Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Restore the Rapids to the Grand?

Fisherman on the East Side by the boat launch last spring (photo courtesy of J&D Mobile Sport Shop)

The future of a world class fishery is in peril! Maybe? The Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan has had an amazing fishery for several decades and a group called Grand Rapids White Water wants to tear the dam down and restore the river to its natural state...a kayaking course with several world class kayaking features!. A couple years back Field and Stream listed Grand Rapids as the nations 6th best fishing city largely due to the fishing downtown. The salmon and steelhead that come up the river to spawn congregate at the sixth street dam before traversing the fish ladder built by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Pure Michigan lists the fish ladder as a tourist attraction on its site.Some of the larger and stronger fish can clear the dam with one mighty jump under the right water conditions. The fishing can be just crazy good and fisherman flock from all over to catch some of the best freshwater game fish the world has to offer.

The 6th street dam is 450 feet across and isn't really a typical dam, it's actually a spillway. The water pours over the top and there is no way to change the water flow by any mechanical means. There is no reservoir or pond above the dam either. The dam was built in 1848 and the river dredged for its rock to make foundations for many of the buildings in the downtown area. At one time the river was a main waterway for the logging industry that was booming for several decades.

The fish ladder is located on the west side of the river and is an attraction for locals and visitors. There is a boat launch on the east side and a large flood wall that stands a good 10 feet from the water that provides access to fisherman who can neither afford expensive gear like waders and fly rods. As long as someone fishing up there has a drop net they are all set. This is also a place where many handicapped fisherman go as well. What makes the East Wall famous is the quarry hole that provides refuge for large numbers of fish heading up river to spawn. There are fish cleaning stations on both sides of the river to provide a good place to clean your fish and dispose of the waste.

A view of the east wall where people with handicaps can fish, the boat launch and a bunch of fisherman (Photo courtesy of J&D Mobile Sport Shop)

Herb Theodore and myself had the opportunity to sit down with two members of Grand Rapids White Water, a group that intends to tear down the 6th street dam and all the small coffers below to create a better pathway for kayaking. The groups main focus was on Kayaking, but has met some resistance from groups of fisherman in the area. Fortunately they have heard the concerns and have made some changes to the original plans. The coffer dams and the area below the dam are something everyone wants to see cleaned up. It's the removal of the dam and other upstream proposals that has fisherman and residents concerned. After this first meeting I felt somewhat better, but in the back of my mind I felt we were being told what we wanted to hear.

Some of the groups that need to be included for the project to be successful include: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, The Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Steelheaders (There are chapters in Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, and Lansing that the Grand River flows through), Trout Unlimited, The City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell to name a few.

The Mayor had recently posted a video blog about the GRWW project and was in favor of it, but he has just heard one side of the story so far. Minutes ago I just got off the phone with Steve Kelso from WOODTV8 in Grand Rapids about the project. I declined an interview today because I was not feeling well and missed a couple days from work. Hopefully tomorrow will be better!!!

I myself have been a member of the Grand Rapids chapter of Michigan Steelheaders and Trout Unlimited. I am an advocate of protecting the rivers and the wildlife within them. Most groups are supportive for dam removal, but the conditions and the reasons have to be right...

The sea lamprey is an invasive species to the Great Lakes

The sixth street dam has long been a partial sea lamprey barrier. The only way they can get past the dam is to be attached to fish that get up the ladder. Tearing the dam down is a big concern because the lamprey cannot be allowed free access to some of the areas upstream, particularly the Rogue River which is considered one of the best trout streams in this part of the state. The sea lamprey is another invasive species that threatened the Great Lakes since the 1940's. Tearing down the sixth street dam would mean another lamprey barrier needs to be built upstream.

The mouth of a Sea Lamprey which contains many teeth that hold onto the fish.

I was invited to attend a second meeting at the Grand Rapids Museum. I arrived with my close friend Herb Theodore and saw many familiar faces in the group that were also invited. Steve Heitzelman President of MSSFA (Michigan Salmon and Steelhead Fisherman's Association), Bob Strek the VP and treasurer of GR Michigan Steelheaders, Norm VanSickle the President of the GR Michigan Steelheaders Foundation, Bill Mewell the VP of the GR Michigan Steelheaders, Kevin Groothuis of the Hex Shop in Rockford, Dave Bielecki of Nomad Anglers in Grand Rapids, Pete Miller from Trout Unlimited, Josh Smith and Matthew Ladiski of J&D Mobile Sport Shop, Dan O'Connell of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Dick Pobst who is a legendary local author and fisherman, and a few others.

After this meeting which was about 90 minutes I felt a little differently than the first meeting. They had their engineer Jason Carey from River Restorations.org in Glenwood Springs, Colorado explaining the whole presentation. Chip Richards who organized the meeting was also a primary speaker, but Chris Mueller quietly sat at the end of the table. I felt like is was disorganized and rushed with the question and answer part being very short and ended up being cut off. One person even asked if they were even listening to us, when they responded yes, the person who asked the question asked why haven't you written anything down yet? Small groups broke off outside of the museum for a good hour afterwards discussing issues they had with the project.

