Putting the Rapids Back in Grand Rapids

As HOW Conference attendees walked through downtown Grand Rapids last week, a question might have played on their minds: where are all the rapids?

“When I first moved here from New Mexico,” remembers Chris Muller of Grand Rapids Whitewater, “I kept thinking: ‘The name doesn’t really seem to fit. Why do we call it Grand Rapids if there are none?’”

Running through the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, the Grand River did once exhibit impressive whitewater conditions that gave the city its name. As a community and industry developed around the river, however, they altered the river to suit their needs. Water levels were raised and lowered with dams, and the rocks lining the riverbed were removed. The iconic rapids disappeared, and the river has never been the same.

Several Grand Rapids residents have come together under a shared vision of returning rapids to the Grand River and reconnecting residents to the river and their shared history. Proponents acknowledge that this task is complicated and will take time, but will ultimately lead to numerous benefits for the city, including increased economic development, expanded recreational opportunities, and improved fish and wildlife habitat. As Muller explains: “We have a river; why can’t it be an awesome river?”


Rapids Removal

Flowing through the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, the Grand River lacks its historic rapids. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

Flowing through the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, the Grand River lacks its historic rapids. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

The Grand River has always played an important role in Michigan’s history, providing extensive wildlife habitat, fishing, resources, energy, and transportation. At over 250 miles, it is the longest river in Michigan, and according to historic accounts, its rapids were a sight to behold. This began to change even before the city was officially established. As the United States continued to grow, the demand for wood and paper exploded. With its wealth of forest resources and expansive river networks, Grand Rapids was poised to become an epicenter for the commercial logging industry. However, any logs transported through the Grand River’s turbulent rapids would be damaged. Loggers erected a dam to increase water levels upstream from a local sawmill, allowing the logs to travel safely downstream. But this created a new problem: the now dried-up river downstream from the dam caused an unpleasant, sewer-like smell. More dams were added downstream to beautify the river and keep water in the basin at all times. The result was a sluggish, homogenous body of water slowly flowing through Grand Rapids. “Right now, the river is essentially a pond connected to a pond connected to a pond, with dams in-between each pond,” says Muller.

Meanwhile, people began to take notice of the Grand River’s potential as a shipping lane for trade between Lake Michigan and the growing city of Grand Rapids. The large rocks and boulders that had contributed to the river’s impressive whitewater were extremely hazardous for ships travelling through the river, however. This initiated a large-scale removal of the rocks, which were then used to construct the foundations of local buildings and floodwalls. This destroyed any remaining traces of the river’s historic rapids.

These changes have hurt the river’s native fish and wildlife populations. The rapids formed habitat conditions unique throughout the Great Lakes region, providing shelter to a variety of aquatic fish and wildlife and serving as a migratory route for lake sturgeon. When the rapids disappeared, these shelters and migratory pathways disappeared along with them. The decreased stream flow made the water more likely to overheat and suffer from oxygen depletion, while the dams presented barriers to migratory fish species. Meanwhile, the now sluggish river is not reaching its full potential as an economic driver or source of outdoor recreation for Grand Rapids.


A Vision of Restored Rapids

In response to these concerns a broad coalition of local groups and individuals, called the River Restoration Steering Committee, has developed a plan to restore the Grand River’s rapids. This project will be extremely complex and will require the integration of multiple distinct components, from the actual restoration of the rapids habitat to the development of parks, trails, businesses, and communities along the river corridor. The coalition, which represents a large and diverse partnership of stakeholders to engage with all relevant communities and ensure that all voices are heard, will oversee and coordinate the various components as part of the larger project.

This concept plan outlines the proposed rapids restoration. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

This concept plan outlines the proposed rapids restoration. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

To see a more detailed version of this concept plan, click here.

Currently, the project is still in its early stages. Guided by the principle that restoration decisions should be based on science as much as is possible, the Committee commissioned a two-year scientific study exploring the current and historic state of the river and identifying potential restoration opportunities. Solutions include removing most of the river’s dams to restore natural flow conditions, and re-installing boulders. Engineers are currently considering how to appropriately restore the river’s rocks, taking into account the size, placement, and composition of rocks required to most accurately replicate the Grand River’s natural rapids habitat. The river restoration will also be coordinated with a revitalization of Grand Rapids’ downtown area and the development of parks and trails along the river corridor, increasing community access to and enjoyment of the river.


A River Worth Fighting For

This conceptual image shows what the Grand River could look like, with its rapids restored. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

This conceptual image shows what the Grand River could look like, with its rapids restored. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater.

This restoration will recreate a diverse rapids habitat, with the goal of benefitting as many fish and wildlife species as possible. Naturalized river flow will re-oxygenate the water and prevent overheating through water circulation, improving the Grand River’s habitat quality. Returning rocks to the riverbed will also restore shelter for aquatic fish and wildlife species. During the two-year study, scientists discovered historic spawning grounds for lake sturgeon upstream from the dams; the area still has a bedrock shelf system, providing the hard-surface substrate sturgeon prefer for spawning. Restoring this area and removing the downstream dams will provide access to 80 acres of spawning habitat for this amazing yet imperiled species. “In some places, people are spending upwards of a million dollars per acre of restored sturgeon habitat,” says Muller. “We have 80 acres of it that we can open up just by removing a dam. 

Another major goal will be getting people outside enjoying all the Grand River has to offer. The Steering Committee is overseeing the development of parks and trails along the river corridor, increasing the river’s accessibility to the public. For kayakers and rafters the project will remove the hazardous conditions around the dams to increase navigability. Meanwhile, the restored river will feature rapids that descend more than 18 feet over two-and-a-half miles of river. Restoring a diverse and natural habitat that supports fish communities is also expected to increase fishable waters for anglers from 5 acre to 120 acres. The Grand River currently supports excellent rowing conditions upstream from the dams; these will not be negatively impacted by the restoration. This project will take advantage of a long neglected resource, utilizing the river’s potential as an economic driver for the city. Economic development has already begun, spurred on only by the promise of restoration. Bars and restaurants are appearing along the waterfront, and future businesses catering to river recreation, such as kayak and raft shops or fishing shops, will open.

This restoration and redevelopment process will be lengthy. At the time of this writing, the project has been in development for five years; actual restoration work should begin by the end of 2015 and is expected to be complete within five years. Despite this long timeframe, the project’s environmental, economic, and community benefits will be significant. The restoration of the Grand River follows the example of communities around the region, which are re-connecting to their local rivers and waters. At the very least, “Grand Rapids” will once more be a fitting name for the city.

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