The Rapidian

With designs in the works, river restoration to move toward launch

The designs for the Grand River restoration project in Grand Rapids, headed by the city and Grand Rapids Whitewater, are halfway complete. Grand Rapids aims to transform into a riverfront metropolis once the project reaches completion within the next decade.
Underwriting support from:

River Restoration Fundamentals

To learn the more about the project visit Grand Rapids Whitewater's website.

/Nicholas Garbaty

/Nicholas Garbaty

As of June 2015, the construction plans for the Grand River rapids restoration in downtown Grand Rapids have reached 50 percent completion. While the project currently remains in the design phase, the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Whitewater intend to submit permit applications to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sometime this year.

Jay Steffen, assistant planning director for the City of Grand Rapids, believes the Grand River is the biggest asset to the city and that its full potential remains untapped.

“The city commission sees this as a wonderful opportunity to return the namesake rapids to the river,” Steffen says. “They see this as an economic and recreational project that could have catalytic impacts on the downtown and West Michigan region.”

Along with restoring the rapids, several other adaptations will be made to the river as well. These include the removal of the Sixth Street Dam, the construction of a new dam one mile upstream with more water management capabilities, an increase in the available fishing area and the establishment of an outdoor stadium along the riverbank.

According to Steffen, these additions provide not only more recreational opportunities, but economic, educational, social and environmental opportunities as well.

“Just for recreational use, economic return is estimated to be between $15.9 million and $19.1 million per year,” Steffen says. “So a $34 million project has a payoff in about two years.”

The City plans to partner with the Grand Rapids Public Museum in educational and environmental plans for the project, like improving water quality and reducing invasive species in the river.

“The river’s been channelized for so many years,” Steffen says. “This opportunity to introduce boulders and other improvements really can make the river healthier.”

The project has not been without challenges. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, along with other regulatory agencies, will need to approve the project. Current river users, like anglers fishing in the river, will want to know that the project will not inhibit their current use of the river.

“Change fundamentally can be tough for some people,” Steffen says. “While we’ve heard from anglers who are concerned about the acres of good fishing holes, this [project] will actually add 80 acres of good fishing holes, not to mention it’ll provide an opportunity for more access to the river.”

More access to the river is exactly the focus of GR Forward’s River Corridor Plan, which works in tandem with the river restoration project. The plan focuses on repurposing “opportunity sites,” publicly and privately owned land along the river, into publicly accessible areas used for water management and recreation.

“The River Corridor Plan is looking to align what’s happening on the banks with what’s happening on the river,” says Tim Kelly, planning manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “It doesn’t make sense to do this great river restoration project if people can’t get to the water easily.”

Kelly views both the River Corridor Plan and the river restoration not only as methods to reinvigorate the city and provide added recreation, but as means to transform the city into something better.

“We really want to reorient the city so that it’s more of a waterfront city, because we think downtown and Grand Rapids can become a waterfront metropolis,” Kelly says. “For a hundred years or more, we’ve turned our back on the river and we want to recapture it and reknit it into the fabric of the entire city.”

Grand Rapids Whitewater, the organization spearheading the project, could not be reached for comment.

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