There was little doubt among everyone attending that they intended to make changes to the river that would make it great for kayaking. It may even bring new business to the area. What the concern is what will happen to the fishery.

Here is a list of promised improvements for kayaking:

  1. 100% downstream and oar boat passage
  2. 5400 ft of Class II whitewater
  3. 3300 ft of Class III whitewater
  4. 700 ft of Class IV whitewater
  5. 400 meters of International Canoe Federation Merit Slalom Course
  6. 10-15 International Canoe Federation Whitewater features
  7. 1 adjustable whitewater surfing wave (all of this is restoring the river or modifying it for a kayaking park?)

Here are many concerns that were brought up at the meeting or outside afterwards:

  1. The lamprey barrier has to be done right! This is not a joking matter. Their proposed inflatable bladder and velocity barrier had many eyebrows raised. It looks like a cheap alternative and doesn't seem to be a permanent solution. The lamprey in Lake Michigan have been becoming a more frequent problem the last couple of years.
  2. The project is estimated at 27.5 million where a large portion is from tax payer money. Most of the money seems to be spent providing excellent kayaking water and the rest will just fall into place.
  3. The Salmon and Steelhead are the bread and butter of the downtown fishing experience, without them holding before jumping the fish ladder they will just move on. There are many businesses that depend on the income of fisherman and tourists who stop in the area by the thousands! Will the kayak revenue promised be enough if the fishing revenue disappears?
  4. The east wall is handicap accessible and one of the only places I know of where people with disabilities can fish for salmon and steelhead among with other species. Sure charter boats are great, but those are VERY expensive.
  5. If, and I mean a big if the fishing stays as great as it is kayakers will be traversing through large groups of fisherman there may be conflicts as lines get rode over or fish lost due to kayak, fish being skittish due to boat traffic, etc. It was claimed that you won't see kayaks during the months of heavy fishing pressure. Ask any hard core kayaker and they will say Gore-Tex!
  6. GRWW promises that because the dam is gone that fishing will be exponentially better and sturgeon will return because they will have more habitat to spawn in.
  7. The Grand is not listed as a designated trout stream, the water is too warm for the most part! There was mention of fly fisherman lined down the river catching rising trout. This is not a likely scenario.
  8. With heavy ice flows will some of the newly placed boulders just get pushed downstream?
Grand Rapids White Water has offered to answer questions about the project, but has been removing them as fast as people ask. Some think they have something to hide or there is a hidden agenda. 

After GRWW conducted channel and sediment surveys they developed a real estate plan. This causes me to wonder what it has to do about restoring a river or is it something else.

If the project happens will start no earlier than 2 yrs from now and should be finished 4 years after that. During that time the fisherman are also being asked to be patient because there may be big interruptions in the fish-ability of the river at that time. That is a lot to ask of the thousands of fisherman who look forward to spending time on one of their favorite fishing places, one of the best in the US for several years.

A lamprey ravaged steelhead!
Many of the people who attended the meeting were either opposed to the current project or on the fence because of the many concerns and issues. Many of their concerns were the same as my own and it really comes down to this: if it is not done right the fishery will suffer greatly and currently it doesn't look right. I decided not to do quotes from individuals because they basically all said the same thing. If done the right way, with all parties involved, this could be an amazing opportunity for the growth of Grand Rapids, if it isn't done the right way a fishery could be ruined....

Fisherman last fall fishing for Salmon.
If you care to see more info here are some links:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Bob, first I would like to address the issue that Herb Theodore told me over the phone he has no idea who you are. Secondly, I would like to address you questioning my journalism. I had spent several hours on the phone with DNR and several fishing groups and different fisherman. Many of these opinions are not just mine, but a collection of all involved. The amount of people that fish in the downtown GR area spend probably more money on fishing than you are aware of. The damn was made before the lamprey were here, but does prove to be a decent barrier in place. If the dam is taken down a better system needs to be implemented before hand. One of my phone calls was with Jay Wesley, of the MDNR, who clearly stated this project is going nowhere without a proper lamprey barrier which must be approved by the US Fish and Wildlife services before the MDNR approves it. Telling the fisherman they are spoiled babies is quite ridiculous. You want to kayak now go ahead. The river has been in this condition for several decades and the fishing is top notch. To tell them that we are going to change things and make promises it will be even better by making the changes proposed is silly and on some points insulting. Lastly I am all for a good solution and hope that in some way this project can meet everyone's needs and all parties are happy. Myself and others have been met with insults or inflammatory comments when we ask questions about the proposal. Chip Richards himself (whom I am also in direct contact with) would like to see any issues resolved in a constructive manner.

    So I would like to say, this is my blog and I appreciate comments. If you present flat out false information and throw insults I will delete your comments. If you have some constructive ideas for the project please tell us. Thanks, Mike N

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