sandy river bottom.
Each day, students gathered at our home base at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a perfect riverside basecamp for our daily excursions. In the two weeks we spent together, students manipulated physical and digital watershed models, measured and marked fish with GVSU grad students, learned of the native Anishinaabe history and relationship to the river, explored the history of sturgeon, met local business leaders and city planners, paddled kayaks, and held a mini-session in design thinking. Walking up to four miles a day, we also made time for ice cream. Their work culminated in a creative ideas workshop, emerging from what they’d learned about the many layers involved in the river restoration project. Proudly, they shared their ideas before the mayor and the city commission on their final day together.
Place-based learning, that which takes students out of the classroom and connects curriculum to the larger world, is the most powerful gateway I know to foster deep learning and allow students to connect to something larger than themselves. In a more relaxed environment coupled with hands-on learning, there is actually more room for growth, creativity, and productivity.
After the program, students testified that “we learned to work as a real team.” Meeting community professionals (all of whom testified that their journey had been an adventure full of surprises rather than a fixed path), one student remarked, “I grew in my view of my future. I’m now considering a lot more things I can do that would interest me.” And if nothing else, “I also learned how to talk to adults and how to have a good handshake!” Students closed the program considering ways they could stay involved with the river and the river restoration project: helping with youth programs, volunteering, serving as ambassadors to their schools, and even forming a youth branch of GR WhiteWater.
Back in the water, bags were filling with mussels. These little creatures have served important historical, economic, and ecological roles from the time Native Americans first settled along a the not-so-quiet roar of whitewater rapids immediately upstream from where the public museum now stands. On this day, 16- and 17-year olds first name, measure, and then take a brief moment to marvel at each shell’s individual markings and color before properly returning it to the river. In their eyes, though, is the start of a new chapter of leadership and vision marked with intelligence and passion. In their hands is the future itself.
The Grand River is more beautiful and healthier now than any other point in modern history. With the help of these students, and the many others in their generation and the generations to come, we can have hope that the river — and this city — will be even better 100 years from now.”
Grand Rapids WhiteWater plans to run another session of Little Mussel, Big City (and perhaps two) next summer. Read more about the program and the application process here.
Grand Rapids citizens and visitors may not be seeing big changes in the River right now, but Grand Rapids Whitewater hopes to be making big splashes soon.
“[T]he river will look much different by 2025. That’s Grand Rapids Whitewater’s target date for the completion of the river restoration project. It’s a project that is expected to cause a ripple effect, both literally and figuratively, on downtown Grand Rapids’ redevelopment efforts.”
Learn more about our tentative timeline for the Grand River Restoration Project in the article published by WoodTV8:
On Tuesday August 14, 2018 Richard Bishop Grand Rapids Whitewater President & CEO, in conjunction with the our partners at the City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., presented an update to the Grand Rapids City Commission. This update highlights the true public-private partnership that has developed over the last eight years as we focus on the restoration of the river corridor.
There’s a big difference between learning science abstractly and learning it first hand right along side experts. This is an opportunity through the Grand Rapids Whitewater program that has become much bigger; it’s now about a river restoration project.
– David Koning
Local students taking part in Grand Rapids Whitewater’s 2-week Summer Science and Leadership program learned more about mussels in the Grand.
Students collected and identified mussels at Riverside Park in an attempt to further understand how important mussels are to the ecosystem.
The students were excited to be apart of the research and learn more about the River. Vian Abdulqader, Forest Hills Northern High School student, said “Gathering samples, numbers, information, that way it can lead to information about, ‘Hey these aren’t supposed to be here, or we need more of these’, therefore, we can be like, ‘We need to make these changes to the river to restore it to what it was, the beautiful rapids it used to have,'”.
GRWW organizers launched The Summer Science and Leadership program as a 10-day pilot program to provide students with hands-on opportunities to learn about the many aspects of the Grand River Restoration project. Students will meet a handful of community leaders, environmental educators, and project stakeholders as they explore their own connection to the Grand River. At the end of the 10-day program, students will present their findings and talk about their experiences at a “Gallery Walk” event being held Tuesday July 24 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from 5:oo-7:30p.m. This year’s program hosted nine students. The goal is to expand the program in the future to a diverse group of students from around the county and region.
If you didn’t, don’t worry! You can see the story and front page feature here.
On Sunday June 3, 2018, the Grand Rapids Press published articles about the permitting and design process, how far the river restoration project has come, the natural habitat and creatures living in the River, fundraising, public participation, and the steps we still need to take.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us so far. This is a complex project and we are excited about the momentum we have to bring the rapids back to the Grand for everyone!
Grand Rapids Whitewater has released findings of the Economic Benefits of the Grand Rapids Whitewater Project, a study focused on the potential for expanded economic activity directly related to the restoration of a 2.2-mile stretch of the Grand River through downtown Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids Whitewater is pleased to share this preliminary plan to restore the rapids to the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. The plan is based on two years of scientific and engineering studies that evaluated the river bottom, sediment, wildlife and other factors to understand the river. …
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of the Interior has announced that the Urban Waters Federal Partnership is including the Grand River as one of 11 new locations to restore waterways, help local economies, create jobs and protect Americans’ health.
“The Grand River Urban Waters Federal Partnership is a business and community-led effort to restore an urban river in downtown Grand Rapids, beginning with recreating the namesake rapids.”
– New Life for the Grand River Watershed by the Urban Waters Federal Partnership