GOP donor’s plans to dredge Grand River meet rough waters in West Michigan

SLIDESHOW: Nick Preville, a graduate student at Grand Valley State University, fishes in the Grand River along Grand Ravines North County Park in Jenison. Preville worries a proposal to dredge the river would threaten its fish. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

Bob Sabine of Grand Haven kayaks in the Grand River at Grand Ravines North County Park near Jenison in West Michigan. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

Jeff Neumann of Grand Rapids owns and is concerned about how a dredging proposal might affect his business. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

A man fishes from a swampy bank in Grand Ravines North County Park in Jenison (Bridge photo by Jim Malewitz)

The 70-ton Grand Lady Riverboat at its landing in Jenison. It can navigate along the Grand River from Grand Rapids to Grand Haven.  Greg Boynton, who has captained the boat with his father since the early 1990s, said a proposal to deepen the river west of Grand Rapids isn’t necessary. Backers say doing would make the river safer for less experienced boaters. (Bridge photo by Jim Malewitz)

Critics of a plan to open up the Lower Grand River to power boats question whether it will cause more erosion along parts of the river. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

The Grand River teems with wildlife, including geese. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

A view from Grand Ravines North County Park along the Grand River near Jenison. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

JENISON — Dan Hibma sees beauty and opportunity in the Grand River as it snakes through the heart of Grand Rapids –  more marinas, tourism dollars and fun for boaters, if only Michigan’s longest river weren’t so shallow in meandering stretches west of town.

The West Michigan developer envisions power boats floating through Kent and Ottawa counties — and all the way to Lake Michigan. But that won’t happen unless the state government pays to carve a deeper channel by dredging through sediment and whatever else has built up on the river bed over decades.  

Steamboats puffed and tooted along the Lower Grand River until the early 1900s, and some of their names are still carved into the ceiling of the 92-year-old Cottage Bar in downtown Grand Rapids. It’s a tidbit Hibma likes to mention when waxing about the river’s heritage. But bigger boats haven’t since fared as well.

Government reports have described how “numerous bars, snags and other hazards to navigation make the river dangerous” in the Grand’s shallower waters. And the river is narrower than it once was thanks to 25 miles of training walls  — pilings of woven brush — laid in the early 1900s to hold back shifting sand and silt that bedeviled engineers.

Now, more than a century after the last attempt to cut through the river clutter, Hibma wants the government to take another try.

An influential Republican and husband of former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Hibma has used his political connections to advance an idea of dredging 22.5 miles from Grand Rapids’ Fulton Street Bridge to the Bass River Inlet near Eastmanville in Ottawa County.

Nick Preville, a graduate student at Grand Valley State University, fishes in the Grand River along Grand Ravines North County Park in Jenison. Preville is studying the river redhorse, a fish Michigan considers threatened. Preville worries a proposal to dredge a section of the river will harm mussels that the redhorse eat. “If you lose the mussels, you’re likely going to lose my studied species,” he said. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

The project would involve digging a 50-foot-wide channel that averages 7-feet deep. The effort would be designed for 26-foot power boats but could accommodate boats as big at 49 feet, a state-funded report said.

“I just think it's a cool idea. Sometimes you want to just do something because you think it's a cool idea,” said Hibma, who along with his wife donated $450,000 to political candidates and causes in the 2018 election cycle, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The Grand River rises in Jenison as rain falls on a recent Monday (Bridge video by Jim Malewitz)

Hibma began his push for a “Grand River Waterway” nearly a decade ago, and found a champion in former Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. He helped secure nearly $3.5 million in state grants for dredging and studies, including $2 million in the final hours of last year’s lame duck legislative session. 

Meekhof has since become an unpaid adviser to the project, which is expected to cost $2.1 million for dredging along with $165,000 for maintenance each year, according to a state contracted report from Edgewater Resources, a St. Joseph-based marina and waterfront developer.

In recent months, community objections have prompted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to pause plans to sample the riverbed for any hazardous pollutants — a major hurdle to determine whether the project will move forward. 

“Before we do any sediment sampling, we want to review those concerns,” DNR spokesman Ed Golder told Bridge.

Governing bodies in Ottawa County, Grand Haven, Grandville and at least four townships approved resolutions against project. Public officials and residents list concerns including the possibility that dramatically altering the river’s path would destroy fish habitats and erode some riverfront.

