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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