Is Traverse City Ready for FishPass?
The final piece of a decade-long project to return the Boardman River to nature is almost a go. Is the risk worth the proposed benefits?
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 5, 2019
Construction of FishPass, an experimental fish sorting lock system, along with the development of a park, a small amphitheater and kayak/canoe portages, represents the culmination of a decade-plus-long project to restore the Boardman River to something closer to its natural state.
Three upstream dams have already been removed and the river that Native Americans call the Ottaway is settling into something like a natural flow from the Brown Bridge Quiet Area to Boardman Lake.
Construction of the final stage, FishPass, an $18 to $21 million project, could begin later next year, replacing the run-down, at-the-end-of-its-life Union Street dam while also freshening up some parkland in the center of Traverse City.
Or will it? A small but insistent group of folks have begun to question FishPass and hope to stop the project before it starts. Objections range from what kind of fish will be let upstream to concern over the experimental nature of the project to complaints over the park’s design.
SEA LAMPREY FEARS
Grant Parsons, a Traverse City attorney and frequent critic of large development projects in the area, objects to the experimental nature of FishPass. He said he doesn’t want the Boardman River used as a lab experiment because experiments can go wrong.
In an email to fellow FishPass critics, he wrote: “The rub: Nobody has ever successfully done this and kept the lamprey eels out. Lampreys sometimes climb fish ladders, and they sometimes parasitically attach to sport fish and get carried upstream on fish that certainly can jump up fish ladders. … Currently, there are no lampreys in the Boardman above the Union St. dam.”
One thing everyone on all sides of the debate agrees on is that the sea lamprey — an invasive, parasitic creature that attaches itself to healthy fish and feeds — must be kept out of the Upper Boardman.
Frank Dituri, the director of the Traverse City Department of Public Works who formerly worked for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians on the dam removal project, said concern over the experimental nature of the project is overblown.
FishPass will be a much more effective barrier against sea lamprey than the existing dam, which needs to be replaced. While there may be no lamprey upstream today, he said lamprey have breached the dam numerous times over the years.
Indeed, the existing dam has historically done a poor job of halting the sea lamprey. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had to treat the Upper Boardman 17 times to stop sea lamprey infestations since 1963, most recently in 2016, said Dan Zielinski, a computational engineer with the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission.
FishPass will keep lamprey and other invasive species out because there are redundant fail safes built into the structure, Zielinski said.
He said that the default setting of the dam will be “closed,” and two gates on the upstream side of the fish sorting channel will be equipped with an alarm to prevent that channel from opening up to allow access upstream.
“We’ll never have an open pathway on the fish sorting side,” Zielinski said.
Also, Zielinski said, the specs of FishPass make it a much more formidable barrier to sea lamprey than an ordinary dam. If the city were to construct its own dam, it would likely be rated to withstand floodwaters from a 25-year storm; FishPass is rated to withstand a 100-year storm.
“This isn’t really experimenting with the river,” Zielinski said. “It’s research that’s going to go on below a barrier.”
BUT WHAT IF IT DOESN'T WORK?
Still, critics of FishPass are concerned. Deni Scrudato, a former city commissioner who is a member of the Lower Boardman River Leadership Team, which has been following the FishPass project but has not taken a position on it, said proponents of the plans have not done a good enough job explaining the safety measures.
“Even the engineers are saying, ‘If this works, it will ‘blah, blah, blah,’” she said. “What if it doesn’t work?” she said. “This FishPass idea just seems to have come out of nowhere, and it’s superseded everything else. … There’s more questions right now than there are satisfactory answers.”
Parsons said he agreed that the failsafe measures have not been well explained.
“When can the public know what the intended method of screening is for all species?” Parsons asked. “I’m primarily against it because they will not tell us what the science is.”
Scrudato said she is also unclear about how FishPass has been or will be approved by the city. Has the city already approved FishPass? Do commissioners still need to vote to approve the project? She said she doesn’t know.
