PAC Recommends Argo Dam Bypass

Dam in/dam out debate revived during public commentary

Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Oct. 19, 2010): Though the proposal facing park advisory commissioners wasn’t directly related to the question of whether to keep or remove Argo Dam, PAC heard from nearly a dozen people during public commentary who aired their views on that topic.

John Lawter, Dave Barrett

Dave Barrett, right, talks with fellow park advisory commissioner John Lawter prior to the start of PAC’s Oct. 19 meeting. Barrett represented PAC on a selection committee that recommended reconstruction of the Argo Dam headrace and embankment. (Photos by the writer.)

The resolution that PAC ultimately approved was a recommendation to build a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace for $988,170, and to add whitewater features for an additional $180,000. The $1,168,170 project would be designed by Gary Lacy of Boulder, Colo., and built by TSP Environmental, a Livonia firm.

City staff said this was the only proposal submitted that met the requirements laid out in the city’s request for proposals (RFP). The plan calls for removing the canoe portage, replacing it with a series of “drop pools” so that no portage is required. The project will also improve accessibility of the path – which is part of Washtenaw County’s Border-to-Border trail – and address problems in the headrace embankment that were identified by state officials. The work is tied to a consent agreement that the city reached with the state in May, laying out steps that the city must take to deal with some long-outstanding structural issues.

Commissioner Tim Berla voted against the resolution, calling it a “protest vote” because removal of Argo Dam hadn’t been considered as an option – that same point was made by several speakers during public commentary. Park staff has indicated that this project doesn’t preclude removing Argo Dam in the future, if that’s a decision that the community makes.

Funding for the project is available from the city’s Parks Rehabilitation & Development millage and the drinking water fund, according to city staff. An additional $50,000 might be available from the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, to help pay for a portion of the project related to the county’s Border-to-Border trail.

Several people – both commissioners and speakers during public commentary – questioned the appropriateness of using the water fund for this purpose, saying that Argo dam has nothing to do with drinking water. Local attorney Scott Munzel argued that using the water fund to pay for dam-related projects might be illegal, based on case law, because it’s being used as a way to skirt the Headlee Amendment. Munzel is a board member of the Huron River Watershed Council, which has lobbied vigorously to remove the dam for environmental reasons.

The proposal for reconstruction of the headrace and embankment will now be forwarded to city council.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, PAC members heard an update from parks staff about this season’s activities at the city’s three outdoor public pools – at Buhr, Fuller and Veterans Memorial parks. The former supervisor for Buhr Park Pool, Gayle LaVictoire, also gave a brief presentation to commissioners about her new job as volunteer outreach coordinator for the parks system, a newly created position.

And at the end of the meeting, Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, announced that the Ann Arbor Senior Center received more residents’ votes than other city facilities in a recent contest sponsored by Stonyfield Farm, and will receive $15,000 from that firm.

Argo Dam Bypass

The boardroom at the Washtenaw County administration building, where PAC typically holds its monthly meetings, was crowded with people on Tuesday, several of whom spoke during time set aside for public commentary. Councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Margie Teall (Ward 4) also attended the meeting, as did Steve Bean, an independent mayoral candidate and chair of the city’s environmental commission. None of them spoke during public commentary. Two additional councilmembers – Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Christopher Tayler (Ward 3) – serve as ex-officio, non-voting members of PAC. Both attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Argo Dam: Public Commentary

Ten people spoke during public commentary about Argo Dam, most of them revisiting the debate over whether to remove the dam or keep it in place. Here’s a sampling of the comments.

Marta Manildi said she was speaking of behalf of herself and her husband, Paul Courant. [Manildi, a local attorney, is a board member of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. Courant is the University of Michigan librarian and dean of libraries.] Manildi they were very concerned about the proposed funding sources for the headrace reconstruction. The fact that funds previously allocated for emerald ash borer replacement and drinking water are available for the reconstruction means that she can’t count on PAC or the city to spend money in the manner that taxpayers are told it will be spent. She’ll take that into account when she’s asked to vote for future millages, she said. [Parks and recreation manager Colin Smith addressed this issue later in the meeting.]

