Divers checked out the Grand River in Ionia for snuffbox mussels as part of a project to replace the Cleveland Street Bridge. Courtesy Williams & Works
The project wasn’t exactly like what Grand Rapids Whitewater wants to do in downtown Grand Rapids, but the work that Williams & Works — a local civil engineering, planning and surveying firm — recently completed in Ionia had two similarities.
First, the project involved the Grand River. Second, the stretch of river was found to contain the snuffbox mussel.
The snuffbox is the same endangered species that has made a home in the downtown portion of the Grand River the Whitewater project wants to revive.
Being legally declared an endangered species means federal law protects existing snuffboxes. It demands that any change to a waterway can’t kill or injure one of the mussels. That is what the civil engineering firm was faced with when its bridge replacement project began in late March.
Williams & Works designed a new concrete bridge for Cleveland Street, just east of downtown Ionia. The structure connects the city of Ionia with Ionia Township and crosses the Grand River.
“We completely demolished the existing bridge that was there and then built the new one,” said Roger Johr, a principal with Williams & Works.
The Ionia County Road Commission hired the firm to design the new bridge. But before work could begin, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required Williams & Works to investigate the stretch of the river that would be affected by the project, as part of the permit the company received from the agency.
The DEQ gave Williams & Works a list of environmental firms approved to perform the investigation, and if any snuffbox were found, each one had to be tagged and relocated before construction work could start.
“The bridge had to be surveyed by divers. They found about two dozen (snuffbox mussels) in an area of the river about 85 feet upstream and downstream from the bridge. As you can imagine, there are all kinds of mussels, and they collected hundreds of mussels. Out of that number, there were a couple of dozen that were this special kind,” said Johr.
“They put a little number tag on them and relocated them outside of the construction area with GPS coordinates for each one, so they’ll know where they are at,” he added.
The relocation of the snuffbox delayed the portion of construction that actually took place in the river, like driving the pile linings. The identification and collection process lengthened the overall project by a month or so.
However, Williams & Works had already built that time into the schedule because the firm knew about the snuffbox before it put out its RFP.
EnviroScience Inc. of Stow, Ohio, was awarded the construction portion of the replacement project.
The investigation added $26,000 to the project’s total cost.
Johr said the firm’s project was perhaps the first of its kind done as a local effort. Previously, the Michigan Department of Transportation had directed this type of work.
The snuffbox was added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s endangered species list in February 2012.
The bridge over Cleveland Street opened to traffic Nov. 22, but technically the project won’t be finished until next spring when the temperature rises enough to allow the final coating to be put on the bridge.
Grand Rapids Whitewater wants to remove a series of dams from the Grand River to restore the rapids in downtown, a complex and expensive project. The work also will include having to inventory, collect, tag and relocate the snuffbox mussel.
Johr said about two-thirds of the bridges it replaces are over water, so the company is experienced at that type of work.
“It’s just another step in the process, I guess — another regulation, another thing you have to comply with. It’s not overly complicated. It’s just more money that has to be spent on regulations and it just adds to the project schedule,” said Johr.
“I can’t imagine that bridge construction affects the overall population of the mussels that much. It would seem like there would be other things that would affect its survival more than a few bridge projects. It’s not like we tear up the whole river, as we only have a few spots that we work in.”