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Traverse City’s FishPass dam replacement project OK’d by appeals court

The FishPass project would replace Traverse City’s Union Street Dam with a new barrier and research facility designed to keep unwanted fish downstream while allowing others to swim up the Boardman RIver. (Courtesy photo)
  • The ‘FishPass’ dam replacement project would cap a decades-long restoration effort on the Boardman River
  • It had been on hold since a resident sued, arguing Traverse City  voters should have a say.
  • FishPass supporters hope to complete construction in 2024.

Nearly two years after a lawsuit derailed a long-planned project in Traverse City to replace the Boardman River’s last remaining dam, an appeals court ruled the project can move forward without voter approval.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruling makes way for completion of a decades-long effort to remove dams and improve fish habitat on the Boardman River, a storied trout stream that originates in Kalkaska County and empties into Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City.

The capstone project, known as Fishpass, would replace Traverse City’s downtown Union Street Dam with a new barrier featuring experimental technology designed to allow some fish species to pass upstream, while locking less desirable fish below the barrier.

If successful, project proponents say FishPass could become a model for fish recovery efforts in rivers around the globe. 

“That connectivity conundrum is one of the biggest biggest fisheries challenges of our time,” Marc Gaden, spokesperson for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a bi-national fish management agency that is leading the project, told Bridge Michigan on Monday. “How do you block bad things at a dam, and pass good things?”

But the project has detractors. 

Crews were days from breaking ground on the dam replacement project in January 2021, when a city resident’s lawsuit halted progress. Rick Buckhalter argued that planned alterations to a park surrounding the dam amounted to a disposal of parkland that requires voter approval. A lower court judge agreed.

But in their ruling Thursday, appeals court judges Jane Markey, David Sawyer and Mark Boonstra concluded FishPass would cause “no meaningful deviation in the use of the Property as a park,” and therefore no need for voters to weigh in.

Instead, the court noted, FishPass would expand parkland at the site by 66 percent, and make the Boardman River’s shoreline more accessible to the public.

In a written statement, Traverse City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht celebrated the decision and said the city “looks forward to implementing this important project.”

Buckhalter questioned the court’s rationale in a Monday interview with Bridge Michigan, saying that planned fencing at the FishPass site would block residents’ access to part of the park. 

Buckhalter said he’s still deciding whether to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. 

“Nobody has ever had any objection to the concept of what you're trying to do” with FishPass, Buckhalter said. “But why would you put it in a city park?”

Native American tribes, local governments and other groups have already removed three upstream Boardman River dams to improve fish habitat and lower water temperatures. 

But the Union Street Dam in Traverse City poses a special challenge: It helps keep invasive lamprey from entering the Boardman but also shuts out native fish like Sturgeon. If FishPass functions correctly, it could solve that problem by letting sturgeon upstream while blocking lamprey and other unwanted fish below the barrier.

Originally budgeted at nearly $20 million, the project will cost more due to inflation during the two-year delay. But “we’re as excited about the project as we’ve ever been,” said Gaden, of the fishery commission. 

He said construction could begin this winter, and wrap up by late 2024.

The bulk of funding for the project comes from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program that funnels money into contaminated site cleanup, invasive species removal, farm pollution prevention and habitat restoration.

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