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Last dam standing: Traverse City fish restoration project on the ropes

Fishpass project
The FishPass project, a proposed $19.3 million effort to replace Traverse City’s Union Street Dam with a new barrier and research facility, is on hold after a group of residents won a lawsuit challenging the project’s legality. (Courtesy photo)

July 12: With dam removal on hold, Traverse City residents face a hefty repair tab
April 29: Judge: Traverse City needs voter approval for FishPass river project

It was supposed to be a milestone in the decades-long journey to restore the Boardman River, a celebrated trout stream that flows through Traverse City before emptying into Grand Traverse Bay. 

In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that construction crews were days from breaking ground on the plan’s final phase: replacing an old mill dam with a structure, dubbed FishPass, that would double as a research hub with the potential to revolutionize fish recovery efforts around the globe.


FishPass would be a testing ground for technology that’s designed to allow some fish species to pass upstream beyond the dam, while locking less desirable fish downstream. If successful, it could be a possible solution to the devastating impact of dams, which can decimate fish populations by blocking their access to rivers and streams. Proponents envision the project assisting fish recovery efforts globally, from Michigan waterways to the Mekong River in Vietnam.

“This milestone represents years of hard work from many dedicated partners,” City Manager Marty Colburn said in a statement. “We ask the community to be patient with our construction partners as this exciting project advances.”

But days before construction was to begin, a judge temporarily halted the project in response to a lawsuit brought by local residents opposed to it. The residents say the suit allows them to raise concerns that they were unable to voice as the project was being planned. FishPass supporters, though, condemn the suit as “not-in-my-backyard” obstructionism that will raise costs and delay environmental research. 

“Solely for park purposes”

Plans for the nearly $20 million FishPass — funded mainly by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and led by the bi-national Great Lakes Fishery Commission with a host of partners — call for replacing the aging Union Street Dam with a new barrier.

Downstream, water would flow in a natural-looking channel on one side of the river, while the other side would feature a long, concrete-lined flume where researchers can test technologies for “sorting” fish as they swim up and down the stream. 

By fine-tuning the technology to tell the difference between, say, a native brook trout and an invasive alewife, they hope to eventually let desirable species pass freely upstream and downstream between the Boardman and Lake Michigan, while locking out harmful species from the river.

The upstream barrier would remain closed as researchers try everything from “shape recognition” to special lights that influence fish behavior. 

If the technology works, Great Lakes Fishery Commission spokesperson Marc Gaden said, “it would solve, not only a problem for the Boardman river, but also a problem that fishery managers all over the Great Lakes Basin and all over the planet face.”

That problem: How to reduce harm caused by dams while taking advantage of their benefits, which include hydroelectric power and flood control. Fish populations have been decimated across much of the world by dams or roads. These barriers are especially harmful to migratory fish like sturgeon, which spend most of their lives in large lakes or oceans but travel into rivers to spawn or feed. If they can’t reach their spawning grounds, they can’t reproduce.

But to Rick Buckhalter, the FishPass groundbreaking wasn’t cause for celebration. Buckhalter, a longtime Traverse City resident, former mayoral candidate and frequent critic of city leaders, is part of a contingent of locals who for years have questioned the project’s merit. 

Designs for FishPass call for changes to Union Street Dam Park, a grassy, shaded plot of land surrounding the dam’s earthen embankment in downtown Traverse City. Crews plan to cut trees, install an amphitheater, kayak launch and other features, and add a research and education building along the river. The public walkway along the current dam’s grassy embankment would be replaced with a pedestrian bridge over the river.

Buckhalter, a fan of the park’s current layout, contends those changes amount to an illegal disposal of parkland that the city can’t authorize without voter approval. Project officials dispute that, noting that the city will maintain ownership of all of the land, as well as the new building.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power at first doubted that Buckhalter’s claims were worthy of the court’s consideration. But by mid-February, he had changed course. The Traverse City charter specifies that parkland must be dedicated “solely for park purposes,” he said, meaning recreational use.

