The proposed Grand River Waterway project has dug up a number of environmental opponents. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council is the most recent in a long list of state, municipal and community organizations opposed to the project on environmental and economic grounds.
The WMEAC Board of Directors expressed concerns that the Grand River Waterway dredging project would have negative impacts to the Grand River’s water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, and existing and planned recreational activities.
The river dredging has been promoted by an organization called Grand River Waterway, led by Grand Rapids developer Dan Hibma, husband of former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. The proposed project involves dredging approximately 23 miles of riverbed between Bass River and Fulton Street Bridge in Grand Rapids, removing 100,000 cubic yards of material and resulting in a 50-foot wide, 7-foot deep waterway to allow for safer boat travel.
The Business Journal reported in November 2018 Grand River Waterway commissioned an economic assessment on the project. According to the assessment, dredging would cost $2.1 million initially and $165,000 in annual maintenance and upkeep, and produce $5.7 million annually in economic impact.
Shana Shroll, Grand River Waterway executive director, previously told the Business Journal the intent of the project was to make the 23-mile stretch of river more navigable for recreational shallow-draft boats. There are approximately 77,000 registered boats in Kent and Ottawa counties.
To date, the state-funded initiative has received $3.15 million in appropriations from the Michigan Legislature, including $2 million received during the Legislature’s 2018 lame duck session.
The resolution requested state funds allocated for dredging instead be redirected to enhance water quality, habitat and existing compatible uses within the Lower Grand River Watershed.
WMEAC cited a recent MSU Extension and Michigan Sea Grant paper looking at the impacts of dredging on the Grand River. According to the documents, river channelization will not return the Grand River to its natural state.
Bill Wood, executive director of WMEAC, argued much of the actual cost of the project would be greater than previously estimated.
“Among our many concerns is the lack of community involvement in the entire review process and what we believe is the under-reporting of the project’s true costs,” Wood said.
The WMEAC resolution also argued dredging the river would undo Ottawa County’s multimillion-dollar investments to existing land use. The county has invested $20 million to preserve over 2,400 acres of land and create 13 parks and open spaces to create a “greenway” along the river corridor and has plans for an additional $21-million investment.
“People kayak the river. People fish the river. Depending on where you are, people are paddle boating and rowing,” said Elaine Isely, WMEAC director of water programs. “It’s not that there’s no access to the river, they are trying to achieve access specifically for bigger boats. People who want to use the river are using the river.”
Isely added WMEAC is concerned dredging the river would exacerbate the Grand River’s swift underflow, making nonmotorized boating even more dangerous.
WMEAC, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural Resources and other civic and environmental organizations recently sent a letter urging Michigan officials to oppose the project and prevent any further actions related to dredging from occurring.
The Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission adopted a resolution opposing the Grand River Waterway project early in April. The parks commission argued the project was likely to result in extensive and long-term damage to the river, adjacent wetlands, endangered species, historic sites and riverbank property.
The parks commission also argued there are ample opportunities for boating on Lake Michigan, Spring Lake and on the Grand River between Lake Michigan and the Bass River Recreation Area in Grand Haven. The parks commission then forwarded its resolution to the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.
The board held a work session on the dredging project April 9, where it received several comments arguing against the dredging project.
According to the meeting minutes, many kayakers, fishers and other small boat users voiced opposition to the project, while no powerboat users, the people the project was designed to benefit, appeared to support the project.
The board also received legal opinion from its corporation counsel that there are unsettled questions as to whether the state of Michigan even possesses the authority to undertake the dredging project without the permission of riverfront property owners.
Officials of the city of Grand Haven also expressed concern regarding the possible threat to its drinking water source beds at the mouth of the Grand River.
During its April 23 meeting, the board of commissioners adopted its own resolution opposing the dredging, where it urged the state to study the matter in depth and make policy decisions in partnership with local governments and communities affected before spending public funds.
Grand River Waterway did not immediately offer comment at press time.