Secondly, Manildi noted, there’s been no real cost analysis for the project, and no comparison to the cost of dam removal. There’d be many benefits to removing the dam, she said, including recreational benefits. Manildi also contended that it’s disingenuous to say that the dam could be removed in the future, even if the reconstruction project moves forward – that possibility is stated in a staff memo about the project. She said the city doesn’t have the resources to spend a million dollars on reconstruction now, then another million on dam removal later. Finally, Manildi said there is a group of very serious and concerned citizens who are interested in dam removal – they need to be included in the discussion in ways that so far they haven’t been, she concluded.

Don Gray, a University of Michigan professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, described the challenges of containing the Huron River if the dam is removed. [He wrote an essay about the same topic, published in the Stormwater Journal earlier this year, as well as other publications.] With the dam in place, the river makes a sharp 90-degree bend, away from its original channel. If the dam were removed, Gray said, the momentum of the river would be to return to that natural channel, which is now a contaminated DTE site, he said. In addition to the cost of removing the dam, there would be significant engineering and bank protection measures required, which won’t come cheaply, he said.

John Rubin said he was speaking out of frustration that dam removal wasn’t part of the deliberations. It seems that federal subsidies for dam removal haven’t been explored, and that staff have been told explicitly not to consider dam removal. It’s especially disheartening since the cost of repairing the toe drains came in three times higher than expected. Let’s put dam removal costs to the test, he said. Rubin asked PAC to get a cost estimate for dam removal and see whether federal funds might be available to pay for it. He also urged them to stop paying for the costs of Argo Dam out of the water fund – pay for it out of the parks recreation budget, he said, so that the costs for supporting rowing can be weighed against other uses.

Eric Boyd said he doesn’t have strong views on the dam in/dam out debate, but he is an advocate for the Border-to-Border Trail. Decisions about the dam and millrace will affect the trail, which runs along the top of the embankment. Whatever decision is made, they should remember that the trail is a key recreational asset. If the dam is kept, will the city pave the path along the millrace embankment? If the dam is taken out, will they build a pedestrian bridge? He noted that other counties have more extensive non-motorized trails.

John Russell recalled that in 1968, floods decimated four dams along the Huron River, including Argo. So a discussion was held about whether to rebuild the dam – it’s the same discussion they’re having today, he said. At the time, the Huron River Watershed Council supported rebuilding the dam, making it a recreational facility. Contentions that the dam is falling apart now are completely false, he said. When rebuilt, it was connected to the railroad embankment, rendering the millrace obsolete. Further, studies show that the dam does little to harm Huron River. He concluded that there were no environmental or engineering reasons to remove the dam. Why is the millrace relevant to the dam at all? he asked. If it’s not relevant, why pay to repair the toe drains? He said he suspected there’d been a lot of behind-the-scenes lobbying with the MDEQ (the former Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, now the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment). He said he favored keeping the dam.

Scott Munzel identified himself as a Ward 5 resident and a board member of the Huron River Watershed Council. The council supports the use of the river by all residents, including rowers, he said. But recreational uses must be balanced with other uses for city resources, and with the long-term environmental health of the river. He urged PAC to recommend studying the cost of dam removal and how it would impact the river. Munzel said that the original estimate for repairing the toe drains was $300,000, but the bids have come in at three times that amount.

Now they know that the cost of repairing the toe drains is nearly the same as for dam removal, he said. There is no question that dam removal would be better for the environment, Munzel said. It’s ironic to spend money on reconstructing the millrace when removing the dam would achieve the same effect. So the city is essentially spending money that results in environmental degradation, he said. Munzel also pointed out that using money from the city’s drinking water fund to pay for parks and recreation projects is improper, if not illegal, according to certain case law – it skirts the Headlee Amendment.

Joe ONeal, Donald Gray

Joe O’Neal, left, and Donald Gray spoke during public commentary at the Oct. 19 meeting of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, opposing removal of Argo Dam. O’Neal’s company rebuilt Argo Dam in 1972.

Joe O’Neal told commissioners that when his firm built Argo Dam in 1972, little did he know they’d be having these conversations today. He said that he’s the one who gave the original $300,000 to $500,000 estimates for toe drain repairs, but those estimates are based on very different work than what the current proposal entails, he said. [Parks staff later clarified that among other things, the new scope of work included a vegetation management plan for the embankment.]