Dan Hibma is a developer who wants to dredge the Grand River.

Hibma touts the project as a way to better use a river that, thanks to restoration efforts, has dramatically rebounded from pollution so severe that, in 1905, one Grand Rapids newspaper predicted the river would become a sewer by 2005.

Opponents worry dredging could disrupt that progress. Local government officials question whether they’d be stuck paying to maintain the dredged channel and whether an influx of large power boats would discourage kayakers and smaller boats.

Some boaters say it’s possible to navigate down the river — if you have experience. They include Greg Boynton, whose family owns the 70-ton Grand Lady Riverboat, a replica of the 1800s-era steamers. With a shallow draft, the boat has floated passengers between Grand Rapids and the mouth of the river in Grand Haven since the early 1990s.

At the Grand Lady’s landing in Jenison, Boynton called the dredging plan flawed and unneeded.

A map shows the 22.5-mile slice of the Grand River that would be dredged under a proposal from West Michigan developer Dan Hibma. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

Hibma said his plan is geared toward less skilled boaters. A study commissioned by a nonprofit he created to advance the project claimed deepening the river would generate some $5.7 million in annual economic impact and 33,000 new visitors. Kent and Ottawa counties alone have 77,000 registered boats.

“The idea here is to invite folks to come to West Michigan, spend a little extra time — maybe once in a lifetime,” Hibma said. “If you're going to invite people to West Michigan for recreation, you need to provide some navigation and have a safe venue.”

‘It’s a question of how bad it’s going to be.’

Daniel O'Keefe, a river and Great Lakes fisheries specialist with Michigan State University’s extension office in Ottawa County, said removing 50 acres of river bottom could devastate fisheries, and the project’s scope is far beyond routine dredging.

“There is no way to do this well,” said O'Keefe, overlooking a calm stretch of river from the lodge in Grand Ravines North County Park in Jenison as two kayakers paddled below. “It’s a question of how bad it’s going to be.”

He ticked off some of the specific impacts, which he rounded up in a report for Ottawa County officials: “great harm” to larval insects and other creatures fish eat; the destruction of shallow riffles and sand bars where fish from walleye and steelhead to smallmouth bass and northern pike live, and where the threatened river redhorse often spawn.

Daniel O'Keefe, a river and Great Lakes fisheries specialist with Michigan State University’s extension office in Ottawa County, said plans to carve out 50 acres of river bottom could devastate fisheries. The project’s scope is far beyond routine dredging to clear a harbor, he said. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

It’s possible but not certain that the ancient lake sturgeon, a threatened species in Michigan, swim through the rivers stretch en route from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids, O'Keefe added.

Tom Werkman, a fishing guide and Ottawa County Parks commissioner worries such damage would scare away anglers and harm his business.

“People will just end up going elsewhere,” he said.

Meekhof, who himself is an outdoorsman, said dredging would “expand more recreational opportunities for the people of the state of Michigan.”  He and Hibma called the criticisms premature until the DNR studies whether pollution lies beneath the riverbed.

“Wait ‘til you see what the core samples are, before you start crying Chicken Little,” Meekhof said.

Hibma added: “We understand the environmental concerns, but we’re in the fact-finding stage.”

Tom Miedema, a Hudsonville turf farmer who owns a charter boat in Grand Haven, said he’s a big fan of the waterway project as long as tests show it won’t hurt the river.

“Going up and down the river would be a great thing for a lot of people,” said the 50-year-old who bought his first boat before he got his driver license.

“Even if this project wouldn’t happen, to do the studies and to know what is happening in that river – I think that’s a huge thing.”

Lack of input

Neither Hibma nor Meekhof formally asked downriver communities if they wanted the project before they set it in motion. As more public officials and residents learn of it, growing numbers have rejected the idea or at least demanded answers before lending their support.

“We have to deal with the consequences,” Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis told Bridge. “If you’re going to spend public dollars on it, allow us to be part of the public and weigh in.”

Ottawa County is the biggest owner of riverfront property in the proposed dredging zone. Over the past two decades, it has purchased thousands of acres of lands for protection and recreation as part of a $41 million Grand River Greenway Initiative, and county officials say dredging could muck up those years of planning.

The county’s resolution against the project noted opposition from “many kayakers, fishermen and other small boat users” during a public meeting in April while “not a single power boat owner appeared to report that he or she was in support.”

