By VANESSA McCRAY
---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- On maps, the Boardman River winds like a blue vein through the heart of the Grand Traverse region.
In real life, the river and its ponds have changed drastically as officials implement plans to remove the Sabin, Boardman and Brown Bridge dams and rehabilitate the Union Street Dam.
"This is the largest river restoration project in Michigan, and one of the largest in the Great Lakes," said Andy Knott, executive director of The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay. "This last year has seen the most progress in terms of that restoration work. Next year will be an even bigger year."
Traverse City, owner of the Union Street and Brown Bridge dams, and Grand Traverse County, owner of the Sabin and Boardman dams, decided to remove all but the Union Street dam after Traverse City Light & Power decided to quit power generation at the other three sites.
An Implementation Team made up of representatives from federal, state and local agencies has overseen the project and is readying for major steps next year.
City Manager Ben Bifoss expects Brown Bridge dam to be removed in 2012. Work on permits is under way, and next year will bring dam deconstruction and restoration along the river, he said. The team raised more than $3 million to help pay for the project and fundraising continues. Brown Bridge pond was lowered by about 6 feet in the fall in preparation.
Sabin Pond, too, was lowered by 3 to 4 feet. Sabin Dam removal could begin as early as fall 2012, county Administrator Dennis Aloia said. So far, about $500,000 of the estimated $2.5 million needed for that site has been raised, said Aloia.
"The plans on both of these have really extensive restoration," he said.
Next year will bring more assessment and planning work at the Union Street and Boardman dams, said Todd Kalish, of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
Kalish served as the Implementation Team chairman until recently. Frank Dituri, of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, has taken over the chairman spot. Kalish worked on the team since its first meeting in 2005 and said he will continue to serve as a representative.
The decision to tear out dams continues to trouble some residents who live nearby. Bruce Carpenter, an artist who creates animal wood sculptures, has seen the river and pond he lives near diminish greatly as drawdowns continue.
"As a nature-inspired artist, it's been very difficult watching the waterfowl, the mammals and the reptiles just fade away and die — because they're gone," he said. "There's nothing but weeds, invasive weeds ... that are taking (over) the whole area."
Carpenter thinks officials had their minds made up to remove the dams even as they launched an extensive public process to discuss it. He said opponents will continue to protest dam removals.
Lowering Brown Bridge and Sabin ponds this year positioned the dams for removal, pending permits. The drawdown provides a "better sense" of "how the river is going to interact" when the dams are removed and how to plan for restoration, Kalish said.
"We're seeing the river channel find its old course and its natural course, and this is just sort of the first step in the long-term restoration of the river," Knott said.
Knott said some trees will be planted upstream next spring in areas that won't be impacted by later work. Further restoration will be done as water levels fall, he said.
Additional restoration projects include river channel dredging, vegetative planting and likely shaping of the stream banks, Knott said.