“It’s almost like everyone’s just taking the position that it’s a given, and that’s it’s just going to happen,” Scrudato said.
Scrudato said she believes opponents should be able to demand that the project is put up for a popular vote. Since FishPass is slated to be built on land that is a city park, Scrudato said she thinks the project represents the taking of parkland from the city.
“Isn’t this essentially disposing of park land, which requires a three-fifths vote of citizens?” she asked. “They are taking what is now a park and going to make it something completely different.”
FishPass supporters consider the project to be a new and improved park. The question could lead to an interesting political/philosophical debate: What is a park?
In the meantime, Dituri didn’t have an answer when asked whether the city still needed to approve the final plans before they move ahead. He said city commissioners have been repeatedly updated about the status of FishPass. In other words, Dituri said, commissioners know how far along this project is.
“Not only have they been updated, they understand that this is in continual design process,” Dituri said. “The point is, what this project will create is a better barrier.”
What’s more, Dituri said, is that FishPass will be paid for with funding arranged by the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission. If Traverse City turns that down, the Union Street dam will still need to be replaced, and that will cost Traverse City taxpayers millions of dollars.
“I believe that what we are doing on this river is the best thing for the river,” Dituri said. “We’re essentially giving them a free dam, a brand-new dam that will last for 50 years. … It will stop lamprey, and the deteriorating Union Street dam will not.”
THE GREAT FISH SORTING DEBATE
Parsons said even if designers are able to address all of his concerns about the science and engineering of the dam and fish-sorting system, he’s still worried that the project represents an attempt to build a means for letting certain fish upstream and keeping others out. He said he’s not against allowing native fish like sturgeon, pike, or bass to head upriver, but he doesn’t want to see steelhead or salmon invited into the Upper Boardman, and he thinks that’s where FishPass is headed.
Zielinski said it is the ability to sort fish that will particularly enable this project to achieve the outcome envisioned over a decade ago: to return the Boardman to its natural state while maintaining native fish species and keeping invasive species out.
“This is the only solution to be able to complete the Boardman River dam removal project,” he said.
Indeed, if FishPass goes ahead as planned, the focus of the debate around it will shift to what fish species should be allowed up, and which should be kept at bay.
Ted Wendling, board secretary for the Brook Trout Coalition, a group formed over concerns about what fish are allowed upstream into Blue Ribbon trout fishing waters, said he is worried the Michigan Department of Natural Resources plans to let steelhead into the Boardman and that the result will be the decimation of the brook trout population.
Wendling said from his perspective, the DNR tipped their hand in early 2018 and made their intention clear.
“’There’s an insatiable appetite for steelhead’ — those were their words,” he said. “I would say they’ve tried to make a big show of being open and transparent, etc., but this has not been an open and transparent process.”
The main concern over steelhead is that they will depredate and out-compete smaller trout for food. Wendling’s group is also concerned that the presence of steelhead will cause a stampede of fishermen to the river every fall, luring more anglers than there is space for them to fish.
Wendling said he has already seen mayhem at some other popular steelhead spots on northern Michigan rivers.
“In some cases, they’re actually fist-fighting over space,” he said.
Wendling said that he doesn’t believe it’s debatable whether steelhead and brook trout can co-exist. He believes the science has been settled, and it shows that steelhead will decimate the brook trout population.
“I don’t think it’s an open question,” he said.
Joe Cruzen, president of the Traverse City Area Steelheaders, disagrees, and said he’s confident that FishPass will enable scientists to study whether steelhead and brook trout can co-exist before the river is opened to the larger fish.
“I think the science needs to prove out that different species are compatible in the same body of water. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not,” Cruzen said. “The science needs to prove that out first.”
FishPass will be implemented in a scientific, careful way, he said, adding that Traverse City is lucky to have been selected to be its home from among sites across the Great Lakes; if successful, FishPass could be a model for sorting fish in rivers around the world.
