TRAVERSE CITY — Project leaders for a proposed selective fish passageway want to show the public their plans thus far, and there’s still time to weigh in on a federal permit for it.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers extended its public comment deadline for a permit to demolish the existing dam and replace it, plus build the planned-for streamside amenities. FishPass, as the project is called, aims to solve a problem vexing scientists worldwide: How to reconnect rivers without exposing them to invasions by unwanted species.
The new deadline to comment on the documents detailing demolition and construction plans is Jan. 16, according to the notice.
Those who want to learn more about the project more than three years in the making can talk to project partners at an open house Tuesday.
Great Lakes Fishery Commission Science Director Andrew Muir said it’ll be similar to past open houses, with more than a half-dozen different stations to learn about different aspects of FishPass like its social and educational aspects, the state of the Union Street Dam it would replace and more.
“It’ll be an opportunity for the public to learn a little bit more about the project and where we’re at, then pursue further some questions we have at the particular stations,” he said.
An external group is reviewing final plans for the structure, and the project engineer is addressing whatever issues they’ve flagged, Muir said. Project leaders are also lining up easements needed to build the structure and funding sources — 86 percent of the estimated $18-22 million will be from federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds, documents show.
The project could be ready for bids by the end of February, Muir said.
FishPass carries a lot of promise for scientists hoping to solve a problem that no one has before.
It’s also caused no shortage of controversy with people who object to plans for the structure, fear its impacts on the river and its fisheries or both.
“The idea of changing 400 feet of the river without an environmental impact study just seems totally wrong,” Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council co-chair Ann Rogers said.
Rogers and NMEAC want the project held up until such a study is done, she said. She fears toxins in the sediment upstream from Union Street Dam could end up in Lake Michigan when the dam’s removed, she said. Building FishPass could also have negative impacts on the entire lower Boardman River.
Then there’s the experimental nature of the fish-sorting technology and techniques GLFC wants to use, Rogers said. She and others are uneasy about the Boardman River being the guinea pig.
“There’s too many unknowns, we don’t know all the unknowns and more keep popping up, like the fact that we could have a big flood,” she said.
Still others are wary of the Department of Natural Resources, which has final say over which fish will pass, including allowing steelhead upstream. These migratory rainbow trout could outcompete the river’s native brook trout.
The DNR pledged not to allow any non-native fish upstream during a 10-year optimization period. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in 2017 adopted a resolution supporting the passing of only native fish.