While the city of Grand Rapids has since become an innovative leader amongst modern mid-size U.S. cities, it overlooks a waterway that was shaped before the First World War. We’ve accrued deeper understanding of river ecology and the effects of dredging and habitat loss since the turn of the century, so why are we still living with a remnant of the industrial revolution?
“You see the impact the dams have on native fish species and their migration,” said Matt Chapman, project manager with Grand Rapids Whitewater, the nonprofit organization restoring the city’s namesake rapids.
Not all native fish species can traverse the dam or the fish ladder, Chapman said. Sturgeon have been cut off from their historic spawning grounds past the Sixth Street Dam. Endangered snuffbox mussel populations continue to fall due to habitat loss in the river.
Restoring the Grand River means “returning the river back to a more natural state,” said Chapman. “Given the infrastructure and development of the city, we can’t restore the river to its true historic flow, but there is a lot we can do to improve the river and enhance recreation opportunities. We look at the habitat right now, below the Sixth Street Dam and the river bottom is very flat and very uniform. We would bring in rocks and boulders to restore what was likely a historic boulder rapid field.”
In addition to improving habitats, bringing back natural materials will change the flow of the river by introducing a range of depths creating various water speeds that could curb the record-breaking flooding the city has seen in past years. Riverbank development is also in the works. Blueprints haven't been finalized yet, but myriad proposed plans exist that include new parks, boat launches, liveries and more. Chapman said Whitewater estimates the project will take about five years, putting completion somewhere in 2025.
While Whitewater’s project addresses recreation and a certain amount of habitat restoration, water quality and long-term management guidelines have been proposed by the Grand River Restoration Steering Committee’s Water Quality Subcommittee. In 2015, the subcommittee outlined a plan to balance recreation and water quality in the Grand River. The recommendations cover livestock and cropland pathogens entering the river, codified improvements to septic systems, increased green infrastructure, and point source pollution.
Alongside these efforts, there has been talk of designating the entire Grand River as a water trail, similar to the stretch of the river in Ottawa County. The upper and middle Grand River were recently designated as state water trails. River trail designation in Kent County would balance recreation with stewardship in the Grand River. Like a hiking trail, a river trail incorporates community access points, signage, trail maintenance and the increased infrastructure recommended by the subcommittee, to ultimately manage a non-motorized boating experience. A river trail designation throughout Kent County would ensure the best benefit from the rapids restoration.
Meanwhile, another idea about the river’s role in the 21st century narrative of West Michigan is coming to light. A project proposed by Grand River Waterway is pushing a very different outcome for the Grand River: more dredging. Recent appropriations from the “lame-duck” legislative session have allocated $2 million for the project. The proposal outlines a plan to dredge a 23-mile, 50-by-7-foot passage from Grand Rapids to Grand Haven for a powerboat link to Lake Michigan. In a recent Mlive article, the question was raised whether Grand River Waterway’s dredging project and Whitewater’s rapid restoration initiative could exist together.
“It’s a separate project,” Chapman stressed. “We are focused on working with our partners to bring the namesake rapids back to Grand Rapids.”
The difference between the two projects is glaring. Rapids restoration is conservation by addition, returning natural features that were removed, whereas the powerboat link would be more akin to kind of flattening and grading that took place in the Grand River more than 100 years ago.
We’ve already seen what leveling the Grand River does; we’re living with it currently. Elsewhere in the Midwest and Great Lakes Basin, dredging has shown detrimental effects to habitat, streamside aesthetics, water clarity and quality, and stream flows.
Another aspect to consider regarding Grand River Waterway’s plan is its use. Would powerboaters even be interested in making the 26-mile trek from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids? Would paddlers and anglers want to use the Grand River Water Trail in Ottawa County if they have to share the entire length with motorized boats?
The trip would likely take four hours, without taking into account riverfront communities which may impose no-wake zones making the trip even longer. Without such no-wake zones, riverfront property would be subject to degradation and erosion, and non-motorized boats could find navigation difficult. Initially, boaters who arrive in Grand Rapids at the end of their trip wouldn’t have a place to dock, as there are no marinas in downtown Grand Rapids or surrounding communities.
While these are completely different projects, it’s challenging to reconcile how a project designed to increase the horsepower for some river users can coexist with one designed to incorporate more non-motorized, human-powered recreation into it.
Grand Rapids Whitewater’s plan to alter the river met with some initial resistance, and rightfully so, but they have listened to the community. From addressing environmental concerns to being dedicated to making the project inclusive and equitable, the group has worked through a long process of community engagement to make sure that what they want to do is what is right for West Michigan.
As the Grand River Waterway’s dredging plans unfold, it will be interesting to see how West Michigan residents react, and whether that organization is willing to listen to all the voices of those who enjoy and protect the Grand River.
About the writer: Bill Wood is executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.