At its Thursday night meeting, the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission approved a resolution recommending that the city initiate removal of Argo Dam. It is the opposite advice given by the city’s Park Advisory Commission, which last week on a 5-4 vote recommended keeping the dam. City council will make the final decision, which is expected within the next two months.
At last week’s Park Advisory Commission meeting, 15 people spoke during the public comment period. Supporters of keeping the dam – many of them from local rowing clubs – outnumbered those in favor of removing it. The same number of people spoke at Thursday’s Environmental Commission meeting, but only six of the 15 speakers were in favor of keeping the dam. One of them, Sarah Rampton, explained that most rowers were out of town at a rowing competition in Canada. She said she had stayed behind, missing her daughter’s last regatta, because she felt she needed to advocate for keeping the dam.
But after an hour of public comment and more than two hours of debate, commissioners voted 8-4 to recommend removal of the dam, primarily citing environmental benefits of a free-flowing Huron River.
Much of the public comment mirrored themes and opinions presented at last week’s PAC meeting and several people spoke at both meetings. We won’t repeat that commentary here, except to note that one speaker on Thursday, Brenda Bentley, was a familiar face to The Chronicle, having just been interviewed about her new book, “Riverwalks Ann Arbor.” She cited her book at Thursday’s meeting, which describes walking paths that all lead to the river. Bentley urged the commission not to dismantle the dam, which would eliminate Argo Pond. She called the pond one of the city’s special assets with a long history in this community. “We humans love to look at a big body of water…It’s fun, it’s inspiring – don’t destroy that.”
Several speakers were affiliated with the Huron River Watershed Council, which has advocated removal of the dam. Laura Rubin, the group’s executive director, said that because of issues raised in the debate, they’ve called on scientists at the state and national levels to revisit the data: “Our reputation is at risk here.” She said she had sent their findings to commission members, and that they’ll be looking for more local data as well. [Opponents have argued that the situation at Argo is unique, and that data collected from dams located elsewhere aren't valid comparisons.] Rubin said that many other organizations support dam removal, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Washtenaw Audubon Society, the Huron River Flyfishing Club and the Huron River Paddlers.
David Stead, an environmental commissioner who also chaired the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) committee, started the discussion by thanking committee members who spent two and a half years drafting the plan. He said it represents a great step forward for the city in managing the Huron River, and emphasized that while the Argo Dam piece of the plan has received the most attention, it includes 30 other recommendations – many of them with significant impacts and cost implications. [The HRIMP committee made two recommendations regarding Argo Dam – one stating that the city should remove the dam, one stating that the dam should remain in place. In other words, on that point the committee could not come to consensus. Here's a link to the full report.]
Stead then read aloud a proposed resolution that recommended accepting the 30 HRIMP recommendations as well as a recommendation to remove Argo Dam. [Link to the .pdf file of the final resolution adopted by the commission, which includes only minor revisions from Stead's original draft.]
Carsten Hohnke, a city councilmember who sits on the Environmental Commission, thanked the committee for their detailed recommendations. He said that he and fellow councilmember Margie Teall, who also is on the Environmental Commission, wear multiple hats, but on that night their role – and the role of the commission – was to look at the environmental benefits of removing the damn versus leaving it in place. There are financial and recreational factors to consider, but for this discussion he said he was only looking at environmental factors. Many respected environmental groups have looked at the issue and recommend removal of the dam, Hohnke said, and he’s come to believe there are significant environmental benefits to taking that action. He proposed asking this question: If no dam were in place, would we build one? The answer is clearly no, he said.
Commissioner Kirk Westphal said the possibility of hydroelectric power was intriguing. [During public comment, Ron Woodman had spoken about how the Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System is looking into the possibility of building a low head hydroelectric system on the Huron River. "Head" refers to the pressure of falling water, which is linked to the distance that the water falls. "Low head" refers to a relatively short drop in elevation, usually less than 10 feet – i.e. not Niagara Falls.]
Westphal asked Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, for more information on the hydropower option. Naud said the VA had approached the city several months ago asking if the city would be interested in introducing hydropower at Argo Dam. The VA is moving ahead by doing a feasibility study with the Army Corps of Engineers, Naud said. He said the VA has funding for the project and isn’t concerned about getting a timely return on their investment, as the city would be. When asked why that’s the case, Naud explained that federal agencies like the VA are given incentives to both reduce their energy costs and to use renewable sources.
