By Jeffery L Carey Jr and Jan Worth-Nelson
Demolition of the crumbling Hamilton Dam on the Flint River downtown, now underway, has brought together numerous community, scientific, and engineering efforts in a process affected and propelled by the water crisis and part of a longer-term dramatic change in the narrative of the waterway that some have called “the city’s spine.”
The removal of the 98-year-old structure is part of a multi-faceted riverfront restoration project estimated by some sources at $38 million–work supported by the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Hagerman Foundation, the Genesee County Parks and Recreation Department, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Flint River Watershed Coalition, all tapping the passions of an ardent group of community members who love to kayak, fish, hike and birdwatch along the river’s 142-mile course.
Community support for the river work has been strong and growing. The Flint River Corridor Alliance (FRCA) recently merged with the Watershed Coalition, a move heralded by representatives from both sides to maximize opportunities to be “better stewards” of the revitalization occurring on many fronts, according to FRCA board president Kathleen Gazall.
The restoration includes the removal of the Hamilton Dam and the Fabri Dam just down river. There are also plans, according to the Flint River Watershed Coalitions General Statement on Dam Removal, for future work and development on both the Thread Lake Dam and the Goodrich Dam, replacing them both with “a more naturalized structure that allows for fish passage.”
The Hamilton Dam “has been my white whale – the thing if I can get rid of it, I can retire,” Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Watershed Coalition said in a recent presentation to the FACT-Community Partners group.
“It’s a terrible, ugly, dangerous dam, and now it’s coming down” — the gratifying culmination, she described, of more than a decade of work by the Watershed Coalition and many other key community players.
Water crisis and the river narrative
The urgency of those efforts, ironically, was propelled for some river advocates by the water crisis, which led to mistaken characterizations nationwide of the river as toxic and polluted. It’s an assessment not supported by the facts of a waterway which has in recent years been demonstrating a comeback, river experts contend.
A key piece of evidence, in addition to the noted presence of herons, eagles and other healthy flora and fauna, is twice-yearly sampling for “benthic macroinvertebrates” at 35 sites. These are “pollution intolerant critters,” Fedewa said, living in sediments on the bottoms of rivers, creatures which would not survive in a polluted stream. Healthy benthic counts were found in 20 out of 35 sites, including testing spots in downtown Flint, she said, calling it a “very healthy trend line.”
“They [the media] tried so hard to find the worst photos of the river,” Fedewa said. “Even when we posted contrasting photos, they kept steadfastly sticking to a false negative.”
In January, 2016, fed up with inaccurate attributions of the crisis to the river, Fedewa started an “It’s not the river” (#itsnottheriver) campaign to combat the negative stereotypes, attempting to explain repeatedly that the lead poisoning came from corrosive effects within the pipes, not the river itself.
In her presentation to the Community Partners, Fedewa repeated the statement posted on the Watershed Coalition site: “The Flint River is a vibrant ecosystem that supports a wide array of wildlife, from eagles to osprays, from walleye to small mouth bass, and caddisfly to water penny. The City of Flint drinking water crisis has cast the river in a negative light, but we have the data that shows this is not the case.”
She said the river offers “the best walleye fishing in the State of Michigan,” and notes there are at least four eagle nests underway this year.
The Watershed Coalition has applied for a National Water Trail designation from the Department of the Interior, for river trails extending along 86 of the river’s 142 miles.
Engineering work remains
While the Hamilton Dam removal is exciting, Fedewa said, there is still much that needs to be done. Paul Bucholtz of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) agreed, stating all phases of the work have not yet been specced out. He explained the initial phase of the project will remove only the top foot and a half, partly to regulate the amount of sediment released, with some concrete remaining underwater. He said the dam will be lowered step by step.
During the interim step, steel sheet piles and rocks have been put in place to help regulate the flow of water.
While many are anxious to see the Hamilton Dam removed and whitewater rapids built into the Flint River, there still are concerns that with the dam’s removal will come the release of toxic sediments behind the dam left behind by decades of industrial pollution.
Asked what precautions are being taken so that the silt is not disturbed and released down river, Fedewa responded, “You may have noticed the big white tents that were up on the UM-Flint campus for much of last year, and the construction barges in the river. That was a massive remediation effort completed by Consumers Energy, to remove the contaminated sediments and a large portion of the contamination further down in the ground.”
Fedewa also stated, “Some contaminants remain deep beneath the surface, but they have been capped to the satisfaction of the DEQ [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality], and we are given assurances that the site is now safe for removal of the dam.”
Bucholtz, from the DEQ Remediation and Redevelopment Division, confirmed that “the bulk of the sediment directly behind Hamilton Dam has been remediated.” He also described how there will still be a significant impoundment or trapped sediment in the slow moving water upstream of the dam.
This, Bucholtz stated, would prevent moving a significant amount of sediment from upstream of the Consumers project at this time. “That would come with the full removal/restoration project and will need to be managed accordingly,” he added. “There will be some bottomlands exposed through this initial drawdown, but given the narrow/steep nature of the impoundment, that area is expected to be fairly minimal.”
Reservoirs have “little to no benefits”
Currently, there is no mention on the Flint River Watershed Coalition site of removing the Holloway Dam, but there is mention of dam and reservoir removal and river remediation on the Department of Natural Resources’s website.
In a report titled, American Rivers, The Ecology of Dam Removal – A Summary of Benefits and Impacts, there is clear language that keeping the reservoir has little to no benefits, while removing the dam and allowing the river to return to its natural flow has numerous environmental benefits. This information, in concert with the State of Michigan’s Dam Management Grant Program, suggests the state is working towards “projects that will enhance aquatic resources and fishing opportunities along with reducing infrastructure costs and improving public safety in Michigan.”
Testing expected to continue
Regarding the benthic macroinvertebrates testing, Fedewa said, “If we see a noted decline at a site, we follow up with further testing and notify the county and the state.
“The state is currently putting together their 2018 testing sites for our watershed (tested on a rotating basis every five years), based on our data as well as special requests from groups like ours. We put in a number of special requests, including downtown, so that we can have an official baseline of the river pre-dam removal.
“Then we can follow up with more testing post-dam removal to note changes. We’ve also done some immediate response monitoring, such as during the drinking water crisis as well as during the Consumers clean up,” she said.
Watershed work covers seven counties
While this massive endeavor takes place in Flint, the Flint River Watershed Coalition continues its broader focus on Lapeer, Genesee, Shiawassee, Saginaw, Oakland, Tuscola, and Sanilac counties that make up the Flint River Watershed.
Through projects such as “water quality monitoring, the GREEN environmental education program, the Flint River Paddling Program, and annual Stewardship Day activities,” the Coalition moves toward its vision, “ that all people should have access to the river for recreation, swimming, and fishing as well as the economic value it provides to our communities.”
EVM staff writer Jeffery L. Carey, Jr. can be reached at email@example.com. EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.