The Grand River Restoration project inspired an entire city to rally behind restoration of its namesake river. More that 10 years after the project launched, thousands have contributed to the vision and key milestones are within reach.
A project thousands of years in the making
What does it take to restore the rapids in a 2.5-mile long, 600-foot-wide stretch of river flowing through the heart of a city?
In Grand Rapids, the short answer is vision, determination and more than 10 years of public-private collaboration.
The long answer is a bit more complicated and starts about 14,000 years ago. That’s when glacial outwash formed the Grand River Valley and ultimately left a 248-mile-long river that runs across the southern portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula and empties into Lake Michigan.
In the late-1800s and early 1900s, the river bottom near Grand Rapids was graded, islands and boulders were removed, and five low-head dams were built to accommodate logging and other area industry. Before then, the Grand River cascaded over an 18-foot drop in the limestone bedrock in a stretch that ran over a mile through what is now downtown Grand Rapids. The dams and other changes altered the flow, degraded habitat for native species and silenced the city’s namesake rapids.
For over 100 years, the river has flowed quietly through downtown Grand Rapids – certainly a signature landmark of the West Michigan community, but not the rushing, boulder-strewn rapids that once served as spawning beds for prehistoric lake sturgeon and a flourishing habitat for snuff box mussels.
Rendering of the Grand River following the Grand Rapids Whitewater project.
Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Whitewater
While steelhead, salmon, lake trout and other native species continue to beckon fishermen to the banks and dams of the Grand, this stretch of the river is not the rich and diverse habitat it once was, and it has not enticed other nature lovers and recreationalists to enjoy all that a raging rapids has to offer.
That is about to change.
The inspiration came when Chris Muller and Chip Richards, a couple of outdoor enthusiasts living in Grand Rapids, launched Grand Rapids Whitewater (GRWW) in 2008. They knew the river could be so much more than it currently was, and they formed the nonprofit to lead river revitalization and restoration of the rapids in a 2.5-mile stretch that runs through the central downtown business district.
A large-scale project
Plans took shape over the next few years and call for removal or partial removal of the five low-head dams, as well as restoration of boulders, rock and gravel that will restore the rapids and reestablish the aquatic diversity that the Grand River once experienced. Features like pocket water, eddies, seams, fast water and slow water will all contribute to the oxygenation and overall health of the river and provide healthy structure and habitat for fish and wildlife.
“A couple factors make this project different than any other river restoration project in the country,” observed Matt Chapman, project manager for Grand Rapids Whitewater. “First, it’s being driven by a nonprofit. That’s unusual. Many are led by the federal government or other public body. Second, the sheer scale of the project is unique. The river is 600 feet wide in some areas targeted for restoration and runs through the heart of an urban area.”
Another piece that underscores the scale of the project is the Sixth Street dam. It currently serves as a barrier to invasive sea lamprey that inhabit the lower reaches of the river and try to make their way upriver to spawn in the spring, and it’s slated for partial removal.
To address this issue, Grand Rapids Whitewater is partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the international Great Lakes Fisheries Commission on proposed plans to design and install an adjustable sea lamprey barrier. The goal of the proposed barrier will be to provide a similar level of protection against invasive sea lamprey migration while also providing opportunities for increased natural connectivity when lamprey migration is not a concern.
Widespread community support
The ambitious vision quickly caught on and rallied the support of sustainably-minded City leaders. The Grand River is one of six priority areas the City included in its Green Grand Rapids Master Plan in 2011.
It’s been full steam ahead ever since.
Building on Grand Rapids Whitewater’s vision and the Green Grand Rapids Master Plan, the City and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. engaged more than 4,500 members of the community in the planning process. The outcome of the process was the GR Forward plan to transform the Grand River into a distinct asset that will support the next generation of growth in Downtown Grand Rapids. Plans expanded restoration efforts well beyond the riverbed to 7.5 miles of riverside parks, trails, neighborhood developments, river access points and flood mitigation structures that invite rather than block use of the Grand River.
From there, the City of Grand Rapids established the River for All project to further engage the community in the design of six sites along the Grand River and the creation of design guidelines that will apply to the entire 7.5-mile river trail set to flank both banks from Riverside Park to the north and Millennium Park to the south.
The City, Kent County and the State of Michigan have all allocated public dollars. Grand Valley Metro Council helped secure federal grants, primarily for design and construction of the lower reach of the project from I-196 to Fulton Street. The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) and Wege Foundation stepped up to provide project planning expertise and support. And a host of area foundations, individual donors and even the city’s largest brewer came in with private sector funding.
Renderings for fish passage with rocks in the Grand River part of the Whitewater Project.
Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Whitewater
Inspiring generational stewardship
The idea of inspiring generational community-wide stewardship is already taking root through educational initiatives in partnership with area school districts and cultural institutions.
For instance, LGROW and the Grand Rapids Public Museum partnered with Grand Rapids Whitewater on a 10-day Summer Science and Leadership Program last year and are planning to expand to two summer sessions in 2019. The program exposed students entering their junior year of high school to environmental issues and jobs in the field of environmental and river restoration. At the end of the program, students delivered a presentation on their experience to the Grand Rapids City Commission and to parents.
Grand Rapids Whitewater is also working with Grand Rapids Public Schools to develop a middle school curriculum around the endangered snuff box mussel – an important species that is expected to make a comeback in the area of the river slated for restoration.
“A lot of GRPS school kids haven’t even visited the river before,” says Chapman. “They don’t know about the important environmental issues related to the river and surrounding watershed, much less that there are jobs where they can make a positive impact on the environment and water quality. We’re hoping to change that.”
Everyone involved is also hoping the project will make a big impact on the environment. Restoring the rocks, boulders and variable flow of the river will improve habitat for a variety of native species. As habitat improves, so will water quality. For instance, snuff box mussels – whose shells were a popular material in the button-making industry – were overharvested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Restoring the habitat for these important water-filtering creatures will help restore their population and could potentially help improve water quality.
As the project has progressed, the potential benefits for Lake Sturgeon have also been of particular interest for environmentalists, fisheries experts and Native American tribes for whom the prehistoric fish is culturally significant. Lake Sturgeon is a state-threatened species and, according to the latest Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates, only about 103 remain in the Grand. Studies have determined that the rapids in the area slated for restoration were the Lake Sturgeon’s historic spawning grounds. By revitalizing the riverbed and recreating the rapids, Grand Rapids Whitewater hopes to restore the spawning habitat and boost the population of this revered species.
With Phase I of the three-phase construction project slated to begin in the spring of 2020, the estimated completion date is still several years off – 2026 if all goes as planned. But sustained by the clear Grand Rapids Whitewater vision, a determined and engaged community, and strong public-private partnerships, everyone involved in the project knows Grand Rapids will once again look to the river and say, this is our heritage.
GRWW Project Timeline
2008 – Chris Muller and Chip Richards launch the Grand Rapids Whitewater initiative
2009 – Grand Rapids Whitewater receives nonprofit status
2011 – GRWW hires River Restoration Org. to develop proof of concept and original restoration design
2013 – GRWW is one of 19 projects in the country to be designated as an Urban Waters Federal Partnership project
2014 – 2015 – GR Forward engages 4,500 members of the community in the planning process
Early 2019 – GRWW hits 74% of $44.6 million fundraising goal
End of 2019 – GRWW hopes to secure remaining federal and state permits required to launch Phase I construction
Spring 2020 - 2022 – Phase I construction: remove four smaller dams
2022 – 2024 – Phase II construction: build sea lamprey barrier
2024 – 2026 – Phase III construction: remove 6th Street dam
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