O’Neal said if they wanted to do some value engineering on the project, no doubt the costs could come down. O’Neal observed that the discussion had become about whether or not to remove the dam, and he recalled that about four weeks ago he was summoned to the Depot Street area where they’d had a “little flood, to the tune of about 18 inches of water,” he said. “If you think you have a problem on Depot Street now, wait til the dam is not there.” The dam is doing a good job for the city now, he concluded, and if there’s a budget problem, it can be solved.

Argo Dam: Staff Report

Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, and Molly Wade, the city’s water treatment services manager, gave a joint presentation about the options being considered by PAC.

Wade began by reminding commissioners that they’d been briefed about the options at their July 2010 meeting. [See Chronicle coverage: "Two Dam Options for Argo" – the article includes an extensive timeline and links to previous coverage.] PAC member Dave Barrett was selected to serve on the project selection committee, which also included Wade, Smith and several other city staff members. Wade said the city’s environmental commission was asked to select a representative for the committee, but they declined.

She gave a refresher on recent history related to the dam, noting that in August of 2009 the state issued a dam safety order to the city, with several deadlines that the city needed to meet in addressing problems with the dam, as well as an order to immediately close the headrace. The city closed the headrace in November but contested the order – negotiations with the state resulted in a consent agreement that was signed in May of 2010. [.pdf file of consent agreement]

The agreement allowed the city to reopen the headrace for this past summer season, which allowed the city’s livery to operate, with canoeists and kayakers continuing down the Huron River south of Argo. The stop log was reinstalled last week and the headrace is now closed again, she said. It will remain closed until the deficiencies identified by the state are resolved.

If they wants to keep the headrace open, the city has two options, Wade said. The first option is that the city could repair the toe drains in the embankment, and develop a plan to manage trees and other vegetation on the embankment. The city then would reopen the headrace for canoes and kayaks. It would not change the headrace or embankment trail, and operations at the Argo livery would be unchanged.

The second option would be to reconstruct the headrace and embankment. The scope of the request for proposals (RFP) for this option included connecting the headrace to the river and removing the existing portage, improving the Border-to-Border Trail, repairing any remaining toe drains, developing a vegetation management plan, and giving some options for recreational amenities.

Wade handed off the presentation to Smith, and he described existing conditions on the headrace and portage area. He showed commissioners several photos of the area being used during the summer, noting that about 16,000 trips every season start at Argo and end at Gallup Park, which also has a canoe livery. To do that, canoeists have to portage their 85-pound canoes down a difficult slope, about a quarter-mile into their trip. On busy days, there’s a backup of canoeists and kayakers. “In a sense, we have a traffic jam on the river shortly after starting the trip to Gallup,” Smith said. Canoes are often dropped, causing damage. And the livery staff report that many people say they can’t make the trip because of the difficulty of the portage.

Smith also described trail conditions along the embankment, noting that it’s one of the few stretches of the 35-mile Border-to-Border Trail that’s neither paved nor ADA compliant. It’s essentially a single-file path, very near the river. Improvements would have to be made there regardless of other action, he said. If it’s done in conjunction with other work, he added, there are opportunities for savings through economies of scale.

Wade then described the city’s options in greater detail.

The city has an option to do nothing, in which case the headrace would be closed permanently, according to conditions of the consent agreement. That would result in a dramatic change to the city’s canoe livery operation, and an estimated loss of $75,000 in revenue annually, Wade said. She noted that 94% of the 24,000 canoe trips taken from the city’s canoe liveries start at either Barton or Argo, and end at Gallup. It would close this popular route, and create even more crowded conditions on Argo Pond, she said.

The second option would be to repair the toe drains. It addresses the consent agreement, and the headrace would remain open. There would be no accessibility improvements for boaters or trail users, she said. For this option, the city received three bids, ranging from $707,300 to $829,150. Wade addressed the question about why these bids are so much higher than the original $300,000 estimate, saying that the estimate was made in 2005 and didn’t include any vegetation management of the embankment – a state requirement.

A rendering of the proposed Argo headrace reconstruction

This rendering shows the proposed Argo headrace reconstruction, eliminating the need for portage by creating a series of connected pools from Argo Pond to the river. A whitewater recreational area is included in the design, near the exit onto the river. (Links to larger image)

The third option, which the selection committee recommended, is reconstruction of the headrace and embankment. The city received two responses to its RFP for this option, but only one of them addressed the scope of the project, Wade said. TSP Environmental, a Livonia firm, would work with Gary Lacy, a consultant from Boulder, Colo., to design and build a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace for $988,170. In addition to meeting the requirements of the consent agreement, it would improve ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility by removing the portage, and would make the trail more accessible as well. The city would expect to see increased use of the Argo canoe livery, thereby increasing revenues – as much as $30,000 per season, Wade said. In addition, maintenance costs for upkeep of the toe drains would decrease. The proposal also included an option of adding a section of whitewater – the “recreational amenity” – for an additional $180,000.

