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.

Time Sensitive: We Need Your Support

Grand Rapids WhiteWater, on behalf of the City of Grand Rapids, has submitted a permit request to EGLE, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, for work related to the Lower Reach of the project.

This portion of the project will enhance the quality of the Grand River ecosystem while providing greater safety, access and recreational opportunities to the citizens of West Michigan.

As part of the permit approval process, EGLE is accepting public comments until October 9, 2022.

We Need Your Support

Can you share your support of this permit application by submitting a comment on the MIWaters website?

It’s easy. You only need to share your name, email address and copy/paste the statement of support into the comments box. 

Feel free to customize if you’d like. Reminder, you’re limited to 2,048 characters.

Public Hearing

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) is holding a virtual public hearing at 6 p.m. on September 29, 2022 regarding our permit application.

Register to attend the event (it’s free): at

Statement of Support

Dear Director Clark and EGLE staff,

I strongly urge you to approve the permit for Project Grand River-Grand Rapids (HNV-A018-7X9N3), which would enhance the quality of the Grand River ecosystem while providing greater safety, access and recreational opportunities to the citizens of Michigan.

This project, long misunderstood to be only of benefit for whitewater rafters, has evolved its design to be a healthier river ecosystem that will not increase flood risk while providing recreational and economic benefits to the City of Grand Rapids and surrounding region.

The project team has spent years developing a design that balances the goals of the project with the constraints of constructing in a heavily urbanized and regulated reach of the river. Project proponents have worked closely with state and federal agencies to identify, understand, evaluate and address each constraint. The result is a holistic design that significantly improves existing river conditions. Temporary impacts are minimized as much as reasonably possible and no permanent, adverse impacts are anticipated.

  • The project will safely provide greater public access to the Grand River and enhance the River’s ecosystem when compared to existing conditions.
  • 8.7 acres of increased flow diversity, resulting in improved aquatic habitat and enhanced recreational opportunities
  • The removal of safety risks caused by the four existing low-head dams
  • 2.9 acres of preferred mussel habitat area, a designed increase of 73% from current conditions
  • Improved fish passage hydraulics over existing conditions

Approving the permit application for Project Grand River-Grand Rapids (HNV-A018-7X9N3) will create many environmental, recreational and safety benefits that will drive opportunities for nearby economic development and aligns with the Pure Michigan campaign goals to promote the diversity of unique places and waterways that make Michigan so special. Thank you for your consideration.

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., 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.


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