TRAVERSE CITY — One by one, the dams are coming down to connect the pieces of a once-fragmented river.
Heavy equipment sculpt the earth where ponds once dotted the landscape.
Three out of four dams on the Boardman River are gone — the Brown Bridge Dam near Mayfield leveled in 2012, the Boardman Dam at Cass Road near Keystone Road felled in 2017 and the Sabin Dam east of Cass Road demolished this year.
Union Street Dam in downtown Traverse City is the fourth, and the last piece of the dams puzzle.
The work is part of the Boardman River Dams Ecosystem Restoration Project, an effort to reconnect the still separated Boardman River and restore it to a more natural state.
These efforts represent work done or funded by project partners from Traverse City and Grand Traverse County to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, from local environmental nonprofits to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
The project hasn’t been all calm waters; a failure at Brown Bridge dam’s drawdown process flooded more than 50 downstream properties on Oct. 6, 2012, which kicked off a long, litigious fault-finding process. Funding shortfalls and questions about cost riffled taxpayers. Natural fisheries fans fear that there’s not enough protection in place for the river’s native trout fishery from voracious salmon, steelhead and sea lamprey. Others worry about erosion control, sedimentation and property values.
Two unsuccessful challenges didn’t stop dam demolition. One came from Peterson Machinery Sales owner Charles Peterson, whose company bought equipment at Boardman and Sabin dams. He previously proposed keeping the dams to generate hydroelectricity. Another group fought against Michigan Department of Environmental Quality demolition permits, claiming that removing the Boardman Dam would destroy public water resources, among other negatives.
The final dam — Union Street — will be the site of an experimental project called Fishpass, to be designed and built by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s team of many river restoration partners.
That structure will replace the dam and selectively pass desired fish while blocking unwanted ones. Meanwhile, other restoration groups green up the exposed earth left by draining three reservoirs.
Andrew Muir, GLFC’s science director, said the commission is tasked with eliminating the parasitic sea lamprey, and river barriers like the Union Street Dam keep them from spawning upstream. Removing the dam would allow desirable species, like lake sturgeon, upriver to spawn.
“The flip side of restoring connectivity is, you’re also restoring connectivity for bad things that we don’t want in our river system,” he said.
Enter FishPass, which project lead Dan Zielinski said will incorporate several technologies and techniques to select wanted fish from unwanted by exploiting their sortable traits — their size, shape and behavior, for example.
The structure will consist of a new dam shaped like gear teeth over which the river will flow into one channel, and a spillway with two gates that will drain into a 400-foot-long fish-sorting channel, Zielinski said. Spillway gates will keep fish from passing unless operators want them to.
FishPass could be surrounded by public accommodations, including a bridge over the river and structure, sidewalks on both riverbanks, amphitheater-style seating to the south, and ramps and a kayak slide for paddlers, Zielinski said.
It also presents plenty of educational opportunities, GLFC Communications Director Marc Gaden said.
“It’s in a town where visitors come, you have the college, you have the university, you have school kids, you have a lot of people who are going to be interested in this,” he said.
Zielinski showed the Downtown Development Authority’s Lower Boardman River Leadership Team the design this week. It’s 65 percent designed, meaning the core elements likely won’t change as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies review the plans, but smaller items could.
Construction could begin by 2020 and take two years, Zielinski said. It’ll cost at least an estimated $13.1 million to build, with an additional $4 million already budgeted for research and design.
Researchers then will work over 10 years to gradually improve fish-sorting techniques, Muir said. Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians biologists will determine which species should pass.
Local nonprofit Brook Trout Coalition’s members are deeply suspicious of the DNR plans to let steelhead, an introduced species, upstream. Tribal council members resolved in November 2017 that they only want species native to lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior allowed upstream. DNR officials previously insisted they’ve made no decisions yet.
The goal is to turn FishPass into a fully operational system that runs on its own, Muir said. Traverse City would own, maintain and operate it after that, but GLFC wouldn’t “walk away.”
