After hearing residents passionately argue both sides of the issue at its Tuesday meeting, the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission voted 5 to 4 to recommend keeping Argo Dam in place.
The question of whether to remove or repair the dam has been debated for more than three years, with several hearings and public meetings. Now, the issue could be decided within the next month or so. The city’s Environmental Commission is expected to vote on its own recommendation at its May 28 meeting, with Ann Arbor’s city council ultimately deciding the issue, perhaps as early as June.
Most of the 15 people who spoke during PAC’s public comment time on Tuesday were in support of keeping Argo Dam, and some of those supporters – but not all – were part of the city’s rowing community. Many teams use Argo Pond for training, and say it’s by far the best place to practice that sport locally. Because rowers have been vocal advocates for keeping the dam, there was sensitivity on the part of some speakers as well as during deliberations amongst commissioners not to portray the dam as a rowers-vs.-everyone-else issue.
Public Comment: Summary
John Satarino began the public comment portion of the meeting by stating that he assumed the dam would stay, but he wanted PAC to consider the impact that rowers have on the ability of passive users, such as hikers, cyclists and picnickers, to enjoy Argo Pond. The bullhorns used during training and the motors to power the coach’s boats cut down on the enjoyment of non-rowers. The amount of activity on Argo Pond is butting up against nature, he said, and he’s worried about water quality and park quality.
Cedric Richner spoke in support of removing the dam, reiterating many of the points he made in a recent letter to the editor in the Ann Arbor News. Maintenance of the dam is costly, he said, while removing it would bring in more revenues for the city’s canoe livery because it would be more attractive to canoeists and kayakers who would no longer have to portage around the dam. He noted that just down the road, the village of Dexter successfully removed the Mill Pond Dam, following nationwide trends.
Paul Cousins, one of the main advocates behind removing the Mill Pond Dam, is also chair of the Huron River Watershed Council, which has pushed for the Argo Dam removal. Removing the dam in Dexter has been good for the creek, he told PAC. Fish have moved upstream, kayakers are now shooting the rapids that have been formed, and an entire new park system is being created. Cousins urged the commission to “do the right thing” and remove the dam.
Laura Rubin, Huron River Watershed Council’s executive director, said that taking out the dam would significantly improve the river. The dam is failing, she said – a point she made in an op/ed piece published in the Ann Arbor News earlier this month. She said when talking about the dam, you need to include all its parts, and some of those parts – such as the toe drains – are in serious disrepair. The choice is taking out the dam or replacing a huge part of it.
Some people who spoke in support of keeping the dam accused the Huron River Watershed Council of misrepresenting the condition of the dam. Mark Breeding, who described himself as a tree hugger, said the nonprofit’s rhetoric had become hysterical. Michele Macke took issue with the argument that removing the dam would restore the river to its natural state. That’s not possible, she said, since there are dams on either side of that stretch of river – at Barton and Geddes. ”I teach logic in high school. This is not a logical argument.”
Sarah Rampton, who brought to the podium some schematic maps of the dam, said she’d talked to Joe O’Neal, who designed the dam when it was rebuilt in the 1970s. Though the toe drains are failing, she said, there are ways to address that in the short-term that can be done cheaply and quickly. That will buy some time to come up with other alternatives.
Lisa Psarouthakis said that other parks have maintenance like cutting the grass or painting lines on the baseball field. Argo Pond is a rowers’ field, she said. It needs maintenance, just like other fields. The toe drains and embankment need to be fixed, but the city shouldn’t flush a jewel like Argo Pond downstream.
Mike Anthony, an engineer with the University of Michigan and member of the National Electric Code committee, urged PAC to explore the availability of homeland security funds for hydropower, as part of a countywide power security program. He said the issue of emergency regional power security should be part of the discussion about Argo Dam.
Rich Griffith, head coach of the Ann Arbor Pioneer crew team, said he’d already spoken at other meetings about the reasons to keep Argo Dam. Instead, this time he wanted to talk about some of the accomplishments of the rowing teams. Among them, last weekend the women’s varsity eight team and the men’s varsity four team won state championships against 19 other schools. He said the rowers have been quietly making Ann Arbor proud, and are a hidden gem.
