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Grand Rapids' rapids plan needs less rapids, regulators say

Grand Rapids' skyline, including the Pearl St. bridge.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Environmental regulators didn't object to the removal of low-level dams, such as the one shown here near the Pearl Street Bridge downtown. But they said the plans to install new structures to create waves for kayakers wouldn't be allowed.

The plan to put the rapids back in Grand Rapids needs less rapids.

That’s the message from state and federal environmental regulators, after a permit application on the decade-long river restoration project was submitted to the state in the fall. The plan called for removing four low dams in a stretch of river downtown, south of I-96. To help control the flow of water, and design for waves to attract kayakers, the plan also called for installing new rock structures in the river.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency both objected to the structures.

“[T]he range of alternatives has been unduly limited by the purpose and need to 'enhance distinctive recreational opportunities,' specifically whitewater paddling sports,” wrote Scott Ireland, acting director of EPA’s Water Division, in a letter responding to the permit request. “EPA recommends the applicant consider alternatives that do not include the grouted whitewater features due to the large footprint and temporary and permanent aquatic resource impacts associated with the grouted structures and high flow velocities proposed.”

On Friday, the city of Grand Rapids announced it would withdraw the permit application, and work on a new proposal. It signed on to a work plan with EGLE and the EPA to ensure the next application can win approval.

“This is a significant step forward in making the revitalization of our namesake a reality and transforming our river corridor,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said in a statement. “We have worked with federal, state, local and private partners to develop a comprehensive vision to revitalize the lower and upper reach of the Grand River and this EGLE permit is the final approval needed to begin work on the first phase.”

In their letters, EGLE and the EPA didn't object specifically to the removal of the existing dams in the river, so that part of the project is likely to remain. But the structures to create waves for kayakers are off the table, according to a framework the city agreed to.

The city says it will work to get a new application submitted in time for the project to begin construction next summer.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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