Grand Rapids city planner presents Grand River corridor design at GVSU

By Drew Schertzer | 3/22/18 2:59am

GVL / Sheila Babbitt Students listen to Jay Steffen, the Assistant Planning Director for the City of Grand Rapids, at the Grand River Corridor Planning event put on by the GVSU Planning Association on March 19th, 2018.

A new plan is being designed in the city of Grand Rapids to remove the Sixth Street Dam and five other smaller dams. The idea is to create whitewater rapids by installing boulders and cobble. Then, a new adjustable structure would be created to control rowing waters, boat passage and non-native sea lamprey from migrating into the area.

Jay Steffen, assistant planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, detailed the specifics of the new plan at the “Grand River Corridor Planning” event that took place Monday, March 19, in Mackinac Hall. At the event, held by the Grand Valley State University Urban Planning Association, Steffen dug into every detail of the project.

“For the last 150 years, the Grand River has been ignored and has literally been used as a sewer,” Steffen said. “People see the Sixth Street Dam and smaller dams downtown, and people think those are rapids. The real rapids were drowned out years ago by the installation of these dams.”

Steffen has been working with a team on a complex new design for the Grand River. The plan is to restore 47 acres of boulders and substrate. According to Steffen, the project will improve the habitat, connectivity, water quality and riparian functions. He believes this project will bring benefits socially, economically and environmentally. 

Steffen also discussed how communities will make better use of the Grand River with the changes, as they will have recreational access and increased opportunities. He thinks the changes will prompt more people to use the river, leading to positive effects on the economy.

The Anderson Economic Group’s 2014 study "Economic Benefits of the Grand Rapids Whitewater Project" estimated that $15.9 to $19.1 million in revenue would be produced annually from recreational activities such as rafting, wading and more. 

With these changes, sea lamprey, a harmful non-native fish that feeds off other fish, could potentially be stopped. This would be possible through an adjustable hydraulic structure that could inflate or deflate bags to control the water level. Sea lamprey migrate at different times from fish they prey upon, and Steffen thinks this would help control the population of this fish.

While Steffen believes the plan is bulletproof, there are many concerns. For one, the project would cost $44 million just to begin, per his estimation. People at the event also expressed concern over the possibility of the project working. 

To begin with, 37 land owners must be convinced to allow the project to take place. Land owners along the river own the land to the center of the river, athough the city owns the water on top, Steffen said. This means that for any changes to be made, each owner would have to give the city their consent.

Another concern that has been brought up pertains to fishing. Fishermen are some of the main users of the Grand River currently, and there is concern that the project would greatly hurt fishing in the area.

The Grand River spans 252 miles and is the largest river in Michigan. It has been around for many years and is one of the biggest symbols of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Whitewater revitalization project has a lot planned. Though the plan is controversial and still in development, the city of Grand Rapids can expect eventful changes to the Grand River in the future. 

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