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Michigan legislators stall Grand River dredging project

Local officials and activists have voiced resistance due to the potential for environmental consequences.
Credit: Grand Haven Tribune/Alexander Sinn
State Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, right, joined Dr. Alan Steinman of Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources institute on Wednesday to discuss the Grand River dredging project that Hood recently worked to halt in Lansing.

GRAND HAVEN, Michigan — (Grand Haven Tribune) A Grand River dredging project that has drawn widespread concern from downriver communities has been halted in Lansing. 

State Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, spoke in Spring Lake on Wednesday about her decision — along with state Rep. David LaGrand and state Sen. Winnie Brinks, both also Democrats from Grand Rapids — to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stop the controversial plans to dredge a 22-mile stretch of the river.

Proponents, including former state Sen. Arlan Meekhof, say the project between Eastmanville and Grand Rapids would open up the river to large boat traffic and bring economic development, but local officials and activists have voiced resistance due to the potential for environmental consequences.

At Seven Steps Up on Wednesday evening, Hood joined Alan Steinman, a scientist with Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, to give an update on the stoppage of the state-funded project and reiterate the risks the activity could pose. Experts, officials and residents gathered to discuss legal and grassroots options for protecting the river.

Resistance in Lansing

Hood, serving her first term in the state House, said the appropriations bill of $2 million in December 2018 for the project was a “needle in a haystack” that flew under the radar in the Legislature during the lame-duck session. She said the letter to the governor and the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources invoked the Legislature’s ability to protect natural resources.

The funding has been eliminated from the governor’s budget, Hood said.

However, Republicans control the appropriations committees in both the House and Senate, and are due to begin budget negotiations.

Hood and colleagues are drafting questions to submit to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The questions are currently under review by attorneys.

“If that doesn’t work, we have to look at local cases,” Hood said. “Right now, everything is temporarily on pause until the governor makes a determination.”

Property owners along the Grand River own the footage up to the middle of the river. Federal case law supports property owners defending against actions like the sediment study the Grand River Waterway group is planning along the river, Hood said.

If the governor does not take action, Hood said, the issue may get kicked to the Legislature.

“This may be a stalling period,” she said. “If we don’t hear from the governor for 18 months, maybe (stopping the project) doesn’t have legal standing, and we will wait for the Legislature to act.”

‘Squishy’ analysis

The Grand River Waterway (GRW) group, chaired by developer Dan Hibma, has produced studies on dredging feasibility, economic benefits and the river’s mussel population. A sediment study was also in the works before the project was halted.

Environmental experts helped convince the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, the Grand Haven City Council, and the Spring Lake and Crockery township boards to pass resolutions opposing the dredging. Experts and officials have been skeptical of the rigor of the GRW studies.

The economic assessment concluded dredging would cost $2.1 million initially and $165,000 in annual maintenance, producing a $5.7 million annual economic impact. 

Joy Gaasch, president of the Grand Haven-area’s Chamber of Commerce, has told the Tribune the feasibility study assumes the river is already maintained annually by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers up to the Bass River Inlet, which she said is not true.

Hood said a state appropriation for the sediment study didn’t add up. 

“Comprehensive testing of sediment on 22 miles of the river at either end of it is going to cost way more than $150,000,” she said. “When we realized this, we asked for the project to be discontinued.” 

Steinman described some of the research as “questionable” and “squishy.”

He said the GRW sediment work thus far is structural analysis, while chemical analysis is needed to address what may lurk beneath the bottom of the river. Steinman said dredging could release numerous chemical contaminants from the river’s long history of pollution from upriver industry.

“Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave them where they are,” he said. “I know that sounds kind of counter-sensical, but sometimes the dredging will liberate or resuspend the sediments.”

Dan O’Keefe, a Michigan State University Extension educator with the Michigan Sea Grant, has developed a white paper outlining the potential threats of dredging activity on the river. He said the GRW’s mussel study does not adequately address endangered species, of which there are several living on the bottom of the river.

Loss of benthic (bottom) habitat is a primary concern with the push for channelization, O’Keefe said, in addition to erosion and increased flow velocity that will impact wetlands. Increased turbidity in the river could impact game fish species and vulnerable fish like the river redhorse.

Steinman said wetlands are the “kidneys” of the ecosystem, filtering out nutrients and storing carbon. These functions are known as “ecosystem services,” he explained, of which the Grand River provides a great deal. He said further research would be helpful to determine the extent of the river’s value — and not just the economic benefit.

“Even a sunrise or a sunset — that’s an aesthetic value that we don’t put a price tag on, but there’s values associated with that,” Steinman said. “The views along the river, the birding along the river, the fishing along the river — all that has value. … All we’ve seen is the price tag for doing the project, not the price tag for keeping the river as it is.”

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