State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said she wished the project drew more scrutiny before lawmakers moved it forward. As a former member of the House last year, she voted for budget bills that earmarked funds for the project and the rest of state government. She said that process didn’t lend itself for closely considering specific projects in Michigan communities.

“It’s difficult for us to know everything that’s in there, and to be able to isolate an item is almost impossible, right? Because you’re asked to vote yes or no on such a large budget,” she said.

Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, said Hibma and Meekhof should have done more to educate the public.

“To have such an invasive and huge project underway, and to be giving millions to it, I do think it was their intent to get it done without public engagement,” she said.

Bob and Bobbi Sabine of Grand Haven kayak in the Grand River along the Grand Ravines North County Park in Jenison. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore)

Hood and Brinks are among local Democrats calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pause the project, and they said they were glad the DNR decided to review the local concerns.

(Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s press secretary, told Bridge that Whitmer herself had not put on the brakes. “The DNR is the lead on the project,” she said.)

Meekhof bristles at the criticism, and said the public could weigh in once any permitting proceedings kick off.

“No dredging can be done until [state agencies do permitting]. And then there’s open meetings...there’s all kinds of transparency,” he said.

Some who vocally supported the project months ago have since tempered their tone.

In March, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Baker took to local TV to describe "boundless" opportunities from deepening the waterway with “potential residential and commercial benefits all along the river.”

Baker this month declined an interview with Bridge, writing in an email: “We don’t have an official position on the project so I would not be able to comment one way or another. Our support thus far has been passive and limited to studying the feasibility.”

Grandville Mayor Steve Maas also spoke glowingly of the project alongside Baker in March, and Hibma tapped him as an informal adviser. Speaking to Bridge after his city council voted to oppose the effort, however, Maas clarified:

“I couldn't say I am 100 percent in favor of this project. But I definitely am intrigued by it. And I want to learn more about it. I don't want to cut short, any exploration of the possibilities.”

Cost questions

Some government officials worry that maintaining the deepend river could fall to local taxpayers.

McGinnis, the Grand Haven city manager, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pays as much as $900,000 each year just to keep a 1-mile stretch of his city’s harbor clear.

“If they do this thing, [the state] also needs to create some agency, bureaucracy departments,” McGinnis said. “Because otherwise the local governments just become responsible for keeping that waterway open, and it is totally unsustainable.”

Idling in his kayak near a swampy bank in Grand Ravines park, Bob Sabine said he likes the river as it is.

Pleased with his decision to ditch the office on a recent Monday morning, the Grand Haven accountant and avid birdwatcher described the treat he had just witnessed: an eagle grabbed a fish out of the water.

“I could hear him swoop down and take the fish out,” Sabine said, before listing several concerns with the dredging idea.

“I think it would impact everybody who lives on the river in a very negative way,” he said, stopping mid-thought to glance upward.

As if to corroborate Sabine’s anecdote, a bald eagle soared across the overcast sky, clutching a fish in its talons.

“You don’t get to see that everywhere,” he said.

Magdalena Mihaylova contributed reporting for this story.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper name and amount of the agency responsible for dredging Grand Haven's harbor.

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 7:32am

If Mr. Hibma wants this project done so badly, why doesn't he pay for it, along with all of the annual maintenance, himself?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 8:43am

Not supporting this dredging but if you dare research the spending done with so much of the Great Lakes Restoration funding, you will find all sorts of diverted funds to do similar "work". Guess sometimes the spending done and the outrage that follows depends upon who and which worthless party starts it.

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 8:55am

The state and it's citizens have FAR greater needs than this boondoggle project.

Come back and talk to me after every pothole is filled, every substandard, dangerous bridge is repaired/replaced, every decrepit pipeline is made safe, after all Michigan community has safe drinking water,etc. Then, and only then, should something like this be even remotely considered.

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:08am

Leave it the way it is. You can boat it now as long as you are not an idiot and pay attention to where you are going. Why ruin the river for those that enjoy it the way it is?

Douglas Zande
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:14am

The comment that the US Coast Guard pays about $900,000 per year to keep about one mile of channel clear in the Grand Haven area is incorrect. It is the US Army, Corps of Engineers that is responsible for annual dredging of the channel. The cost is generally much less than $900,000 per year. This is a link to further information regarding the dredging. The Corps also is responsible for a river channel that extends several miles upstream of Grand Haven in the Grand River, but maintenance has been limited due to a lack of funds and a lack of interest in the channel.

