Unchaining a River: Restoring the Boardman River
August 20, 2012
“We’re healing one of Mother Earth’s arteries. I think she’s been hurting for a long time.”
~Hank Bailey, Grand Traverse Band Natural Resources Official
The Boardman River watershed encompasses 291 square miles and flows 179 miles from its origin in Kalkaska County to West Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. Last Wednesday, the process of removing three no longer used hydro-electric dams from the Boardman began at Brown Bridge Dam. The removal of the three Boardman River dams (Brown Bridge, Sabin & Boarman) will be the largest dam removal project in Michigan’s history, and the largest wetlands restoration in the Great Lakes Basin. It will allow the Boardman to return to a more natural state as a free-flowing, cold-water river. You can read all about the dam removal on the Boardman River website which explains:
The Boardman River was formed after the last retreat of glaciers covering Northern Michigan approximately 10,000 years ago. The proto-Boardman River was a tributary of the Manistee River and flowed south to Lake Michigan. The course of the river changed as early headwaters streams cut through glacial deposits and joined with the proto-Boardman River. This allowed the Boardman River to flow north and empty into Grand Traverse Bay. Glacial deposits, in particular the Kalkaska series soil, are responsible for the high quality of the Boardman River.
…Americans living in the area knew the River by another name. They valued the river as an important transportation route as well as a source of sustenance. Early European settlers called the river the “Ottawa” after the local band of Native Americans. Things changed when Captain Harry Boardman came to the area around 1848, established a sawmill, and acquired timber rights for the area. Captain Boardman stored logs for his sawmill in a natural lake on the Ottawa River, which became known as “Boardman’s Lake.” In time, the entire river became known as the “Boardman River.” In 1852 Captain Boardman sold his timber rights to the real timber barons of time, Perry Hanna & Tracy Lay. The Boardman River played a vital role in the economic growth of the region as it was cleared of debris in order to drive logs downriver to the mills. This process fueled a growing city but was devastating to the river’s aquatic habitat, contributing to the extirpation of Michigan Grayling in the river. After the logging era, several dams were constructed to provide power for the growing needs of Traverse City. These hydroelectric dams originally supplied a large percentage of the city’s electrical needs, but this declined over time. Before being decommissioned in 2005, these dams only provided 3.4% of the power used by Traverse City Light & Power customers each year.
Of approximately 179 miles of stream in the Boardman River Watershed, 36 are designated as “Blue Ribbon” trout habitat. These areas, located upstream of the Beitner Road crossing are premier fish habitat and important to anglers. Boardman River anglers have an important economic impact on the region. The entire watershed is also used for activities such as canoeing, tubing, kayaking, hiking, hunting, and bird watching. These uses make it a destination for an estimated 2 million Recreational User Days annually.
This project seems to me to be an excellent example of “government done right” – an adequately funded effort that leverages a wide range of scientific experts to protect property owners while restoring a natural resource to its natural state. There’s also a Boardman River Prosperity Plan that will seek to turn a solid environmental decision into a sound economic one was well.
Also see this feature on IPR News Radio and a cool video about the dam removals produced for The Grand Vision Natural Resource Network by Miles Chisholm of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The video includes some great old photos of activity on the river.