Westphal said that on a site-specific level, the information indicates that removal of Argo Dam would improve the ecology of the area. However, coming from an urban planning background, he said he takes a broader view and suggested that the commission itself could take that approach as well. One of his concerns is that rowers, if relocated to a different venue, would have to drive their cars a greater distance, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. He said that biodiversity includes the people who use the river. Like any urban amenity, he continued, natural features are sacrificed for the benefit of living in this kind of setting. The decision to remove Argo Dam is “not terribly clearcut for me on that wider angle,” he concluded.
Commissioner David Wright, who is also a member of the city’s Energy Commission, agreed with Westphal. While they wouldn’t build a dam there today, he allowed, the dam enjoys a long history. It generated hydropower in the past and could do the same in the future, he said. [The dam was used for hydropower by Detroit Edison until the early 1960s.] Wright reported that the Energy Commission wanted to learn more about a 2008 study that the city had conducted about potential hydropower at Argo and Geddes. That commission also is interested in the VA’s proposal, and will be developing its own recommendations to the city council regarding the HRIMP report and Argo Dam. He requested that a member of the Energy Commission be appointed to the River Stewardship Committee that Stead’s resolution recommends creating. [This was considered a friendly amendment, and added to the resolution.]
Proposed amendment: More studies before dam removal
Wright also suggested that instead of a recommendation that the dam be removed, perhaps they should simply ask that further studies be done.
Commissioner Valerie Strassberg said she agreed that the dam should be removed, but before that happened she wanted studies done about who uses Argo Pond and what types of revenues are generated, as well as investigating alternative forms of recreational use that might be available when the dam is removed.
Margie Teall was concerned about the amendment calling for additional studies, saying that the state Department of Environmental Quality wants a decision by July 31, and that’s the timeline that city council needs to follow. They can do studies to implement the plan, but first they need to decide what direction to take, she said.
Naud clarified that rather than spend money and staff time on studies that covered both dam removal and dam repair, the idea would be to pick a direction and then do studies related to that decision. If the studies resulted in information that caused council to change its course, they could go to DEQ and request a change, he said. He added that they could also ask DEQ for an extension on their decision, but it wasn’t clear if that would be granted.
Chris Graham, the commission’s vice-chair, asked Naud whether there was temporary action that could be taken to protect the dam from failing. Naud said there were no signs of failure for the dam – DEQ had simply asked that the toe drains be repaired. Graham asked if they could do anything to buy time from the DEQ. Naud replied that the DEQ had requested the toe-drain repair five years ago – they’d already bought five years of time.
Commissioner Gwen Nystuen, who is also a member of the city’s Park Advisory Commission and had voted for keeping the dam at last week’s PAC meeting, said her concern was that there’s very little information about the condition of the dam. There might be a low-cost way to repair it, she said. Naud reported that the city had budgeted $300,000 for repair.
Westphal suggested there might be middle ground – perhaps partially draining the millrace and repairing some of the toe drains. He wasn’t comfortable just recommending more studies.
Commissioner Rita Loch Caruso said that if they recommend further study, council would go ahead and make a decision without the commission’s input – they’d essentially be opting out of the process.
Returning to Strassberg’s proposed amendment, Stead said that the city’s parks staff already provided information about users – it would be redundant to ask for that information again, and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether the dam is removed. Strassberg disagreed, saying that she wanted the community that’s worried about dam removal – the rowers – to know there’d be a study done about post-dam options for them.
Responding to a question about the study of hydropower, Naud said the city looked at putting in hydropower systems at Argo and Geddes dams. The project would cost an estimated $4.5 million, and based on the amount of electricity and estimated revenues generated, it would take about 44 years to get a return on that investment, not including interest on a $4.5 million bond. Steve Bean, the commission’s chair, assessed that as a long payback period, especially for electricity usage. Lighting conversions for achieving energy efficiency, for example, have a 2-3 year payback, he said.
Wright stated that conditions could change that would affect the payback period for a hydropower system at Argo, including an increase in the price of electricity and implementation of a federal cap-and-trade program. He said it wasn’t the most efficient way to produce electricity, but the dam is in place and someone in the community – the VA – is interested in exploring the possibility. “It’s at least worth a look at before we move forward,” Wright said.