Douglas Zande, PE
Retired Chief of Operations
Detroit District, Corps of Engineers

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:16am

If this project is eventually approved, there should be a stipulation that if the undertaking exceeds the estimated cost of construction or maintenance, the difference will be paid by the promoters of the enterprise. I suspect such a condition will doom the endeavor, as it appears to be much more expensive than indicated.

Christine Temple
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:33am

The only concern Mr Hibma appears to have is to get his and other big boats down the river. No concern for the river's health or the impact that dredging will have. I have a suggestion for Mr Hibma. {No, not that} If he wants to go to Lake Michigan so bad, he can trailer it. Or park at a marina closer to it. His wealth and privilege are out of bounds. I don't care if he wants a scenic trip down the Grand or wants to be able to develop his property, 22 miles of dredging for his benefit? I don't think so. People are allowed to make money but not at that price to pay.

James F Bish
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:35am

Another scheme to benefit the high rollers at the expense of the rest of us. Witness Benton Harbor's Jean Clock(sp) Park & Detroit's Belle Isle.

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:47am

Ya like Michigan doesn't have bigger priorities than giving power boaters another place to run. This is the problem when government is seen as a money trough, even the hogs who should know better think since everyone else is feeding at it, they should get their share too,

john chastain
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:52am

Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no way to do this without damaging the adjacent wetlands or changing the physical character of the river. Dredging changes water flow patterns and velocity, it encourages erosion which requires hard physical structures to mitigate cheaply. It turns a living river into a boat canal. What we’re really talking about is making the river marina friendly while damaging it for both wildlife and non big boat human use. If you want an example of how this turns out look at the St. Clair & Clinton river systems and Lake St Clair itself. You have miles of sea wall, acres of marinas and little recreational use beyond big boating activity. Public access is limited to restricted park land and occasional fishing piers. The wetlands and fisheries are a fraction of what they were less than a century ago. This is the future that these politicians and business types want for the Grand River. Trust them not, tell them no!

Mike Delp
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:57am

“Hibma touts the project as a way to better use a river “

This is the typical language of an environmental menace. The river is a living system, and exists, to crib from John Muir, as the grizzle bear does, “for its own magnificent self-ness.”
This is is the GOP erecting the trough at which they gorge . It is a pathetic, greedy and malevolent “idea”.

Prof. Ken in Zeeland
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 10:12am

This appropriation resulted from Meekhof’s last chance to use his power to fast track laws during an infamous “Lame Duck Session” of the State Legislature after the 2018 election in November. During these sessions 2/3s of the members will never face the voters again due to the Term Limit Law. These sessions gave us the current “Right to Work” [for less] law that allows freeloaders to demand legal services from unions if the union represents workers in the company they work for. Maybe the solution to having issues like this spring up is to eliminate the Lame Duck Sessions so manipulators like Meekhof and Hibma can’t pull things like this again.

Alex Sagady
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 8:15pm

>>>>These [lame duck] sessions gave us the current “Right to Work” [for less] law that allows freeloaders to demand legal services from unions if the union represents workers in the company they work for.

The right to work law was not enacted during a lame duck session, but much
ill-considered legislation is enacted during these sessions, which should be eliminated.

Joan McComber
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 11:19am

While I do not live along the Grand River in this area any more (I grew up in Allendale), I think this project would be a travesty for those who do live along the river. While Mr. Hibma touts this as a benefit for power boaters, what about all those who wish to enjoy the benefits of the river without the noise/speed of these boats plowing along? Does he really think what he wants more important than the harm that will be caused to habitats? I agree with all the communities who are passing resolutions against this project. While cleaning up the river may benefit the most people, there is no real need for power boats to do more harm than good.

Fred Overeem
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 11:25am

I wonder. Does this interest in dredging the river to accommodate those with yachts, have anything to do with the huge, recently completed, residence hotel, that we see as we drive down I 196 toward Grandville. Wasn't Mr. Hibma the developer of that project?

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 8:12am

The Castle??? No to my pretty good knowledge he avoided that travesty, his relatives are involved though. It's not on the river either. He does have the old 100+ acre dump on the other side of the river

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 8:49am

The "Castle"? Fake chimneys, parapet-mania, and especially the lit-up lion statue on top. Tacky tacky tacky.