The on-site FishPass building, which would provide space for up to six researchers to study fish passage techniques, “may be a great idea,” he said during a Feb. 16 hearing. “I do not mean to suggest it isn't...but it is not a park purpose.”

The judge extended the work stoppage until the case goes to trial, which is expected in May. Now it’s unclear whether the project, which had been slated for completion in 2022, will ever start. 

The latest in a string of disputes

The dispute over the park is the latest dustup in a larger river restoration effort that has seen its share of controversy.

Conversations about removing multiple dams along the Boardman — a 28-mile-long waterway that originates in Kalkaska County swampland and meanders westward through forests before veering north to Traverse City and pouring into Grand Traverse Bay — began nearly two decades ago. 

The river’s hydroelectric dams were once crucial sources of power for Traverse City. But they were bad for fish and wildlife, slowing and warming the water, hindering sediment flow and blocking fish migration.

As decades passed and other power sources emerged to fuel Traverse City, many began to believe the dams’ environmental harm could no longer be justified by the sliver of power they still supplied. 

The three upstream dams — the Brown Bridge, Boardman and Sabin dams — were decommissioned through a settlement agreement in 2005, and a plan emerged to remove them to recover a colder, more naturally-flowing river. 

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians saw the dam removals as an opportunity to restore the once-diverse native fish community in the band’s home river, whose tribal name is the Ottaway. Area fly fishers saw the potential to improve habitat for the river’s coldwater-loving brown and brook trout, reinforcing the Boardman’s reputation as a “Blue Ribbon'' trout stream.

dam removals on the Boardman
A series of dam removals on the Boardman has restored a more free-flowing river and reduced water temperatures to support coldwater fish. But area residents remain divided about what to do with the last dam standing. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

But restoration work got off to a rocky start. While crews were removing the Brown Bridge Dam in 2012, a construction failure sent a wave of water downstream, flooding out dozens of properties in a rural area south of Traverse City. Some riverside residents later sued, arguing the dam had provided crucial flood-control that their properties now lacked.

As those controversies died down, Boardman River restoration partners including Grand Traverse County, Traverse City, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, state and federal species managers, fish advocates and the power company that formerly owned the dams, planned two more removals at the downstream Boardman and Sabin dams. 

All the while, questions lingered about how to deal with the Union Street Dam. The last barrier before the Boardman pours into Grand Traverse Bay, the dam hinders the river’s flow and blocks fish migration. But it also helps keep invasive lamprey and other undesired species that live in Lake Michigan out of the Boardman, where they could edge out native species. 

For that reason and others, area anglers and others were keenly interested in the dam’s fate. 

A 2015 city-commissioned study called for a whitewater park below the dam. The FishPass idea emerged in 2016, as the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, through which the U.S. and Canada cooperatively manage Great Lakes fish, searched for an ideal location to test new fish sorting technology. 

After Union Street Dam emerged as the top contender, the Traverse City Council passed a resolution in September 2016 agreeing to partner on the project.

When he heard about the plans, Grand Traverse Band river restoration ecologist Brett Fessell said he was immediately on board. He saw it as a hopeful step toward a future in which native lake sturgeon, walleye, smallmouth bass and whitefish can access the Boardman for the first time in more than 150 years, while invasive lamprey and non-native salmon stay out.

A contingent of Traverse City area brook trout advocates have questioned whether FishPass could be a first step toward allowing salmon to migrate freely into the Boardman, something that has divided anglers. And species managers (Shutterstock image)

If the technology works well enough to replicate on other rivers, Fessell said, "it would be an absolute game-changer in the Great Lakes. We could start to see river systems have a free exchange of native organisms for the first time in generations."

More than 250,000 dams and other barriers impede fish movement in the Great Lakes basin alone. Nationwide, more than 2 million dams block fish migration. Globally, scientists estimate that current and planned dams threaten to alter river flow or block habitat across an area representing 93 percent of the world’s river volume.

