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After 3 dam removals, restoration shows promise on Boardman River

An aerial photo of a river with a bridge and an area of vegetation that looks like it's returning after being removed.
Gary Langley
Interlochen Public Radio
The area upstream of the former Brown Bridge dam used to be underwater. The vegetation is growing back after the dam's removal in 2012.

Three dams were removed from the Boardman River in Grand Traverse county in the last seven years. It was the largest ever dam removal project in the State of Michigan, and one of its main goals was to return the river to a more natural and healthy state. Scientists say fish, floodplains and aquatic insects are doing well since the dams came out.

A light rain falls at the former site of the Brown Bridge dam, just south of Traverse City. Brett Fessel, an ecologist for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, says the place has changed since the dam’s removal.

“So if you listen,” he says, “you wouldn't hear that bird singing, you wouldn't hear the rain falling, you wouldn't hear the wind. All you would have heard was the whine of the turbines and then the falling of the water, you know a very industrial kind of noise.”

Brown Bridge was the first of three dams on the Boardman River to be removed, back in 2012. The last dam came out in 2018.

The project, which cost upwards of $20 million, brought together non-profits and local, state, federal and tribal governments.

There were a lot of reasons to remove the dams — to improve habitat for coldwater fish, to restore wetlands and floodplains, and to eliminate maintenance costs and the risk of dam failure.

Fessel says the plan still wasn’t popular with everyone. Some were really attached to the lakes and ponds the dams created.

“Any kind of change to peoples' environment or experience is gonna have resistance,” says Fessel. “Human beings really, I mean we're kind of fixated on keeping things static or keeping things comfortable and familiar.”

Removing the dams also meant rebuilding some natural river channels and floodplains — think bulldozers, and backhoes and excavators.

The project didn’t always go smoothly. At Brown Bridge, a structure partially failed during the dam removal process, which sent a surge of water down the river. It caused an emergency evacuation, flooded homes and deposited contaminated sediment.

According to Fessel, there was a silver lining.

“As it turns, the suddenness of the dewatering in this particular project left a lot of the organic material parked within the floodplain of the river,” he says. “Within that organic material was a store of seeds, a seed bank better than a century old in some cases, and it just came back gangbusters.”

You could lose yourself in the aspen trees that grew from those seeds, and many of the trees have already reached 15 feet tall in just seven years.

Downstream, at the sites of the former Boardman and Sabin dams, the reconstructed riverbanks are more bare by comparison. The vegetation hasn’t had as much time to come back. But throughout the river, aquatic insects are doing well — a sign that it’s rebounded after all the disturbance. And, native brook trout are doing better than before the dams came out.

An aerial photo shows a river with a bridge and an area where the banks used to be underwater.
Credit Gary Langley, an FAA certified sUAS pilot / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Vegetation is sparse on the reconstructed riverbanks upstream of the former Boardman Dam. The more bare areas were underwater before the dam's removal in 2017.

Nate Winkler is a biologist with Conservation Resource Alliance, the non-profit that managed the Boardman dam removal project. He says that removal of the Brown Bridge dam has helped brook trout better compete with non-native brown trout.

“In years subsequent to the project taking off, we have seen an uptick in brook trout numbers,” says Winkler. “At some points the data show a half and half population breakdown, half brook trout, half brown trout, where before it’d be more along the lines of 80/20 [in favor of the brown trout].”

The brook trout are benefiting from colder water — the river stays cooler when its water isn’t held in ponds.

The fish are also now able to pass freely up and down the reconnected stretches of river, which is 160 miles in total.

Amy Beyer is the executive director at Conservation Resource Alliance. She says there’s no shortage of lakes and ponds, like the ones that used to exist behind the dams, in northern Michigan.

“What's much more rare, that we regained in the Boardman project, is the free-flowing coldwater stream,” says Beyer.

Fessel says he understands the feelings of people who miss the ponds. But, he still thinks the Boardman watershed is better off.

“The greater good that would be served by restoring the natural form and function of the whole system, you know, that transcends here and now,” he says. “That transcends me, my children, you know and goes on to generations to come.”

Kaye LaFond
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.