Four entities – including the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the local Huron River Watershed Council – have filed letters of objection with the state of Michigan to a project that would add a recreational section of whitewater along the Huron River, next to the new Argo Cascades.
Colin Smith, Ann Arbor’s parks and recreation manager, informed the park advisory commissioners about the opposition at PAC’s Sept. 18, 2012 meeting, describing the news as “not especially positive.” Other letters filed against the project were from the state Dept. of Natural Resources fisheries division and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The project requires a permit from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) because it affects the Huron River, a state waterway. The project was originally approved by the Ann Arbor city council in 2010, as part of a larger effort that included building the Argo Dam bypass, which wrapped up earlier this year. Subsequent to that council approval, DTE Energy offered to pay for and oversee the whitewater aspect, to coordinate it with environmental remediation work that’s taking place on property it owns along that stretch of the river, just downstream of Argo Dam.
DTE is the applicant for the whitewater permit, although the company is working closely with the city on the project. The city is interested in acquiring the DTE property along the Huron after remediation is completed – and it’s hoped that the company might gift it to the city as a park.
Smith told PAC members that the EPA objection – because it comes from a federal environmental oversight agency – has triggered a process that might stop the project. The EPA filed its letter on Aug. 15. From that date, the MDEQ has 90 days [until Nov. 13] to resolve the EPA’s concerns with the applicant.
The EPA’s letter from Tinka Hyde, director of the agency’s water division, states that the project could significantly degrade the Huron River by inhibiting fish passage and increasing the water velocity, which in turn could affect sediment flow and degrade the stability of that section of the river. Another concern cited is that the project could constrain public use of the river. Because of these issues, the EPA believes the project does not comply with the federal Clean Water Act. [.pdf of EPA letter]
Similar concerns were cited in the other letters of objection. Additional issues raised include water quality concerns that could affect the health of those using the whitewater area, who might come in contact with E.coli in the river; and exacerbated flow problems during drought periods. [U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services letter] [DNR fisheries division letter and additional attachments] [HRWC letter]
The DNR fisheries letter – signed by Jeffery Braunscheidel, senior fisheries biologist – also alludes to the contentious “dam in/dam out” debate involving Argo Dam. Structures used to create the whitewater are in essence dams, he stated, and the division does not support new dam construction. “Planning should provide for a naturally functioning system below Argo Dam as history has made clear that, at some point in time, the Argo Dam will be modified or removed. Impediments should not be constructed in the river that the public will again be asked to address.”
But it’s the EPA’s objection that carries the most weight. If the EPA does not withdraw its objection and the MDEQ still decides to grant the permit, then DTE would also need to seek a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the project can move forward.
At PAC’s Sept. 18 meeting, Smith told commissioners that the EPA letter was “somewhat surprising.” It’s unusual for the federal agency to weigh in on a relatively small project like this. He did not speculate on why the EPA got involved, but said that staff with the city and DTE had met with MDEQ earlier in the day to make sure they understood the objections. The design had already been modified to respond to concerns that the MDEQ had previously raised, he said, adding that the staff will try to do everything they can to move the project forward.
The objections from the Huron River Watershed Council are less surprising. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit, which works to protect and improve the Huron River and its tributaries, was an advocate for removing the Argo Dam when that issue was debated by city council in 2009. [Background on that topic is included in Chronicle coverage: "Planning Group Revisits Huron River Report."]
Part of the context for the dam in/dam out question related to MDEQ’s concerns about toe drains in the earthen embankment adjacent to the concrete and steel dam, which separates the headrace from the river. The dispute with the state over how to deal with the toe drains at Argo Dam was ultimately resolved when the city council approved a $1,168,170 project at its Nov. 15, 2010 meeting to build a bypass that replaced the headrace and eliminated the portage previously required by canoeists and kayakers. That project – the Argo Cascades – was finished earlier this year.
The $1.168 million included $180,000 for the whitewater feature, to be designed by Gary Lacy of Boulder, Colo., and built by TSP Environmental, a Livonia firm – the team that designed and built the Argo Cascades.
In mid-2011, DTE proposed paying for the project but delaying its construction until after the company finished remediating the land next to the Huron River immediately across from the cascades, on the south side of the river. DTE had hoped to secure a permit for the whitewater project this summer. It has already begun environmental remediation work at the site.
The letter of objection from HRWC is signed by its executive director, Laura Rubin, and deputy director Elizabeth Riggs. The letter raises a range of concerns, including the project’s affect on flow rate. From the letter:
The documented flow problems at Argo Dam and the Argo Cascades … during a low flow period highlight, at best, the challenges of multiple-use resource management and, at worst, the desiccation of Michigan rivers when recreational use is prioritized at the expense of other uses, namely shared natural resources. This problem will be exacerbated if the proposed structures are built . Moreover, a likely unintended consequence of the structures being built will be City leaders and staff finding they have to choose one whitewater feature over the other when flows are insufficient to keep both recreation features open.
For Chronicle coverage of the flow-rate issue, see ”How Low Can Argo Flow Go?”
The majority of concerns cited in the HRWC letter relate to potential problems caused by the installation of two structures in the river that are necessary to create the whitewater effect. From the letter:
1. Whitewater structures can impact stream hydrology and hydraulics. Low-flow dams/weirs incorporated into certain whitewater structures reduce channel width by up to 90 percent, creating velocity barriers to organism passage and potentially increasing shear stress on down stream bed and banks.
2. These narrow weirs can create stagnant pools that strand aquatic organisms and raise water temperature.
3. Many whitewater structures are ” low head” dams and have similar effects of a low head dam. Dams interfere with sediment transport by creating sediment deposition zones in the pools between structures, which in turn may eliminate preferred fish habitat, interfere with down stream drifting of macroinvertebrates, and lower dissolved oxygen concentrations. Whitewater structures may also interfere with the transport of small and large organic materials. Organic material transport plays a crucial role in stream health, from fallen leaves that are food for macroinvertebrates to large woody debris that provides sediment retention in stream channels and cover for fish.
4. Whitewater structures can create passage barriers or stranding hazards for fish and other aquatic organisms due to a combination of high water velocities, inadequate water depths, high vertical drops, turbulence, and lack of space for resting cover. The measured velocities over current white water structures are greater than the known velocity capabilities of most of the native fish species present in Michigan rivers.
5. The porous streambed and banks in rivers are essential habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates – macroinvertebrates such as the state threatened freshwater mussel species that was positively identified in this section of the Huron River on July 25, 2012 by ecologists with the University of Michigan and HRWC. Additionally, this habitat functions to exchange water between the ground and river, assist in nutrient and carbon assimilation, and moderate river temperatures. Grouted whitewater structures eliminate habitats in the spaces between rocks and block the interplay between the river, land, and groundwater.
6. The proposed whitewater structures include large rocks, benches, terraces, or viewing platforms, which can displace riparian vegetation. Riparian vegetation contributes to the health of the river by providing shade, bank stabilization, large woody debris, and habitat for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Riparian vegetation also improves water quality by removing excess nutrients, preventing sedimentation from bank erosion, and lowering water temperature. Whitewater structures also increase the amount of rock in the stream or riparian corridor, which can increase water temperatures.
Upon receiving news from Smith about the letters of objection, park commissioners had only a few clarificational questions, though several members spoke to him about it immediately after the meeting adjourned. PAC had previously recommended approval of the whitewater feature, as part of the overall dam bypass project. That vote took place in October 2010 – there has been considerable turnover on the commission since that time.
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