Smith then gave a more detailed description of the proposal, saying that the headrace would become a series of connected pools that would flow from Argo Pond down to the river – removing the need to portage. The trail on the embankment would be widened and paved, making it more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists.

Smith outlined several possible funding sources for the reconstruction project:

  • $683,000 is available from the city’s Parks Rehabilitation & Development millage. A few years ago, Smith said, about $1.4 million had been transferred out of the millage fund into a fund to remove trees affected by the emerald ash borer – a project completed in July 2010. The remaining $683,000 is now available for other projects. An additional $195,000 is available from the same millage, which has been earmarked for improvement of river parks.
  • $300,000 is available from the city’s water fund to repair the toe drains.
  • $50,000 might be available from the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, to help pay for a portion of the project related to the county’s Border-to-Border trail.

Not counting the county funds, $1.178 million is available for the project. The selection committee was unanimous in selecting this third option, Smith reported. They saw little price differential between this one and the cost of just repairing the toe drains. That, coupled with all of the other improvements they would gain, caused them to settle on reconstruction, he said.

Smith also noted that if the Argo Dam is removed in the future, the bypass would be essential for novice canoeists and kayakers – assuming that the dam removal would result in faster-flowing conditions on the river. [Possible removal of the dam has been a controversial issue, and one that city council has never acted on. At PAC's July 20, 2010 meeting, commissioner Tim Berla called out the city council for not taking a vote on the dam-in/dam-out question. He said that by not voting, the council essentially made a back-door decision not to remove the dam.]

Smith said that staff was asked to look at options that comply with the consent agreement – that’s why they didn’t look at the option of dam removal. If the community decides it wants to remove the dam, these designs could be incorporated into a dam-out design, he said.

Gary Lacy

Gary Lacy, a consultant from Boulder, Colo., designed the proposal to reconstruct the headrace and embankment at Argo Dam.

The project’s designer, Gary Lacy, came up to the podium to describe similar projects he’s worked on in other communities, showing slides of designs on the Platte River in Casper, Wyoming; the Arkansas River in Salida, Colo.; the Truckee River in Reno, Nev.; Clear Creek in Golden, Colo.; and Bear River in Petoskey, Mich. Each design aims to create accessible areas that fit into the natural environment, he said. The projects are extremely successful from an economic standpoint, he said – as gathering places, they become “economic generators” for the community.

Lacy noted that the culvert entrance to the headrace at Argo is narrow and low – 10-feet wide, with about a 4-foot clearance. They’ve talked about replacing that with a larger archway, he said. Beyond that, they’d build a series of connected pools that would gradually drop from the higher elevation of Argo Pond down to the exit into Huron River. This channel would be designed to accommodate novice paddlers, he said. No portage would be required.

The whitewater feature would be on the Huron River, slightly upstream from the channel’s exit into the river – if you didn’t want to enter the whitewater, you’d simply continue downstream on the river. Christopher Taylor later clarified that the whitewater area wasn’t something that you traverse. Rather, it’s something to “wallow” in – “a water court in which I frolic,” Taylor quipped.

The embankment would be lowered and flattened, and dirt from that part of the project would be used to shape the channel’s pools. A wider path would then be constructed on the embankment. Lacy said that if the city later decided to remove the dam, the reconstruction project would only need slight modifications, to match the new level of the river.

Argo Dam: Drinking Water Fund Background

The concern expressed during public commentary and by commissioners about the funding of dam maintenance out of the city’s drinking water fund has a long history. From previous Chronicle reporting, here’s a summary:

Through the fall of 2009 and during the early 2010, budget meetings held by the council, councilmembers and staff gave indications that a change would be made for the FY 2011 budget – which was adopted in May – to fund the Argo Dam maintenance out of the city’s parks budget. The motivation behind the change was that the dam serves a recreational function, not a drinking water function.

