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Swimming Upstream: A dam problem (part 3)

Chris Pierce painstakingly removing part of a dam on the Manistee River.
Photo by Dustin Dwyer
Chris Pierce painstakingly removing part of a dam on the Manistee River.

All this week, we're focusing on stories about fish for our series, Swimming Upstream. Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula for the series, and for today's story, he went to the site of a former trout farm along the headwaters of the Manistee River, near Grayling. Dustin went to learn about the complex world of dam removal.  Here's his story:

The Flowing Well trout farm was built half a century ago. Dotted along the river here are a number of little dams, each one only 4 or 5 feet high, built out of simple wood planks. But if you're a fish, this might as well be the Hoover.

"You cannot swim from down there to up there. You cannot access the miles and miles of river that we have upstream of here because the dam blocks fish passage."

Mark Tonello is a fish biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says dams like the one we're standing next to give fish less space to feed and less space to spawn. Dams also warm the water, which makes it harder for fish to survive.

Over the past decade or so, people have started to take this dam issue more seriously, and there's a big push to get rid of old dams.

But the work can be surprisingly tedious.

One group that's taken up the cause is the Conservation Resource Alliance.

Chris Pierce is a biologist with the CRA. I look on as he and another biologist carefully remove a single wooden plank from the dam.

"You really want to remove the impoundments and the boards, or whatever type of structure is holding the water back, as slow as possible."
Dustin: “That's really not as exciting. Dynamite would be much more fun.” (both laugh)

But Pierce says a quick, explosive demolition would release a lot of sediment. A lot of times in Michigan, that sediment holds some pretty nasty toxins.

This one board is all the crew will remove for the day.

The crew also chops up logs downstream so they won't jam up once the river returns to its full flow. It's just one of the many mind-numbing details involved in dam removal.

But so far, we've just been talking about the science of dam removal. There's a whole other side to dam removal where things get REALLY complex.

If a dam is in an urban area, removal changes how people use the water - take away a dam below a pond, and the pond goes too, along with all the boating fun.

Rick Westerhoff is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He's the point person for another dam removal project in Traverse City, along the Boardman River. Compared to the Boardman removal, this Flowing Well project is a breeze.

“There's not many people out here. Still important, but there's just not the issues related to – you don't have hydro-power, you don't have community involvement, you don't have road-stream crossings, you don't have potential flooding issues."

The Boardman River project may well be the largest in the state's history. It could also cost 20 million dollars.

And that's another thing - dam removal is never cheap.

Amy Beyer is head of the Conservation Resource Alliance. She says even the Flowing Well project will cost a million.

“People are shocked when they find out the price tag and the time frame that it takes to remove some of these dams. And we're learning that it really can be a really large effort to do it right, to remove dams.”

There are hundreds of aging dams in Michigan. Removing them is good for fish. It can be good for humans, in case the dams start crumbling away.

But the work is far from easy.

-Dustin Dwyer for The Environment Report

Tomorrow, we’ll hear about a fish that’s been around since before the age of dinosaurs... and we’ll hear about the people who camp out to protect the fish from poachers.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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