Griffith concluded by saying, ”I am on the Argo impoundment nearly every day for half the year. It is my office. It is where I earn my living … I have tremendous respect for it. I know its birds, its fish, its critters. I can tell you where the swans nest, where the herons perch, where the vegetation and stumps lurk, and where the fish like to jump. It is not dying, or in need of rescue. It simply is what it is, a fine and beautiful impoundment, enjoyed and respected by man and nature alike.”
Linda Berauer, PAC’s chair, said this was the single most difficult decision she’s faced on the more than five years that she’s served on the commission. She noted that they’d done a lot of homework on the issue, citing a recent joint public hearing with the city’s Environmental Commission as well as a PAC working session devoted to the topic. [More information about the multi-year process of evaluating Argo, including the final report of the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), is on the city's State of Our Environment website.]
Several commissioners had questions for staff, which were fielded primarily by Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator.
Sam Offen followed up on Mike Anthony’s remarks made during the public comment session. Offen wanted Naud to comment on the homeland security issues raised by Anthony, and whether funding would be available to provide hydroelectric power from the dam. Naud said the National Electric Code is being modified to require that municipalities be able to run on backup power for 72 hours. He said Consumers Energy estimated that hydropower from Argo could generate about $100,000 in revenues per year, but at that rate it would take 40 years to recoup the cost of building a power-generator on Argo. Naud said he wouldn’t recommend keeping Argo Dam simply because of hydropower, but that if they voted to keep the dam, they could explore the use of hyrdopower.
Berauer said she was interested in comments by the speaker (Rampton) who suggested they could buy time by making some cheap, quick repairs. That was appealing because it would allow them time to gather more information and data, Berauer said. But was the suggestion of closing the millrace practical, she asked, and what would that do to canoe portage? The short answer: It’s doable, but costly, and would require extending the portage about five times its current length.
Commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked for clarification about what would happen if the toe drains aren’t repaired. Naud said the 60 drains are a way for water to get out of the embankment. When they get clogged, the embankment could get saturated, creating erodible surfaces. It becomes a hazard when that eventually causes the dam to erode, too.
Berauer said she’d received an email from someone claiming that Argo Dam mitigated flooding, and she didn’t believe that was the case. Naud confirmed that it was not – the dams aren’t for flood control.
Commissioner John Lawter asked what would happen to the Argo canoe livery if the dam was removed. Cheryl Saam, supervisor for the liveries, said they’d consider putting a livery just below Barton Dam, and because the river stretch would be longer with some rapids, they’d anticipate an increase in use and revenues.
Following questions for the staff, the commission considered two resolutions:
- a resolution put forward by David Barrett and Gwen Nystuen, which resolved to accept the proposals in the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan report and “accept the course of action for Argo dam that retains Argo Dam and Argo Pond with the repair of the toe drains in the embankment below the dam with BMP flow controls, and appropriate design of the water supply to the headrace, and plan to create a water bypass or suitable portage for canoes and kayaks.”
- a resolution by Brigit Macomber and Scott Rosencrans, which “concurs with the findings of the HRIMP report in every other respect” but which, noting that the report did not make a specific recommendation regarding the dam, called for its removal.
Barrett said Argo Dam is not failing – the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) wants the city to repair the toe drains. The environmental case for removal of the dam was not commensurate with the cost, he said. And he noted that just because one constituency (the rowing community) had been quite vocal, that doesn’t mean they’re the only group that benefits from Argo Pond. There’s a larger group that supports the current environment of the pond, too, he said.
Nystuen said they keep getting new information and additional questions that need to be answered, including some related to the impact of sedimentation, vegetation and fisheries. Removing the dam would be costly, she added, at a time when the budget is tight.
Lawter said he knows that people complain about the rowers, but he finds that kind of activity on the pond energizing. How many cities can claim to have something like that so close to their downtown?
Commissioner Julie Grand said she struggled with this issue, but ultimately came down on the side of keeping the dam in place.
The resolution drafted by Macomber and Rosencrans stated that removal of the dam would improve the natural habitat and overall ecology of that stretch of Huron River. It also stated that before the dam could be removed, alternatives for the rowing community would need to be found.