From the Nov. 5, 2009 city council meeting:

Later in the meeting after [Ward 4 councilmember Margie] Teall arrived, she got clarification that the money for the attorney fees would be paid out of the fund that pays for maintenance and operation of the city’s dams – the water fund. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) asked where the money in the fund came from. City administrator Roger Fraser explained that it came from the sale of water – that is, from residents’ water bills.

Fraser indicated that while there’d been discussion of putting the maintenance and operation of Geddes and Argo dams into the parks and recreation budget instead of the water fund, at this time it was the water fund that currently supported those dams. The maintenance and operation of those dams is built into the fee structure for water, he said. In response to a question from Higgins, he allowed that changing the funding to the parks and recreation budget should have an effect – how much was hard to say – on calculating the water rate structure.

At the council’s Nov. 16, 2009 meeting, a resolution to accept the Huron River Impoundment Management Plan was postponed to the Dec. 7 meeting. It included an explicit recommendation to move dam maintenance funding out of the water fund:

RESOLVED, The Ann Arbor City Council recommends that operation and maintenance of the recreational dams (Argo and Geddes) not be funded from the Drinking Water Enterprise Fund; and

RESOLVED, The Ann Arbor City Council recommends that funds currently used for the operation and maintenance of the recreational dams from the Drinking Water Enterprise Fund be reallocated to implement the Source Water Protection Plan to protect Ann Arbor’s Drinking Water.

The HRIMP report was ultimately remanded back to the city’s park advisory commission and the environmental commission at the council’s Dec. 7, 2009 meeting, but the resolution language on shifting funding of the dam maintenance out of the water fund was removed. From The Chronicle’s report [emphasis added]:

In the course of the meeting, when Hohnke’s amendment removed mention of the funding shift, mayor John Hieftje stressed that the intent to shift dam maintenance funding out of the water fund to parks and recreation was part of the budgeting plan for FY 2011. The reasons why it’s a potential legal problem to fund dam maintenance out of the drinking water fund were explored to some extent at the council’s caucus the night before.

The previous night’s caucus had included remarks from local attorney Scott Munzel. From The Chronicle’s report [emphasis added]:

Scott Munzel introduced himself as a Ward 5 resident of Ann Arbor, who also serves on the board of the [Huron River] watershed council. [...]

If the council decided to leave the dam in place, he said, he hoped that they would take seriously the question of how much it costs to maintain, which he said was around $50-60,000 per year. Currently, he said, that is paid out of the drinking water fund, which was not just inappropriate, but possibly even illegal, based on the Bolt v. City of Lansing case. That case involved a stormwater fee, which in the view of the court amounted to a tax. The court established criteria distinguishing a fee from a tax as follows [from the Michigan Municipal League summary]:

  1. a user fee must serve a regulatory purpose rather than a revenue-raising purpose;
  2. a user fee must be proportionate to the necessary costs of the service; and
  3. a user fee must be voluntary – property owners must be able to refuse or limit their use of the commodity or service.

Responding to Munzel, mayor John Hieftje noted that the intention was to rectify the funding source issue when the next budget is prepared.

Then, on Feb. 8, 2010, at the second meeting of the city council devoted specifically to the budget, Jayne Miller, who was at the time the city’s community services area administrator, indicated that the dam maintenance funding needed to be shifted. From The Chronicle’s report:

Miller then put the question in the larger context of the Argo Dam. Its maintenance funding is currently in the city’s water fund, but needs to be moved out of that fund. [Roger Fraser has previously indicated that this is something that will be undertaken in the current [FY 2011] budget cycle.]

However the funding of dam maintenance was not shifted out of the water fund in the FY 2011 budget, which was adopted by the city council in May.

Argo Dam: Commissioner Questions, Comments

At PAC’s Monday meeting, John Lawter began by asking how long the project would take to complete. Lacy explained that construction is the quickest part – it takes far longer to get approvals and permits. If the city makes a decision quickly, he said, they can start the permitting process and possibly get started building this winter, with the goal of finishing by early summer of 2011. It’s easier to do the work when the ground is frozen, he said. If they miss that window, they wouldn’t complete the project until 2012.

Sam Offen asked what would happen if they did nothing, and left the stop log in the headrace. [The stop log is a metal plate that's wedged into a concrete slot, in shim-like fashion, at the entrance to the headrace. It cuts off water flowing in from Argo Pond.] Smith replied that unless the city implements repair or reconstruction, the consent agreement mandates that the stop log remain in place.