“I thank it’s an excellent plan, it’s a scientific plan, and the whole world is waiting to see what we do with it,” Cruzen said.
DNR Fisheries biologist Heather Hettinger said it will be more than a decade before a final decision is made over whether to allow steelhead into the Upper Boardman. That’s how long she said she expects the FishPass experimentation stage to last. After that, data from the experiments and public input will be used to determine whether steelhead — and, for that matter, other species like walleye or lake sturgeon — will be allowed upstream.
She said the experiment stages will “not necessarily” involve periods of upstream steelhead migration. On the other hand, she said if steelhead are let up, and negative consequences are observed, FishPass will allow the dam operators to halt the flow of steelhead.
“I think the big thing is that this is a really long-term project. I think in a lot of our initial meetings, folks thought we were going make a decision right now, and that was the gospel,” she said.
Members of the Brook Trout Coalition have noted that Hettinger may be biased because she is a member of the steelhead group. Hettinger said that’s not so. She said she joined because she supports fishing of all kinds.
“If it would have been a bass group, I would have joined it too,” she said. “I would counter with the fact that a number of the members of the brook trout group are also members of the steelhead group. … My job is to represent anglers of the state.”
WHAT IS A NATURAL RIVER?
Kathleen Stocking, a long-time Traverse City writer and environmentalist who lives in an apartment at Riverview Terrace, overlooking the Lower Boardman, said that she believes it is important to understand the history of the river in order to know how to treat it today. Once, the river flowed naturally, and its shores were home to Native American people; the arrival of European settlers saw the native people displaced and the river abused.
“It was 200 years ago that Native Americans were living on the banks, right where I’m living today,” Stocking said. “I want people to know that this was not always something that belonged to people who own SUVs.”
She sees FishPass as just another potential scar on the river.
“These manmade installations involve more hardening of the riverbanks, which means fewer places for the insects that feed the fish,” Stocking said. “I believe Traverse City needs to revisit [this], … do some serious research and reconsider what to do with the river. This is an opportunity to think about how to protect and save the natural river, one that will not come again.”
Christine Crissman, executive director of Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said that while her nonprofit advocacy group has not taken a position on FishPass, they’ve been following it and have asked for modifications to absorb stormwater runoff and reduce its impact on the river.
She said there are aspects of the project that represent improvements for the river. Crissman said the kayak portage areas might raise concerns about how the river is used, but what’s proposed in the FishPass plan is preferable to what’s there now.
“Right now, it’s grass and dirt, and folks are going in anywhere in there and dragging their stuff across,” she said. “My thought is that anything is better than the way it is now.”
Another frequent criticism of FishPass is that it will require the removal of 63 mature trees; but the project also includes plans to plant 120 new trees.
The two-to-one tree replacement plan should be okay, Crissman said, as long as the newly planted trees are large enough to have an impact.
“If the trees are fairly large, and the canopy is replaced in a few years, that’s best-case scenario,” she said.
Another concern, one raised by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, is the amount of sediment that’s built up behind the dam over the years, and its potential release when the dam is removed. Many worry it could be a toxic stew ready to migrate downstream and into Grand Traverse Bay.
Crissman said she understands that the project engineers will remove as much of the sediment as is possible, meaning they should be able to get 80 percent of it. She is more concerned about the historic buildup that’s been there for decades than she is about the sediment that’s flowed downstream since the dam removal project began. Most of the newer sediment, she said, has been captured in Boardman Lake.
Greg Riesig, chairman of NMEAC, said he believes that an environmental impact study should be conducted before FishPass can go ahead.
Nonetheless, plans are moving steadily ahead.
FishPass designs are currently under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Once that is complete, probably later this month, Dituri expects that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will issue a permit for the project. That should clear the way for bids to go out in January so that construction can begin later in the year.
“I believe that what we are doing on this river is the best thing for the river,” Dituri said. “It’s a gift. It’s an amazing opportunity.”