Outcome: Strassberg’s amendment failed – voting against it were Steve Bean, Rita Caruso, Anya Dale, Chris Graham, Carsten Hohnke, John Koupal, David Stead and Margie Teall.
Proposed amendment: Keep the dam
Westphal proposed his own amendment which reworked the resolution to recommend repairing the dam to meet DEQ standards. He proposed eliminating these two “Whereas” clauses:
Whereas, Many river ecologists in the region have supported a recommendation to remove three priority dams: the Mill Pond Dam and Impoundment in Dexter, Michigan, Argo Dam in Ann Arbor, and Peninsular Paper Dam in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Whereas, The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Fisheries Division, recommended the removal of these three dams as a key component in the rehabilitation of the Huron River (Fisheries Special Report, No. 16, Huron River Assessment, April 1995).
He proposed replacing those clauses with these six:
Whereas, the relocation of some recreational opportunities due to Argo Dam removal has the potential effect of generating higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions via greater transportation demands.
Whereas, the future pricing of electricity is uncertain.
Whereas, Argo Dam may represent an economically and ethically viable source of non-polluting energy at a future date, either for the City or in partnership with other entities.
Whereas, the Argo Impoundment currently provides for the greatest number of recreational trips of any segment of the Huron River in the City and, as such, constitutes a significant urban amenity near the downtown core.
Whereas, studies demonstrate that urban living (in which residential, employment and recreational opportunities are located in close proximity) has a significantly lower impact on the environment than non-urban living.
Whereas, the maintenance of the Argo Impoundment enhances the appeal of living in the City by providing a) a significantly larger total water area available for some recreational opportunities and b) a central location near the urban core for some recreational opportunities.
Finally, his amendment called for modifying the crucial “Resolved” clause in this way (additions noted in blue):
Resolved the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission recommends to the City Council that the Argo Dam is removed is repaired to meet MDEQ standards. Immediate studies should be conducted regarding options for compliance with MDEQ requirements. Further studies should also be conducted regarding potential hydroelectric opportunities. Several studies should be conducted prior to removing the dam including, but not limited to:
1. Sediment management,
2. Dam removal protocols,
3. Land reclamation strategies; and
4. Evaluation of user groups and resulting revenues.
Hohnke said that the price of electricity, referenced by Westphal’s second “Whereas” clause, is irrelevant to environmental considerations of the dam removal. He also took issue with the assumption that the impoundment, or pond, constitutes a greater urban amenity than a free-flowing river would. There may be a greater attraction for kayakers, canoeists and fisherman after the dam is removed, he contended. He said it was unclear whether rowers would have to travel farther to get to Argo than they would to get to Barton or Geddes – we don’t know where they live, so we don’t know where they’re coming from, he said. As for hydropower, Hohnke concluded that it’s already been studied, and if the VA decides to move forward with hydropower, that doesn’t have anything to do with the environmental impact of the dam, which is the commission’s responsibility.
Stead contended that Westphal’s “Whereas” clauses were suppositions, not facts.
Commissioner Gwen Nystuen noted that the Park Advisory Commission had voted 5-4 in favor of keeping the dam, because they felt that removal was disruptive and that there were options to repair the dam that cost significantly less. She also said that taking out Argo Dam did little to help the river, since there were dams on either side of that impoundment.
Graham said he saw the collision of three compelling public interests: 1) the environment – it’s true that dams damage the environment; 2) recreation – a decision to take out the dam is a decision to take rowing out of this community, and it’s a venerable sport; and 3) energy – someday, we could be in a position to have to scrap for all the energy we can get, he said. He recommended using the $300,000 to repair the dam, while continuing the discussion and trying to reach consensus on what to do next. (Stead responded later in the meeting that the HRIMP committee spent two and a half years trying to reach consensus on the issue, and couldn’t get there. “How many more years do you want to spend on this?” he asked. “I understand,” Graham replied, “but council’s going to have a hell of a whale on their hands.”)
Caruso argued that there were two stumbling blocks in Westphal’s proposal: 1) recreation, which is not in the commission’s mandate, and 2) hydropower. That second issue was being discussed, Caruso contended, as if generating electricity through hydropower trumps everything else, including environmental concerns. They wouldn’t build a dam today specifically to generate electricity, she said, and there are new ways of generating electricity that are starting to be developed. “The DEQ has recommended removal of the dam. I don’t think that’s been done frivolously.”