Sumedh Bahl, the city’s community services area administrator, added that it could remain that way as long as they wanted. Once the pressure from the water in the headrace is removed, it’s less dangerous to the embankment. Offen confirmed that the state is concerned about the stability of the embankment due to saturation from water in the headrace. Bahl said that’s why the state wants the city to repair the toe drains, which would relieve that pressure, as well as remove some of the trees and vegetation – work that was done earlier this year.

Tim Berla asked why the consent agreement didn’t include the option to remove the dam. Bahl said that the Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) doesn’t push for dam removal – the agreement just addressed the toe drains. Berla responded, saying that the city could have negotiated to include dam removal as an option. Bahl said they left it up to the community to decide.

Berla said it seemed like the process resulted in them being backed into saying that removing the dam isn’t an option. Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, pointed out that PAC didn’t request that it be included in the consent agreement. Berla noted that they’d shut themselves off from that path, and now didn’t know how expensive it would be, if they decided to pursue dam removal.

Commissioners Dave Barrett and Gwen Nystuen both confirmed with Bahl that the dam was structurally sound. Bahl said the state had no problem with the concrete portion of the dam – their concerns only dealt with the earthen embankment. The city has been monitoring the embankment with a series of piezometers, which measure water pressures in the earthen berm, and that’s been stable. “I have done that personally, so I can tell you that conditions haven’t changed,” Bahl said.

Mike Anglin, one of two city councilmembers on PAC, asked about the water fund – why were they using that to fund this project? They were doing that because it had been budgeted this way, Bahl said. “Someone would have to direct us not to do that.” Anglin said he didn’t have a problem with it personally, but he noted that the issue had been raised during public commentary, so he’d like a report from whoever decided to finance part of this project from the water fund.

The value of the project is in its long-term recreational value to the community, Anglin said. The redesign will attract a lot of people, and eliminate the difficult portage, which he said he experienced this summer. However, he said he was concerned about maintenance costs.

Lacy said that if designed properly, there’s virtually no in-stream maintenance costs, except after flooding or if a tree falls into the channel. He cautioned that because the area will likely see more active use, maintenance costs for things like trash removal might increase. Smith said they anticipated more staff time would be spent on that kind of maintenance, but that would be balanced by a decrease in work they’d need to do maintaining the current embankment and monitoring its stability, he said.

Grand asked whether the funds formerly earmarked for the emerald ash borer project could now be used for any capital project – Smith said that it could, because it would revert back to the parks and recreation capital fund.

Berla asked whether novice canoeists, like himself, would be able to navigate the pools. “It looks scary,” he joked. Lacy replied that these channels were designed for drunk innertubers at night holding longneck beer bottles. More seriously, he said that the shallowest end of each pool was downstream, so even if you capsized, you could stand up in the water. It’s designed for the novice, he said.

Berla then said he was concerned about the sustainability of financing for this project. For years, they’ve been using the drinking water fund to pay for dam maintenance, he said, and he was personally uncomfortable with that, because Argo has nothing to do with drinking water. The project would require a lot of money to maintain over the next 20 years, and he doesn’t see where that money can come from except from the parks and recreation budget. He said that spending $683,000 from the millage fund was entirely legit – but it would be equally legit to spend it on other projects, like a skatepark.

Smith responded to the water fund concern, saying that when the city went through the process of developing the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP), there had been discussions about that issue by the city council. However, city staff hadn’t been given direction to remove the water fund from the budget, or to look for other funding alternatives. He said he felt the parks budget would be able to absorb the cost of maintenance for the project.

Barrett mentioned a hydro feasibility study that the Veterans Administration hospital in Ann Arbor had recently conducted, looking at possible electricity generation from the dams along the Huron River. That possibility is still in play, he said, and his understanding is that the VA is serious. The city obviously can’t make its decision based on that, he said, but it was something to keep in mind.

Molly Wade, the city’s water treatment services manager, said the VA has shared its report with city staff – the study looked specifically at Argo and Geddes dams. It shows a shorter payback period for Geddes compared to Argo, she said, adding that the city has no idea how the VA intends to proceed.

Barrett said his understanding is that the VA is looking at those dams as a package, to fulfill their federal green energy credit requirements. If they were to assume full or partial responsibility for those dams, he said, that would alleviate some costs for the city. Wade stated that the city hasn’t yet had those talks with the VA.

