More local units weigh opposition to dredging project

Alexander Sinn • May 11, 2019 at 12:00 PM

A Grand River dredging project has in recent months picked up widespread opposition in downriver communities, and was halted last month by state legislators.

This coming Monday, more local units of government will consider resolutions to formally oppose the project, which entails dredging a 22.5-mile stretch of the river between Grand Rapids and the Bass River inlet in Eastmanville.

The Grand River Waterway group has received $3.2 million in state funding for the project, which organizers say would open up the river to large-boat travel and boost local economies.

Amid formal backlash from local municipalities — including resolutions of opposition from the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, the City of Grand Haven and Crockery Township — state legislators have asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to review the project.

At their meetings Monday night, the Spring Lake and Grand Haven township boards will consider resolutions in line with the county board’s decision. Resolutions are also in the works in the City of Grandville and Allendale Township.

Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash, who has shared concerns at local meetings for increased congestion of boat traffic on downriver waterways like Spring Lake, said he expects a “slam dunk” vote from the board. He said no residents have come to the Township Board with support for the idea, but have come out in droves to oppose it.

“When you have people of means and education, they’re usually a lot more concerned about the environment,” Nash said. “When you screw with the environment, those people get very vocal.”

Michigan State University Extension educator Dan O’Keefe, whose white paper on the project has provided local units of government with threats posed by dredging activity, will present the research to the Grandville City Council on Monday.

O’Keefe said the local resolutions may be more than symbolic. 

“There’s a chance that it could be revived in future years unless there’s strong sentiment against it, and some state action that negates what has already been passed,” he explained. “Resolutions being passed are important in demonstrating the sentiment at downstream communities.”

O’Keefe’s research highlights threats to native species, the potential for flooding and erosion, and other detriment that channelization of the river could entail, based on case studies of activity on other similar rivers. He said projects that threaten natural resources often get approved with little pushback, but this case has been different.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” O’Keefe said. “It’s been good to see that so many people are paying attention relatively early in the process. What people are doing now is saying we need to not even consider going to the permitting stage.”

Advocates for the project, including former state Sen. Arlan Meekhof of West Olive and developer Dan Hibma, have called the opposition from local units “premature.”

Grandville Mayor Steve Maas said the project’s environmental impact study should proceed, and local units should have more information at hand before making a decision. As a chairman of the GRW initiative, he spoke in favor of it at the County Board of Commissioner’s April 9 meeting. Maas said he did not stay for O’Keefe’s presentation and has not read the paper.

Maas called the Ottawa County Parks efforts to preserve the river for small-boat uses a “great project,” and said he personally uses the river for kayaking. But he said mixed uses of the river would not hinder those activities.

“I’m not sure this dredging project is only for big powerboats roaring down the river,” the mayor of Grandville said. “It also includes families on pontoon boats and so on. I don’t see all these uses as incompatible.”

Other officials have called into question the rigor of the GRW studies. Officials have said the feasibility and economic impact studies do not take into account long-term costs of perpetual dredging, infrastructure and law enforcement needs. 

“All the information we’ve seen so far is just ludicrous,” Nash said. “It wouldn’t stand up to any kind of research. Others have hard facts.”

The Spring Lake Township Board meeting takes place at 7 p.m. Monday at Barber School, 102 W. Exchange St. The Grand Haven Township Board meets at 13300 168th Ave. at the same time. 

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