A new study by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget sheds some light on that question.
Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers the 40-mile stretch of the Grand River from Grand Rapids to Grand Haven to be a navigable waterway, only the lower 17 miles from the Bass River inlet in northwestern Allendale Township to the Grand Haven harbor are maintained. The remaining 23-mile stretch is scattered with abandoned pilings, structures and areas of extensive shoaling.
The report released May 3 indicates that a 50-foot-wide, 7-foot-deep channel could be created for the length of the 23-mile project, from the Bass River inlet to the Fulton Street bridge in downtown Grand Rapids.
“This is a project thats time has come,” said Shana Shroll, executive director of the Grand River Waterway Project. “I think it would be really great for the region.”
The study notes that the project would cost about $2.15 million — a price tag that includes final design, regulatory approval and construction administration. An additional annual cost of $165,000 would be needed for items such as channel maintenance and placement of navigation buoys.
The latest study indicates that the plan might not be as expensive or intensive as was projected in a 1978 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study.
“That’s been kind of the baseline that has been out there for a long time,” Shroll said of the ‘78 study. “Now we have this (new) feasibility study.”
Researchers have been able to use new technology such as side-scanning sonar to map the project area and identify potentially hazardous objects, and also factored average river depths to help reach a conclusion.
“The technology has never been this advanced before, and now we have it,” Shroll said, noting that the study includes more than 550,000 survey points, marking the first time topographical data has been available for this section of the Grand River.
The data, she noted, would allow the proposed waterway to follow the natural flow of the river. By following natural flow and existing channels, only 36 percent of the proposed channel would be disturbed by dredging, resulting in 97,800 cubic yards of dredged material.
“For this to move forward, we need to do an environmental study,” Shroll said. “That will be the next hurdle that needs to be cleared.”
This would include looking at potential effects on fisheries and wildlife as a result of dredging, and what impact dredged materials might have as a result of potential contaminants.
“The environmental study will be the next big step,” Shroll said. “Assuming that goes well, you’d want to do an economic study, as well. ... If the feasibility study is any indication of what the next steps will look like, I’m pretty optimistic.”
Regulatory approval from both state and federal agencies would be needed before the start of any dredging project.
Ottawa County officials note that the new report is a “a good starting point” for a possible project.
“It provides good information,” said Paul Sachs, director of the county’s Planning and Performance Improvement Department, “good information about what everyone has been looking for about dredging that 23 miles.”
There are still a lot of unknowns, Sachs says, such as environmental and economic impact, as well as how the project would be funded — an aspect he said would be “a big part of the equation.”
“There is more work to be done,” he said.