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 4:30pm

I think you may be onto something there....

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 11:45am

'Crony capitalism' in action. Socialize costs, privatize profits.
Rinse and repeat....
Oh, then give recipients of said crony capitalism a tax cut!

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 10:37am

The socialist/left is pretty good at this too. Does Solyndra ring any bells?

David Frye
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 6:43pm

The GOP creed: "It ain't a boondoggle if we get to pocket the profits."

Bill Wylie-Kell...
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 8:19pm

In New Zealand rivers as living creatures are being afforded rights and legal standing. There is deep and ancient wisdom in this view. One that is spreading.
From an investigative journalism perspective, Mr. Hibma is identified as a "developer" without ever indicating the location of his land holdings or potential projects. His interests include more than getting his boat upstream.

Fairness Monitor
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 8:40am

Um, this article loses a lot of credibility regarding how you classify Mr. Hibma as a GOP donor. Why not just be honest in your view and call him an angry white Christian racist who cares only about making money for himself and doesn't care about the environment. Your journalism and article are so biased one way (environmentally) that it makes me sick to read it. It is very pointed and unfair against Mr. Hibma. I really don't see two sides of the coin in this story. Just the same lame environmental drivel that we typically hear and see on TV. While there is no doubt an environmental impact will occur, nature does have resiliency. It will return to it's natural homeostasis. I know you don't like his idea but you're not being very intelligent about potential benefits his idea can bring or nature's ability to recover and even improve it's functioning natural system.

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 11:04am

His ideas will hurt the environment, likely irreversibly, for the benefit of large land holders and the sorts of people who own boats large enough to need a channel dredged to allow their oassage. It amazes me what you gormless bootlickers will cry about

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 3:16pm

How is him wanting goodies from the government trough any different than you or anyone else wanting them? I'm not used to you slamming people wanting Gov't Benes . Another rare case of us agreeing. Is this a new leaf or only people you don't like for things you don't approve of? Nice word "gormless"!

Paul Jordan
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 2:24pm

I'm quite certain that Mr. Hibma is a small-government Republican right up to the point where he sees an opportunity to get state government to pay for something that will earn him a profit. Then he suddenly turns into an advocate for government assistance!
Michigan: The best (Republican) legislature that money can buy.

Vince Caruso
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 11:18am

Our natural systems in Michigan have real value for the long term. There is a policy in state law relating to the Public Trust for good reason. We have the duty to maintain the quality of our environment for future generations and protect the Public Trust qualities of our environment. Hence you can walk and swim the beaches along the Great Lakes in front of the Oligarc's property without fear of arrest (they really hate this in Michigan), Public Trust Ownership.
Let this Oligarc dig his own canal from Lake Michigan to his property. Will never happen and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine why! We have the critical Public Trust Policy in Michigan, if you can keep it.

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 2:18pm

I gotta say, this is some excellent reporting. I really appreciate all the work the writer put into this article. Its refreshing to see both sides explained so thoroughly.

John Wierenga
Thu, 05/30/2019 - 8:40pm

I spent many of my adult years near the River and many, many times put my solo canoe in. This always made me fell like Huck Finn. It was and likely still is one of Michigan's wildest most wonderful Rivers. Now live in Traverse City, surrounded by all the designated wild rivers which i always pick the beer cans out of, sometimes by the bagful. The Grand is far less populated in the summer and with no liveries dependent on drunken fools for making a living probably remains one of the most peaceful resorts in all of Michigan. So now developers want to what? Make money i guess. They never appreciate anything which doesn't . Like Trump i suppose, they have nothing else to live for.

Cliff Yankovich
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 6:20pm

More business as usual from deep pocketed, connected Republicans. Sure all this wonderful money will come flowing in - but please allow the taxpayers to fund it. Enough of this bullshizzle, please. Why is Corporate Welfare so acceptable from people who hate the "nanny state"? How is it that folks who would begrudge a single mom some help have no problem handing over millions to corporate interests? Our roads, bridges, and sewer systems crumble, our schools rank low nationally, and yet we have millions for this? Never mind the environmental impact of such actions. At 61 years old, I share the thrill of seeing bald eagles on the Grand and Flat River (I live and kayak in Lowell) with the kayaking accountant quoted in the article- such a thing was unheard of when I was growing up. Don't mess with Mother Nature!