A dredging project that would have opened up 23 miles of the Grand River to larger boats is back on the shelf after the Michigan Department of Natural Resources declined to do additional testing for it and decided to return a $3 million grant for that testing back to state coffers.

"After a review of the proposed Grand River Waterway project, and following input from a number of local communities and organizations, the DNR has decided not to pursue the project," DNR spokesman Ed Golder said Tuesday.

"Dredging such a significant portion of the Grand River would disrupt fish habitat, natural vegetation and the general health of the river," he added. "These natural resources are too important to all West Michigan residents and visitors to allow the project to move forward."

The Grand River Waterway (GRWW) project said it "seeks to restore navigability of the Grand River from downtown Grand Rapids to Grand Haven." Its leaders announced that its advisory board decided to suspend the project, according to a press release issued Monday.

“The announcement comes after months of inaction by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources regarding soil sampling testing, which has been stalled by the DNR since February, despite the fact that funding for the testing has already been approved by the state,” the press release noted. “Soil testing is necessary to determine the next step and it will give the state valuable information about the soil in the Grand River.”

GRWW spokesman Dan Hibma said they are disappointed that the DNR has not conducted the soil sampling.

"Regardless of how one might view the proposed project, it would be important to all to have that study completed and better understand whether or not the project could move forward or not," he said. "Public discussion regarding the project, which seeks providing a 22.5-mile buoyed waterway from Fulton Street in Grand Rapids to the Bass River inlet, has been plagued by erroneous information.

“We have always maintained that before any decision is made regarding restoring the river to navigability, all necessary testing should be completed,” Hibma added. “We are not abandoning the project forever, but it is clear that we need to enter a phase of working with community stakeholders to correct misinformation and receive feedback.”

Several municipalities along the Grand River, including Ottawa County and the county parks department, have passed resolutions opposing the dredging project since the proposal was put forth a couple of years ago.

“Ottawa County owns 13 miles of shoreline along the Grand River,” said Ottawa County Parks spokesperson Jessica VanGinhoven. "We have invested a significant amount of resources over the past few decades in the Grand River Greenway, including both taxpayer dollars and grant funds, in an effort to restore the beauty and ecology of the river. We are committed to continuing to preserve this resource and create desirable places for recreation and wildlife.

“We were happy to hear that the DNR isn’t pursuing the project," she added, "but we’ll continue to educate the community on ecological value of the river and the impact dredging could have."

Ottawa County Parks Foundation President Bobbi Sabine, who is also a local environmentalist and natural resources consultant, said: “I am very relieved that the DNR recognized and agreed this project was not a good thing for our river. I was very concerned for all the rare plants, fish and mussels that inhabit this river corridor, as well as the integrity of the wetlands along the river.

“Ottawa County Parks has hundreds of acres of parkland along this river corridor, and all of the riverfronts would have been affected by erosion from big boat wakes,” Sabine said. “I'm relieved that the large investment we have made in preserving these spaces is no longer under threat. I am also very glad to see the millions of dollars in state funding go back into the general fund so it can benefit more than one single individual.”

Grand River Waterway proposed a 7-foot channel being constructed in the Grand River. This would allow for boats up to 45 feet long traveling between Grand Rapids to Grand Haven. The company projected an economic boon of millions of dollars to both communities.

Dan O’Keefe, a scientist with the Michigan State University Extension Office, disputed claims of minimal impact by the GRWW’s consultants in a white paper updated last week. O'Keefe's white paper can be found at www.canr.msu.edu/resources/summary-of-research-related-to-the-potential-physical-and-biological-impacts-of-dredging-to-channelize-the-grand-river-msg19-okeefe19.

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