At this point, Grand said she’d like to address the actual resolution. [.pdf file of original draft] After it was read aloud by Smith, John Lawter moved to amend it, adding the optional whitewater amenity for an additional $180,000. That brought the entire project cost to $1,168,170.

Sam Offen said he thought it was an admirable amenity, but he wouldn’t support the amendment. The money could be used elsewhere, he said – he’d rather it be spent at another park, to help a different set of people.

Grand asked Smith why the whitewater feature hadn’t been included in the resolution – did staff think it wasn’t a good idea? Smith said the whitewater wasn’t included because it was beyond the scope of the RFP, which was designed to address the consent agreement. That’s what staff were working from, he said, adding that from the cost perspective, he assumed it would be less expensive to add the whitewater feature now, while the other work was being done.

Outcome: With dissent from Offen, the commission approved the amendment adding the optional whitewater feature to the resolution, at an additional cost of $180,000.

Returning to the main resolution, Berla said he wouldn’t support it, even though it was the best option of the ones they’d been presented. He described his vote as a “protest vote – and I wish it would have been done differently.”

Grand thanked the staff for their hard work, saying she was excited about the project.

Outcome: The commission passed the resolution, as amended, to recommend selecting TSP Environmental to build a bypass channel in the Argo Dam headrace for $988,170, and to add whitewater features for an additional $180,000 – for a total project cost of $1,168,170. Tim Berla dissented. The proposal will be forwarded to the city council for approval.

City Pool Update

Jeff Straw and the city’s three outdoor pool supervisors from last season gave an update on the 2010 season at the city’s three outdoor swimming pools: Buhr Park, Fuller Park and Veterans Memorial Park. All three are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day – they are now closed for the season.

Overall, the pools were open a total of 2,942 hours this season and had 96,407 visits, including 3,421 uses of the park systems’ “scholarship pass.” The city sold 2,278 season passes, and had 1,518 participants taking swim classes. The pools employ 104 seasonal workers.

Here’s a breakdown of each facility:

  • Buhr Park Pool: Gayle LaVictoire has been the pool facilities supervisor for the six-lane, 25-yard pool. In addition to general swim, it offers swimming lessons, water polo camp, and swim teams. A day camp at the pool had 190 participants, including 33 youngsters who attended on scholarships. The pool, which employs 40 seasonal workers, is known for its end-of-season Dog Swim – this year, 280 dogs and owners participated. During the season, the pool recorded 28,154 total visitors. Improvements at the pool included a handicap pool lift, handicap pool steps, ADA picnic tables, deck chairs and new lane lines and reels. LaVictoire told commissioners that her seasonal staff is “phenomenal,” and said that some of the lifeguards working for her this summer had been kids that she taught in swim class when they were five or six years old.
  • Fuller Park Pool: This pool, supervised by Dan McGuire, employs 39 seasonal workers and features a water slide, a 50-meter outdoor lap pool and a 12-foot-deep diving well. Programming includes master swims, group and private swim lessons, and the Dawn Ducks – swimmers who use the pool in the early morning. A day camp at Fuller Pool had 197 participants this year, including 30 scholarship recipients. In total, there were 37,090 visits to the pool this year. Facility improvements included ADA picnic tables and an ADA pool wheelchair, a pace clock and swim platform trainers.
  • Veterans Memorial Park Pool: This summer was a great one for Vets pool, said supervisor Dennis Simon, with increased participation in several programs. The pool includes a 125-foot water slide and a “raindrop” interactive water play system. It employs 25 seasonal workers and offers group and private swim lessons, as well as swim teams. This year, they had 113 participants in the swim teams, compared to just 70 last year. The coaches did a tremendous job, Simon said, with the goal that the kids have fun. During the season, the pool had 31,163 total visits. Improvements to the facility this year included an ADA pool wheelchair, an electronic pace clock, deck chairs, ADA picnic tables and lap lines.

Commissioners congratulated the staff for their work. PAC chair Julie Grand said it’s always great to hear good news from the parks facilities.

