The revitalization of the Grand River and restoration of the namesake rapids was called for by the 2011 amendments to the City’s Master Plan developed through the Green Grand Rapids process. This vision was embraced by Grand Rapids Whitewater (“GRWW”), a not-for-profit organization formed to lead revitalization of the River and restoration of the rapids in the two-and-a-half-mile stretch running through downtown.
The vision of a revitalized river and restored rapids downtown has catalyzed a comprehensive planning process of the river banks and for approximately seven miles of the river corridor and has catalyzed the first update of the Downtown Development Plan in more than twenty years. This coordinated effort between the City and the Downtown Development Authority (a.k.a., Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.) has been branded as “GR Forward” and identified 15 “opportunity sites” along the riverbanks for public access, riverside trails, open space, neighborhood improvements and for private developments that can occur after the river is revitalized.
The ecosystem and recreation functions of the rapids in the Grand River have been degraded by five low head dams, flood walls, urban encroachment, and channelization (dredging and grading). Bringing back the rapids to the Grand River is a comprehensive river restoration project that seeks to remove or modify the dams and enhance the channel bed and banks, to restore the ecosystem and recreation function of the historic rapids.
This project represents a collaboration between a number of public and private entities including the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids WhiteWater, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The Great Lakes Fishery Commission shares the project proponents’ vision and is working with local leaders to address invasive species such as the sea lamprey.
Removing the dams facilitates the restoration of the namesake rapids currently submerged in the area between the Sixth Street Dam and Ann Street. Additionally, the dam removal will restore river connectivity for fish and other creatures and improve the river’s ability to transport sediment. Rivers, like arteries, need to be open to remain healthy. Once the dams are removed, fish and other creatures will be allowed to travel freely and access an additional 88 acres of historic habitat.
The dams in the Grand River are extremely dangerous. Many people have been caught in the Sixth Street and Bridge Street dams and have been injured or have lost their lives due to the strong current created by the rapidly moving water. Removing the dams in Grand Rapids would allow for more people to safely use the river.
There are many river users and functions to consider. Design engineers from River Restoration and other agencies are still determining the best method to restore the historic rapids near the Sixth Street Dam while allowing the most benefit for all river users.
All of the dams will be functionally removed from the river and more natural hydraulic elements like riffles, runs and pools will replace the existing riverwide hydraulics created by the dams. Some portion of the concrete from the dam may remain in the river as fill and foundational support for boulder grade control structures.
No dam lasts forever. The aging Sixth Street Dam as we see it today was built in 1927 and had very little maintenance done to it. We have a unique opportunity to be proactive by safely removing the dam before it fails.
Over the past 160 years, rocks and boulders were removed from the river bottom and used as fill for construction along the river or in the foundations of many buildings within the city. Installing boulders, rock and gravel would contribute to the aquatic diversity of the Grand River. Pocket water, eddies, seams, fast water and slow water all contribute to the oxygenation and overall health of a river. These features also provide healthy structure and habitat for fish and wildlife.
The rapids would be far less hazardous than the current state of the river. There is an inherent danger with any “risk sport” that users accept but whitewater recreation is statistically safer than skiing, mountain biking, roller blading and many other outdoor sports according to American Whitewater. Risk is also mitigated through user knowledge, skill level and proper equipment. In-channel users will have to meet state laws for personal flotation devices, and helmets, cold water protection and other safety measures will be recommended. With any change, we recognize the need for a comprehensive public education campaign to make sure all future river users understand their limits and respect the power of a naturally flowing river.
The design of the river very much considers user interfaces and the concentrated hydraulics are all designed to flush and not have the “keeper hole” which all of the existing dams have. Shoreline access is also being developed throughout to allow for self rescue. In the areas where shoreline access is not available, all of the features are designed for clear floating passage and no capsizing hydraulics. The larger hydraulics are located where shoreline access is open and available, on the west side of the channel.
The City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Whitewater have been working closely with the Grand Rapids Fire Department on the design of the in-river features and emergency access points.
Through extensive community engagement sessions, it is clear the Fish Ladder is an important part of the community. The Fish Ladder would not be removed but would be modified to remain functional.
The proposed Adjustable Hydraulic Structure (AHS) is a uniquely designed barrier (see below) that could replace the Sixth Street Dam as the primary sea lamprey barrier on the river. The AHS structure has been proposed to be constructed approximately one mile upstream of the Sixth Street Dam. Sea lamprey escapement, upstream of the project site, would have a significant impact on the Lake Michigan fishery. The AHS is designed to ensure sea lampreys do not migrate upstream of the City of Grand Rapids. This structure will deny sea lampreys access to more than 1,900 miles of new stream habitat, which would otherwise cost the Great Lakes Fishery Commission between $1.2 million and $1.8 million annually to treat with lampricides. The proposed AHS structure is critical given just one sea lamprey escapement event upstream of Grand Rapids could inflict an estimated $60 million in economic loss.
An understandable concern from upstream property owners is that this project will “drain the pond” once the Sixth Street Dam is removed. After extensive study of the river bottom, our engineers have verified property owners from Ann Street upstream to North Park Bridge will see a minimal change in water levels. This is due to the unique geologic features of the historic bedrock rapids acting as a natural dam holding water upstream of Ann Street.
In addition to the environmental impacts listed above we believe the river will once again become a gathering place for social activities and recreation. In June of 2014, Grand Rapids WhiteWater released the results of an economic impact study.
This study was conducted by the Anderson Economic Group and shows expanded recreational use of the Grand River could generate a net new economic impact of $15 million to $19 million per year. The study also found improved riverfront property utilization and taxable values could increase by $117.7 million.
Sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean. Sea lampreys parasitize other fish by sucking their blood and other body fluids. Sea lampreys are unique from many other fishes in that they do not have jaws or other bony structures, and instead possess a skeleton made of cartilage. While sea lampreys resemble eels, they are not related and are set apart by their unique mouth: a large oral sucking disk filled with sharp, horn-shaped teeth surrounding a razor sharp rasping tongue.
There are four native lamprey species in the Great Lakes: the American brook, northern brook, silver and chestnut lamprey. All of the native lamprey species are much smaller than sea lamprey. The largest of the native lamprey is the silver lamprey, which only reaches about half the size of an adult sea lamprey.
Of the native lamprey species, only two are parasitic: the chestnut and silver lamprey. The silver and chestnut lamprey have a similar life cycle as sea lamprey – the big difference is that, as parasites, silver and chestnut lamprey typically do not kill their fish hosts. Thus, unlike sea lampreys, which are considered both parasites and predators, the native lamprey species that feed on fish are only considered parasites.
The other two native lamprey species, the American brook and northern brook (the “brook” species), are non-parasitic. The brook species experience a metamorphosis similar to the parasitic species (developing eyes, fins, and a toothed mouth); however, the non-parasitic species skip the parasitic phase and instead immediately spawn after metamorphosis. The non-parasitic “brook” lamprey spend their entire life cycle in streams.
The proposed adjustable hydraulic structure (AHS) is a uniquely designed sea lamprey control mechanism which incorporates both inflatable and velocity barrier components to accomplish multiple goals, including flood conveyance and sea lamprey control. The AHS relies on prohibitive water velocity to prevent upstream sea lamprey migration during times when the gates must be lowered to accommodate high flow events.
The operations, management and maintenance associated with the AHS has been discussed for many years and is recognized as a top priority. A multi-agency public/private governance structure is being developed to further address governance concerns surrounding the proposed AHS. It is currently envisioned that the City of Grand Rapids will own and operate the AHS structure based on a set of operational priorities and protocols currently being developed with input from multiple state and federal agencies. Management of this structure will also include significant public and private input from a variety of river user groups, regulatory agencies and upstream/downstream communities.
The proposed location of the AHS structure is approximately one mile upstream of the Sixth Street Dam and will be located just downstream of the train trestle bridge that crosses the Grand River. This location is at the head of the historic, and regionally rare, limestone rapids and will reveal 88 acres of namesake rapids.
When barriers are involved in a river, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission completes an investigation of the entire watershed to determine any sea lamprey spread. The size and complexity of the Grand River and its tributaries present significant challenges and costs associated with conducting Sea Lamprey Control Program activities in the watershed. Investigative field work will take place prior to and during the construction of the proposed AHS. Following construction, an increased level of barrier performance monitoring will commence including trapping of adult sea lampreys, eDNA sampling and larval assessment. Like most major sea lamprey producing streams, including the Grand River, the monitoring phase is expected to continue in perpetuity. If sea lampreys are found above the AHS, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission is prepared to undertake mitigation measures that include shoring up dams upstream of Grand Rapids (e.g., the Ada Dam, the Weber Dam) to ensure sea lamprey blockage, deployment of portable electric barriers and traps to prevent sea lamprey migration into critical habitat, and lampricide applications to remove sea lamprey larvae from the river and its tributaries.
Sea lampreys enter the Grand River from Lake Michigan and inhabit the river downstream of the Sixth Street Dam. That stretch of the river contains poor sea lamprey habitat and the stretch is not productive enough to warrant treatments in the Grand itself. Crockery and Norris creeks, located downstream of the Sixth Street Dam, are treated regularly. The upper Grand River and its tributaries have been regularly surveyed for sea lampreys since 1962. A total of 44 tributaries upstream of the Sixth Street Dam have been surveyed. Two sea lamprey escapement events have been noted upstream of the Sixth Street Dam. Larval sea lampreys were collected from Lowell Creek in 1962 and the stream was treated with TFM (3-trifluoromethyl-4'-nitrophenol) in 1965. Larval sea lampreys were collected from the Rogue River during 2008, resulting in a treatment in 2009. The source(s) of escapement for each event is unknown. Harmless, native lampreys are known to occupy reaches of the watershed upstream of the Sixth Street Dam.
The City of Grand Rapids, GRWW, and our project partners, have consulted with technical leadership from the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources and believe the proposed barrier in the Grand River would preserve opportunities to prevent upstream migration of asian carp in the future.
The historic rapids once found in Grand Rapids are regionally rare and two thirds of them are submerged under water upstream of the Sixth Street Dam. Our intent is to open the historic waters known to the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians as Gitchi Bawating, the Great Rapids. Returning the rapids will do good things for the river’s health and biodiversity. However, we share the concern of local, state and federal agencies that are tasked with controlling invasive sea lamprey. We have designed our project to stop sea lamprey before they move upstream to spawn. Lamprey spawn in the spring. During those months, the lamprey barrier would act like Sixth Street Dam, preventing lamprey from reaching spawning tributaries upriver. During other months, the AHS Governance committee could decide to lower the barrier to allow improved connectivity upstream.
Scientists are testing technology downstream of the Boardman River’s Union Street Dam in Traverse City. This initiative, known as FishPass, aims to identify and refine technology to block undesirable species like sea lampreys while allowing the passage of desirable species like sturgeon. Technology developed at the Union Street Dam in Traverse City could be used at the new AHS structure to maximize the passage of desirable fish while blocking sea lamprey and other undesirable species.