A Watershed Moment: River Restoration and Activation on the Grand

On this week’s episode we hear from Phil Skaggs, West Michigan Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, as he discusses a four-part plan to revitalize the two-mile section of the Grand River that flows through downtown Grand Rapids.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the Grand Rapids Whitewater group and their plans to build a whitewater kayaking park in the Grand River. This would require a massive effort to “restore the river” by removing several dams – most notably the Fourth Street and Sixth Street Dams – and adding tons of rock and boulders back into the water. The goal being to refashion the river back to the way it once flowed before our city’s forefathers settled here and, of course, to bring back the rapids.

But the hype surrounding GRWW and their proposed kayak park (well-deserved though it may be) has obscured some other interesting plans and uses for a restored Grand River.  As Skaggs explains, a more naturalized downtown waterway will create more than just a few waves.

In fact, the first part of what Skaggs calls “river restoration and activation” has already begun. Improving the water quality of the river has been an important first step towards making the river a cleaner, healthier body of water and as Skaggs notes, an issue that WMEAC has been working on for years by advocating for CSO separation, stormwater management and low impact development to minimize pollution in the river.

The next phase of river restoration and activation plan is recreation. This is the part of the plan that requires putting the rapids back into the river. “We basically have a city in Grand Rapids that is named for something that doesn’t exist and there is widespread support for bring the rapids back,” said Skaggs.

As explained earlier, this means removing some or all of the dams and importing rocks back into the river. Dam removal has become a hot-button issue for local anglers who fish for steelhead along the Fourth Street dam and are worried that changing the hydrology of the river will negatively impact the number of fish in the area. But contrary to these concerns, Skaggs said that dam removal would actually enhance the Grand River fishery.

“The fisheries would be greatly improved. Some of the species that we have, like sturgeon and steelhead, would be able to, with the Sixth Street Dam removed, go back to their original spawning grounds. This would improve our urban fisheries,” he said.

In addition, Skaggs also said that the restoration would also create more favorable water conditions for the high school and college rowing teams that practice on the river.

The final two steps in the river restoration and activation plan include fixing the trail system that runs downtown along the river and also improving the parks and green space that exist along the bank.

“We have a river walk downtown. It was built in a little bit of a haphazard fashion. Part of this project would be trying to get funding to make it the best river walk that we possibly can and connecting the river walk with the incredible system of trails that we have in Kent County.

This is a project that has captured the imagination of Grand Rapids,” said Skaggs.

Skaggs said that he hopes to see serious movement on river restoration plans by 2014.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

“A Watershed Moment” is a weekly radio program focused on environmental news and happenings in West Michigan, plus solutions for living a greener life.  Broadcast on WYCE-FM 88.1 on Tuesdays at 8:30am and 5:30pm, this program is produced by Grand Rapids Community Media Center and West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

0 replies
  1. Kate
    Kate says:

    I am disappointed to see, yet again, another discussion about the Grand River’s restoration without any mention of or attempt to include local businesses in this effort. While the aesthetics argument may tug on heart strings, the economic impact of a downtown usable recreational area will tug on the purse strings. Don’t guilt us into it, inspire us by welcoming business leaders to the table. Grand Rapids entrepreneurs can be allies in this movement. They can bring boat rentals, docks at riverfront businesses (like Charlie’s Crab), potential national attention on the regatta circuit, and I’m sure a slew of other more imaginative ideas to life for the revitalization of the river…and for the city.

  2. Mary
    Mary says:

    I would have to disagree with Kate. This article does not even mention aesthetics, first of all. It focuses on environmental aspects (written by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council). Given foremost importance is water quality; advocating for sewer separation to reduce CSOs and other pollution.They are also talking about improving fish habitat and therefore the fishery of the river. Another positive goal is improving other opportunities for recreation including the riverwalk, kayaking, and rowing. Perhaps economic impact was not given the forefront, but this is one of the few forums where environmental topics can and should be given top billing.


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