New Volunteer Outreach Coordinator Introduced

Gayle LaVictoire got a second turn speaking to commissioners as she was introduced as the city’s new volunteer outreach coordinator for the parks system. She described some of her goals for the newly created position, including 1) developing an online management system to coordinate volunteers, 2) developing a ballfield adoption and maintenance program, 3) coordinating master gardener volunteers to do landscaping at city parks facilities, 4) collaborating with the AARP to do facilities cleanup, and 5) getting help with the “seasonal startup” of facilities next spring – mowing, painting and the like.

She’s talked with supervisors at all of the city’s parks facilities to do a needs assessment, asking them what they need from volunteers. The idea is to match up volunteers’ interests and skills with facilities that need help.

LaVictoire is working with Jason Frenzel, her counterpart for the city’s natural area preservation (NAP) program, who has been in that position for several years. In response to a question from commissioner Dave Barrett, she said she plans to reach out to the community at large after she’s laid the foundation for the volunteer program. They’re planning to develop a logo and do a marketing blitz to recruit volunteers, she said, especially focusing on young people. If kids learn to be volunteers at a young age, she said, they’ll be volunteers for life.

Present: David Barrett, John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Absent: Tim Doyle

Next meeting: Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]


  1. By Jack F.
    October 21, 2010 at 8:51 am | permalink

    “Several people – both commissioners and speakers during public commentary – questioned the appropriateness of using the water fund for this purpose, saying that Argo dam has nothing to do with drinking water.”

    The same people, oddly enough, were invisible when the Giant Urinal Water Fountain was approved using…the 1% kick back from…drinking water projects. All of a sudden we get a busload of people concerned about tax dollars. What a hoot!

  2. By Marco Lannan
    October 21, 2010 at 9:32 am | permalink

    The city still has not figured out how to pay for this dam over the long haul. First it raided the drinking water fund. Now it is raiding the ash tree fund. It seems there’s no end to money that can be grabbed to support the dam–except from legitimate sources. This dam is an albatross on the city budget.

    What’s even more galling is that no user groups have paid a cent toward helping maintain the dam.

    But the skatepark organizers, who have raised thousands of dollars, gotten matching funds, STILL are being told there’s no money for them. I guess magically appearing money only goes to infrastructure beloved by Old Engineers.

  3. By David
    October 21, 2010 at 11:31 am | permalink

    I agree with John Rubin: I just wish that they would really explore federal funding for dam removal. Federal subsidies have helped dam removal across the US. It may be as expensive with or without federal subsidies, but it’s a permananent solution. If the dam remains, we’ll be having this conversation again in 25 years: the headrace pools (if constructed) will be silted in, the dam will deteriorate further, etc.

    At some point, without question, Ann Arbor will have to remove Argo Dam. It is made of concrete and it will decay. Why not do it now? I just don’t understand the resistance to this idea–crew clubs aside.

  4. By George Hammond
    October 21, 2010 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    I’m very unhappy that funding for dams other than Barton is coming out of the drinking water fund. Those funds should be used to support the infrastructure every resident needs, not a recreation feature that only some residents want. I’ll be contacting my council reps about this.

    I really hope the VA makes a decision soon. If they move in favor restoring hydroelectric generation from Argo and Geddes, it will really change the debate.

  5. By Dennis Ritchie
    October 23, 2010 at 9:52 pm | permalink

    I like this plan. It’s just the type of improvement we need for Ann Arbor to remain a cool place to live. The repair vs removal cost issue is a red herring. There is no cost if we leave the headrace closed. The issue is to keep the canoe livery operation. I suppose that a stairway near the damn for people and lift for the canoes lift operated by the livery might be work. The PAC plan is much better. I’m looking forward to using it.

    I have contributed to the Huron River Watershed Council in the past. If the question before the community was to build a new damn, I would be opposed. I can not support the removal. I would hope that if the improvement goes forward, HRWC will see users of Argo as potential supporters that will have a greater interest in the health of the watershed.

  6. By John Rinne
    October 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm | permalink

    The proposed Headrace Reconstruction seems like a good idea, however it’s funded.

    Not only will it enhance the watercraft experience for UM boaters, residents and tourists alike, it will add to the long list of “Cool things to do in A2″. Just as import, it will keep a bypass for spawning fish and preserve a resevoir of water to be used for drinking and/or hydroelectric generation in emergencies.

    On the same subject, what I’m concerned about is the potential “100 year flood” we hopefully will never have, and how well the dam systems along the Huron River can contain and/or affect spillover into nearby low-level areas.