Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2012

Boardman's health, fish populations examined


— TRAVERSE CITY - The Boardman River dam removal project was always meant to improve the long-term health of the river.

And, if you go see the river now above the old Brown Bridge Dam, she certainly looks strong.

The river flows through her original path now. She rolls and turns over gravel and sand, through S-shaped embankments lined with tree stumps and woody debris, meandering through brown mud plains and a glorious, tree-lined valley. When the vegetation comes back to hood the mud where the Brown Bridge pond used to be, the Boardman River above the dam appears on track to be a place that would make Walt Whitman proud.

But what about the health of the river below the site of the dam? Was the river forever harmed by the remarkable events of Oct. 6, when a breach during the dam's removal sent the 191-acre Brown Bridge pond cascading into the river?

The results of preliminary tests by scientists so far are at least encouraging.

Todd Kalish of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said early tests on the river a week after the flooding consisted of both water chemistry evaluations and fish surveys. Results for arsenic, ph, dissolved oxygen and temperatures showed all were at acceptable levels or better.

"Based on the water quality samples, it doesn't appear there was any contamination," Kalish said.

However, tests of the river for cloudiness, or "total suspended solids," showed elevated measures.

"It's basically silt, fine material, within the water," Kalish said.

The cloudiness should dissipate with the wrapping up of the project in mid-December, he said. Work on sand collectors and river banks contribute to the cloudiness, and river systems occasionally see elevated levels of cloudiness due to natural events.

"It (cloudiness) can be elevated every year ... when we have a rain event and spring floods, so fish populations and aquatic populations are accustomed to occasional elevations. They can tolerate occasional elevations of total suspended solids," Kalish said.

Fish surveys on the river below the dam are very preliminary. A survey of about 500 feet of the river near Brown Bridge Road yielded 73 fish of 13 different species. They included 11 brown trout and one brook trout that was eight inches long. Warm-water species recovered included an 18-inch largemouth bass, a northern pike, rock bass and yellow perch. Kalish expects the warm water species to migrate into Boardman Pond.

At Beitner Road, scientists found 37 fish including 28 brown trout, three brook trout, a white sucker and five sculpins. One of the brown trout was 20 inches long.

"It's a good sign that there are still cold water trout species present," Kalish said.

Still, it's way too early to diagnose the health of the river below the dam, Kalish said, since more data needs to be collected first.

Meanwhile, the irony of what happened Oct. 6 is not lost on members of the Boardman River Dams Implementation Team. The removal of the Brown Bridge Dam was, in addition to helping the health of the river, aimed at removing a significant threat to public safety. Yet, in removing the dam, officials created the very threat they were intending to avoid.

Resulting flooding to dozens of homes down river created not only a threat to public safety, but also a public relations nightmare. At a public meeting held by the Implementation Team Thursday night, angry residents with flooded homes voiced frustration over an inability to get insurance reimbursements for all the damage.

Frank Dituri heads the implementation team overseeing the removal of the Brown Bridge Dam and two others down river. When he speaks of the project post breach, it's clear he feels awful about what happened. A cause of what prompted the pond to race past a dewatering structure built into an earthen embankment remains under investigation by state officials.

"The issues we had were very terrible," Dituri said. "We need to learn from it."

Dituri remains optimistic, though, that the long-term benefits of removing the dams will one day be evident to most. 

That's a tough sell for a lot of people given the flooding. Outspoken project critic Bruce Carpenter accused the project of "destroying" the river.

"Don't cut down a cattail but they can destroy 13 miles of the river," Carpenter said at the meeting Thursday night.

Mike Walton, co-owner of Molon Excavating -- the construction company working on the dam removal at the time of the breach -- and Sandra Sroonian, a chief engineer supervising the dam removal for a company called AMEC, expressed similar thoughts to Dituri's. They've worked for years on the project and still believe that the removal of the dams will, in the long haul, benefit the river.

"I feel for the downstream residents," said Walton. "It's frustrating and this is not anything anyone wanted."

When the breach occurred, Walton hopped in an excavator and risked his life, spending seven hours frantically dumping concrete and any other materials he could access into the breach to try and slow the flow of water from the pond into the river. He described the breach as a "sand-eating monster."

He expressed appreciation for his competitors, Elmers and Alpers Excavating, who rushed to the scene with materials and manpower. They had no obligation to do it, but without their help, Walton said, the situation would have been even worse.

"We feared losing the whole embankment," Walton said. "It was a scary time. I thank God for provision because we did have everything we needed (to try and stop the flow of the pond) when we needed it."