Jean Derenzy, CEO of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, saw the project’s international significance as an opportunity to “put us on the map.” The educational component could connect residents and tourists with the river, she said, and the research hub could bring economic diversity to the city’s downtown.

Buckhalter was not enthused. He said he felt blindsided by the FishPass announcement, which seemed to him to come out of the blue with no public debate about whether Traverse City was the right location among the dozen Michigan and Ohio rivers that planners considered.

“It just got foisted on Traverse City residents,” he said. Though the city council made a public decision to pursue the project, Buckhalter said troublesome aspects of the plan only emerged later, when design details became clearer. Public forums to answer questions and take input on the project, he said, were “dog and pony shows'' without real opportunity for debate.

“That park is a special place that’s been used by people for over a century to just hang out and fish,” he said. The FishPass project would “eviscerate” the park’s calm vibe.

Other critics said they worry the project will make way for state fishery managers to eventually open the Boardman to salmon and steelhead — two non-native fish that some sportfishing groups want to see in the river. Brook trout enthusiasts worry salmon would outcompete the river’s native trout, and the Grand Traverse Band supports only allowing native species into the river.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has agreed that it won’t allow salmon or steelhead upstream for the first 10 years after FishPass is built. After that, the agency said it will consult with the Grand Traverse Band to determine which species to allow upstream. But some brook trout advocates are skeptical of the agency’s intentions. 

“The DNR has for many many years, many decades, advocated for passing Pacific salmon and steelhead into the Boardman,” said Tom White, director of the Mayfield-based Brook Trout Coalition. “They’ll state publicly that the decision hasn’t been made yet, but that’s balderdash.”

Still others say they’re concerned about using the Boardman to test unproven technologies. The Northern Michigan Environmental Action Coalition, an environmental group in the Traverse Bay region, passed a resolution calling for project planners to study FishPass’s potential environmental impacts before moving forward.

“This kind of project has not been tried anyplace, so we don't even know if it will succeed,” said Ann Rogers, the coalition’s co-chair.

Gaden, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission spokesperson, called fears that FishPass could inadvertently foul the river with unwanted fish “a big myth.”

The current mill dam already fails to fully block lamprey and salmon from the Boardman, he said. The new barrier would be “better than the one that exists right now,” fully excluding lamprey. And, he added, the FishPass sorting systems won’t pass anything upstream until new technologies have been tested and state species managers have decided which species to let upstream.

Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting coldwater fish species, said it has no official stance on the project. But because of the group’s focus on coldwater fish, it has a deep interest in its outcome. Bryan Burroughs, the group’s executive director, said the research that FishPass aims to enable is a worthy pursuit. But he, too, said he is concerned about the long-term outcome. 

He understands the interest some anglers have in seeing salmon run in the Boardman, but “biologically, allowing salmon or steelhead in there could cause brook trout to suffer a consequence.” 

Thousands of dollars a day

The since-canceled January construction start already represented a delay after the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled plans to begin the project last October. Every passing day of inaction costs money, Gaden said — potentially thousands of dollars a day.

“The construction firm made commitments and are not doing other jobs, so there are certain things that we're on the hook for,” he said. “That’s money that’s not going toward the project.”

Buckhalter and his allies contend it’s a small price to pay in exchange for the chance to put the project up for a public vote. 

FishPass supporters counter the public has had plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the project, and their reactions have been mostly positive.

“It took years just for the design to be developed,” said Fessell of the Grand Traverse Band, including multiple rounds of public feedback. “It’s not like this was just willy-nilly.”

Watching the last-minute argument over the park, he said, has left him with the impression that for some people, “regardless of the answer, it’s not enough.”

As the two sides prepare for trial, Buckhalter said he’s confident Judge Thomas will see things his way.

Gaden is equally confident the judge’s injunction will be lifted soon and the construction delay won’t significantly impact plans to finish FishPass by late 2022. 

Construction will move forward, he said, “the moment that injunction is lifted.”

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