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Grand concerns

Alexander Sinn • Mar 27, 2019 at 12:00 PM

“Unanimous objection.” 

That’s how Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash characterized the view from local officials on a proposal to dredge the Grand River from Eastmanville to Grand Rapids.

Tri-Cities-area officials say they have not been included in the planning process, and their concerns have not been addressed by project organizers. Boat congestion, a toll on infrastructure, the release of unknown contaminants and threats to habitat are among the chief concerns.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners will meet April 9 to consider an official policy stance on the Grand River Waterway initiative, which entails dredging a 50-foot-wide, 7-foot-deep channel along 23 miles of the river, from the Bass River inlet in Allendale Township to the Fulton Street bridge in Grand Rapids. This would allow boats up to 49 feet in length to traverse the river from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids.

Proponents say the project would bring the potential for new development and consumer spending.

An economic benefit report conducted by the GRW organization in 2018 floated an economic boom for West Michigan: generation of $5.7 million annually from increased visitor spending; an increase in property tax collection of $614,000 for municipalities along the river; and 49,000 net visitor days annually, spending up to $2.2 million.

In December, the project received $3.25 million in a lame-duck bill from Lansing, supported by outgoing Republicans like then-Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. The funding will support obtaining permits and dredging activities, which will be handled by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks & Recreation Division.

Local opposition 

In November 2018, the City of Grand Haven sent project organizers a list of concerns — boat congestion, safety in the Grand Haven harbor and the potential release of contaminants that could flow downriver. City Manager Pat McGinnis said organizers of the initiative have so far not responded.

The concerns remain, McGinnis said, though the city has not taken an official position on the issue. 

Local Chamber of Commerce President Joy Gaasch called the economic impact study “erroneous,” saying it made assumptions that are not accurate.

The report assumes that the Grand River is dredged annually from the mouth of the river to Eastmanville. This is not the case, Gaasch said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a tight budget and limited resources to maintain existing infrastructure in Grand Haven, she noted.

“We haven’t been involved in the conversation,” Gaasch said. “I have a feeling with this study that they looked at only one side of the equation.”

Gaasch said the local Chamber of Commerce has also not taken an official position on the project. 

“We don’t think their economic predictions are correct,” Nash said. “It’s almost impossible to dredge the river, even if it was environmentally logical.”

Nash said Spring Lake already handles a large influx of boats during frequent choppy conditions on Lake Michigan. The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office would need an increased presence on the Grand River, the Spring Lake Township supervisor said, and the cost of maintaining dredging and buoys is not feasible.

Grand Haven Township officials said they have received concerns from residents about the various obstacles and impacts dredging would pose, but the township also has not adopted a position. 

Nash said officials in Robinson, Jamestown and Georgetown townships have also voiced concerns about the project.

In an email to the Tribune, representatives from the Grand Haven Steelheaders shared many of the same concerns.

Upriver, some officials are more keen on the idea.

“I think it will be a way for citizens to connect back with the river,” said Grandville Mayor Steve Maas, who sits on the Grand River Waterway advisory board. He said he ran for mayor on the idea of leveraging the river for the community’s benefit.

“It’s a very underutilized asset that we have, at least in the City of Grandville,” Maas said.

Rick Baker, president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is “passively” supporting the initiative but is not directly engaged in the project.

‘Disruption of a system’

Alan Steinman, a director at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, said a dredging project of the scale being proposed could wreak havoc on the Grand River ecosystem. It’s hard to say just what the impact would be before a study is conducted, he said, but there is a host of native benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms including mussels that could be important prey for a volatile fish population.

Dredging activity could also unleash unknown contaminants that could be lurking beneath the soil, Steinman said. Some industrial contaminants will remain dormant if left alone, but churning them up could pose a threat.

“It’s hard to imagine that much disruption of a system without there being some kind of environmental impact,” he said. “There’s a lot of emerging contaminants lurking in our soil all over the state and all over the Midwest that haven’t been found, simply because we haven’t looked for them.”

However, many contaminants tend to dwell in vegetation along the shore in the river’s backwaters, Steinman said, rather than in the middle of the river. Depending on the route for the operation, he said, shoreline erosion and flooding issues could be exacerbated. The river’s natural features provide a benefit to native species, Steinman said — including humans.

“Just because it doesn’t have a market value doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value,” he said.

Michael Zalewski, an organizer with the Grand River Waterway, said soil sampling along the river is expected to wrap up in June. All project studies will be completed by the end of the year, he said.

Ottawa County Director of Planning and Performance Improvement Paul Sachs said that if the county commissioners approve the resolution to oppose the initiative, it will be shared with local units of government for formalizing their positions.

Nash said he expects approval of the resolution, as opposition is already clear from officials along the river. He said the project seems to be heading full steam ahead, prompting this latest response from local authorities. 

“It seems to me like someone has intentions of profiting greatly by the project,” Nash said. “If something’s bad and you don’t do anything, it can still happen.”

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