“We will continue seeing this through and we will continue to do that at the point where it gets turned over to being an operational facility,” he said.
Meanwhile, several studies are underway or starting soon to identify fish species in the Boardman River below the dam, how and when they move through the river, whether they differ genetically from fish upstream of the dam and more, Zielinski said.
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds are committed to build FishPass, and the GLFC is raising money for other project costs, Muir said.
Sabin Dam down
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds also paid for a big a chunk of the $4.3 million to remove Sabin Dam south of Traverse City, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Engineer Alec Higgins said.
Carl Platz, the Corps’ Great Lakes program manager, said GLRI funds have been key to the restoration project, and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and other project partners are paying the rest.
Contractors should finish removing the Sabin Dam by the end of December, Higgins said. They’re building a new channel where the dam’s powerhouse once stood, while the river runs through the dam’s former spillway to the east for now.
Plans call for diverting the river through the new channel by early December, Higgins said — contractors paused for Thanksgiving week. They’ll also remove or bury dam rubble used to temporarily shore up the riverbanks.
The new channel will be shallow and turbulent, falling about six feet along its nearly 600-foot length, Higgins said. It’ll also have boulders in it to create riffles, but paddlers should be able to pass through.
Contractors will build some fabric soil lifts — coconut fiber-wrapped dirt and cobble — to armor the banks by late December, Higgins said. They’ll also place woody structures in the river.
The river’s cloudiness dropped dramatically after drawdown for the former Sabin Pond draining process wrapped, Higgins said. But nearly 4 inches of rain in 48 hours in early September brought the river to almost three times its normal seasonal flow and sent a mass of sediment downstream.
Conservation Resource Alliance Biologist Kim Balke said the rain hit while contractors were drawing down Sabin Pond, which left lots of exposed soil. Seven sediment traps downstream from the project site caught the heavier stuff.
“So the contractor’s been pretty impressive in terms of their diligence, setting up all those sediment traps and cleaning them daily,” she said.
But those sediment traps couldn’t stop smaller, lighter particles, which only settle out in very slow-moving waters, Higgins said. They settled and formed a delta where the river enters Boardman Lake’s south end.
Moving sediment is part of what rivers do, said Brett Fessell, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians river restoration ecologist. The dam trapped sediment for decades and passed clearer water.
Deltas like those in the Boardman Lake are typical in river systems without dams, Fessell said. But September’s rainfall was a “perfect storm” where weather made the river’s new realities glaringly obvious. But it’s a sign of improvement, and that’s the project’s whole idea.
“We are diligently working to make things better,” he said. “These processes are a signal of things starting to work better. They’re functioning in a way that makes the river healthy again.”
Balke said she expects rain and other water events will wash away some of the dark organic matter in the delta, which settled on a pre-existing sandy base. Some of it also will break down.
Higgins said there’s no plans to dredge the delta, which could form a new wetland complex. Paddlers should take caution as they navigate over it.
Contractors will seed at the Sabin Dam site to stabilize exposed lands, Higgins said.
That’s just the start of years of restoration work. Grand Traverse Conservation District employees and volunteers planted 7,500 native trees and shrubs upstream from the former Boardman Dam site over three weeks in the fall, said Steve Largent, conservation district Boardman River program coordinator. They’ll do three more rounds of planting through spring 2020.
They’ll also start planting upstream of the Sabin Dam in spring 2019, Largent said.
Both are the same kind of restoration work that followed Brown Bridge Dam’s removal. What once was a pond there surrounded by parkland and state forest now is a verdant valley.
Largent said the conservation district and its green-thumbed helpers planted more than 20,000 trees and shrubs by the Brown Bridge Dam site — the conservation district manages lands by all three dam sites.
People can expect to see the same kind of transformation upstream of where the Boardman and Sabin dams once stood, Largent said.
“Once the dams are out like this, it’s all raw and it looks the worst, but from here on, the healing begins,” he said.