Strassberg brought up the issue of users again, and Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, came to the podium to address that issue. He said there’s great interest among kayakers and canoists in having a free-flowing river that wouldn’t require a portage. If there’s a decrease in users, it would come from “pond paddlers” who don’t want to canoe on the river, he said, but they could use Gallop Park as an alternative venue for pond paddling. Strassberg inquired about usage patterns of the park around Argo Pond, but Smith responded that they didn’t have any way of tracking that activity.
John Koupal, the commission’s newest member, said the commission’s charge was to look at environmental tradeoffs. He agreed with Hohnke that the amendment’s clauses about urban amenities and increased vehicle trips were speculative. Regarding hydropower, it didn’t seem to him that this would be the first place they should invest alternative energy dollars.
Wright responded to Caruso’s statement about hydropower seeming to trump environmental concerns. He noted that by that logic, they should remove all the dams. Caruso responded by saying that the issue is that Argo Dam isn’t functioning as it should – it’s a dysfunctional facility, and is it worth investing in to repair.
Hohnke said that he and his colleagues on council would be struggling with competing interests. He urged the commission to be as clear as possible in their assessment of environmental factors, noting that the city council would have the recommendation from the Park Advisory Commission that speaks to recreational issues, and the Energy Commission would give input on hydropower. The Environmental Commission dilutes its input if it includes assessments of recreational and energy uses, he said.
Westphal contended that having the impoundment at Argo and providing the rowing amenity is a way to encourage people to live in the city – and that has environmental impacts. He had serious doubts about the ability to relocate the rowing community. The ecological factors surrounding removal are real, he said, and the potential benefits are fairly subjective. The notion of payback on a hydroelectric system is an open question for him, he said. Fixing the dam could cost a lot less than $300,000 and they could always revisit its removal in the future. But if they take it out now, there’s no going back, he warned.
Bean said he wouldn’t be supporting the amendment. But he disagreed with Caruso that recreation wasn’t in the commission’s purview – one of their goals is to have a health-promoting urban environment, and use of the river fits into that. Hydropower also fits within the scope of the commission, he said. But he doesn’t expect the Huron River to support the community’s recreation and electricity needs. It’s a system – part of a watershed – and it’s been degraded, he explained. If they balanced the ecological quality of that system against its economics and recreational value, it’s clear they need to improve the ecology, Bean concluded. The other areas “are doing just fine,” he said.
Nystuen questioned Bean about other impoundments, noting that the HRIMP report calls for a free-flowing river. If they supported the original resolution, she wondered if that meant they should get rid of all the impoundments? Bean said it might be the case that in the future, the other impoundments would be removed. He also noted there are ways to improve the river’s ecology without removing impoundments, such as by adding fish passages to existing dams. But for the amendment under consideration, it’s not relevant, he said.
Outcome: Amendment failed, with Steve Bean, Rita Caruso, Anya Dale, Carsten Hohnke, John Koupal, David Stead, Valerie Strassberg and Margie Teall voting against it.
Graham offered a friendly amendment, which was accepted, that changed the resolution from “that the Argo Dam is removed” to “initiate activities to remove Argo Dam and to ensure that the dam not fail during that time period.” Naud emphasized that it’s not as though staff haven’t been paying attention to maintenance of the dam – it’s inspected regularly. “It is not like the Stadium bridge where we wait til the very end then beg for federal dollars to fix it.”
Strassberg again stated that she wanted to add an amendment that there be a detailed investigation of alternatives for rowing venues and a study of users and resultant revenue in the wake of dam removal. Hohnke said the HRIMP report includes a recommendation that alternatives for rowers be vigorously explored, and states explicitly that an alternative is desired – the amendment would be redundant. Naud said the process of removing the dam, which includes getting necessary permits from the DEQ, would take a while, and that they likely wouldn’t begin actual removal for at least a year. That would give them time to work on finding alternatives for the rowing community.
Outcome: The amendment failed on a voice vote.
At this point, 10:20 p.m., Graham asked, “Are we getting close to voting?” Bean said, “We’re getting closer.” After some additional discussion, a vote on the final resolution was taken a few minutes later.
Outcome: The resolution – which included the recommendation to initiate activities to remove the dam – was approved on an 8-4 vote, with Graham, Nystuen, Westphal and Wright dissenting.