Fix the Damn Dams: The Effect of Dam Removals on Local Waterways
In the past few years, you may have heard that many old dams are being removed from rivers throughout the country, including Michigan. Three notable examples of dam removal include the Grand River in Grand Rapids, the Boardman River in Traverse City, and Pigeon River in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Why is this happening? What are the consequences of these removals?
It turns out there are currently over 2,500 dams in Michigan with nearly 90 percent of these dams near or beyond their expected useful life. Most of these dams were built to provide recreational backwaters (such as Algonquin Lake where I used to live in Hastings, Michigan). Others were built as hydroelectric dams and many of these are no longer being used for that purpose.
Before discussing the consequences of dam removal, we should first talk about the consequences of leaving dams in place. The major problem with leaving a dam in place is the necessary maintenance and repair. Without routine maintenance and repair, dams will eventually and certainly fail. When this happens, the silt that has been building up behind the dam is released all at once, causing major damage to the flora and fauna of the downstream river, often resulting in large scale fish kills.
An example of this is the Song of the Morning Yoga Retreat dam on the Pigeon River which failed three times before the State of Michigan required its removal. The removal of this dam eliminated the risk of another silt release and opened the river to fish species such as steelhead, brook, and brown trout. The Boardman River found itself in similar situation with aging dams. In fact, three of the four dams on the Boardman River have been removed. The fourth dam remains in place, but a fish ladder is being built to allow for the free flow of fish into the river. This will open recreational opportunities such as fishing, paddling, hiking and camping.
The Grand River is receiving a lion’s share of publicity for dam removal. In the case of the Grand River, Grand Rapids Whitewater is the organization leading the push for dam removal. The project is part of a city-wide green infrastructure master planning process that focuses on quality of life and the physical development of community infrastructure as it relates to greening, connectivity, natural systems, recreation, and public health. The plan includes a recommendation to “pursue river and stream restoration” and “capitalize on the Grand River as an asset for economic development and quality of life by encouraging a change in the land use along the riverfront.”
Slowly but surely this portion of our aging infrastructure is being addressed, hopefully before more dam failures. So do your part to encourage these activities by getting out and enjoying these waterways. As we say in the office, “It is time to start climbing trees instead of just hugging them.”
CFR has been paddling these rivers for many years. Contact CFR if you’d like to paddle with us. We have the boats, paddles, and PFDs.