Macomber agreed that it was a difficult decision. She said she’s a daily or weekly visitor to Argo, where she walks, bikes and kayaks. It’s a beautiful area, but a natural river would be equally beautiful. Another factor is the issue of creating a safe passage across the railroad tracks at the north end of Bandemer Park. Right now, an option that’s too expensive to pursue is to build an underground passage. But if the dam is removed, the water level would drop so that a boardwalk could be built under the train tressel, similar to one at Barton Dam – and it would be significantly less expensive to build.
Commissioner Tim Berla began his comments by saying he hoped everyone could remember that they all cared about the Huron River, no matter which side they were on in this debate. The people who want to keep the dam are not anti-environmental, just as the people who want to remove the dam aren’t anti-rowing. Well, he conceded, maybe some of them are – but not all. He said if rowing weren’t involved, it would be an easy decision for him – take the dam out. He cited three issues: recreation, environment and money. For recreation, it was better to leave the dam in because of the rowers. However, it would be better for the environment if the dam were removed. That left the financial issue – and it would be more expensive over the next 20 years to leave the dam in than to remove it now.
Berauer said she was very attached to Argo Pond, and that this had been a difficult decision. After one of the meetings on this issue, she’d driven out to Dexter to see how the area looked after the Mill Pond Dam had been removed. She expected to see “dreadful mudflats,” she said, but the area was beautiful. She said it’s important to recognize that they support the rowing community, but that she’d been convinced there were other options for them. She thought the idea of having whitewater in town was cool, and that they’d heard from staff that canoeing would be enhanced by the dam’s removal. Overall, recreational activities with or without the dam would be roughly equivalent.
Offen said he’d be comfortable with either decision, and that he was disappointed with the HRIMP committee because they didn’t make a recommendation about Argo Dam. He thought that after studying the issue for two years, they should have come to a definite conclusion. He said he wasn’t convinced that taking the dam out would make much of a difference, so he planned to vote for the option that would do the least harm, which meant leaving things as is. Another factor: they were coming at it from the perspective of parks and recreation, which tipped the balance toward keeping the dam.
As commissioners stated their positions, it became clear that the resolution to keep the dam had enough votes to pass. There was some discussion about whether to postpone the vote for two weeks, giving PAC members time to craft a document incorporating elements from both resolutions. They could then vote during the June 2 meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee, which is a group consisting of all members of the commission. Christopher Taylor, who’s one of city council’s ex-officio representatives to PAC, pointed out that all voting members were at the current meeting, which might not be the case in two weeks and which could therefore affect the outcome of the vote.
As the meeting approached the three-hour mark, Grand – saying that her husband was out of town and she needed to get home to her kids – made a motion to vote on the “dam-in” resolution [.pdf draft resolution adopted by PAC]. Macomber offered an amendment extracted from the dam-out resolution [.pdf draft resolution recommending dam removal]. The amendment, which was unanimously approved, states:
Whereas, Argo Pond is difficult for non-rowers to use when the rowing crews are practicing or racing due to marine right of way rules given the rowers the right of way through the majority of the non weed invested waters on the pond, and
Whereas the rowing clubs have multiple boats that require megaphone use for coaching, the sound of which carries across the Pond and into surrounding neighborhoods, and
Whereas the rowing clubs use gasoline motored launches to coach crew boats which are known to regularly violate the “no wake” impoundment rule,
Resolved that the Park Advisory Commission recommends that as long as there are rowing clubs using impoundments within the city’s purview for their activities that the new River Stewardship Committee, as proposed in the HRIMP recommendations, formulate an appropriate fee structure, shared use plan and schedule, and set a deadline for all megaphone use to be phased out. Such a body should also work to formulate a coaching strategy that will not entail violations of the “no wake” impoundment rule.
The amended resolution was then passed on a 5-4 roll call vote. Voting in favor: Barrett, Grand, Lawter, Offen and Nystuen. Voting against: Berauer, Berla, Macomber and Rosencrans.
Berauer, Macomber and Rosencrans plan to draft a “minority opinion” to submit to council, outlining their rationale for wanting to remove the dam.