EPA, Others Object to Whitewater Project

Concerns include impacts on fish habitat, quality of Huron River

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.

Huron River near Argo Dam

A view looking upstream at the Huron River from the Broadway Bridge, toward the section of the proposed whitewater feature. On the left is environmental remediation work on the DTE/MichCon property. (Photo by D. Askins.)

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."]

Schematic showing the placement of the whitewater amenities in the river.

Schematic showing location of the planned whitewater amenity in the Huron River, upstream from where the Argo Cascades enters into the river.  (Image links to .pdf of slide presentation made at a March 12, 2012 Ann Arbor city council working session, with higher resolution images.)

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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  1. By liberalnimby
    September 19, 2012 at 8:30 pm | permalink

    Indeed an impressive feat/favor to rope in the EPA.

    So is the upshot that we’ll basically be ruining this segment of the river—between the dam and the old portage—for fish, but boosting public enjoyment? (I’m assuming fish can’t swim up the cascades or up through the dam anyway, so these whitewater features would move that barrier a little further east?)

    I personally love the experience, increased visibility, tourism dollars, etc. surrounding the cascades; it would seem that the whitewater feature would add even more. I appreciate the interests that want to preserve the river ecology, but if it’s solely a trade-off between a few fish vs. intensified recreation/exposure to the river (with all the added interest in the river these amenities encourage), my vote is to nudge the fish downriver a bit!

  2. By Steve Bean
    September 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm | permalink

    @1: Apparently the river’s not the only thing that’s overly shallow. Way to lead the way! Jump to a preliminary conclusion based on minimal information–and greed, too!

  3. By RiverGuy
    September 20, 2012 at 8:48 am | permalink

    Why would anyone WANT to go into the Huron River downstream of where Allen’s creek enters the Huron River? That pipe is loaded with E.Coli after every rain. These proposed whitewater features are just stupid.

  4. September 20, 2012 at 8:51 am | permalink

    Steve, I gotta say that comment #1 seemed to me a much more deeply reasoned response than your name-calling.

    I’m traditionally a dam-out advocate myself (not specific to Argo, but you may remember ArborUpdate having photoshopped pictures of dynamite on Argo, and references to Edward Abbey…), but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the hydrography here that might cause a concern. Only intuitive here, so please share if you receive any info that would explain better:

    Until recently, there was no conceivable way for fish to travel past Argo–it was a total deadend. Now, the Cascades might create some access. Downstream at least, possible upstream for some fish? (Or am I being overly generous to Huron River fishes’ jumping abilities based on out-west observations? Does “known velocity capabilities of most of the native fish species” apply to the Cascades also?)

    With both the Argo Dam and the DTE “whitewater” (trying to restrain same out-west experience from smirking too much there), there would seem to be no real change in the dead-end nature of the area. (Unless the area immediately below the dam is critical habitat of some sort, which doesn’t jive with my understanding of dam/fish interactions–though the “how low” article does state that “two live state-protected freshwater mussels were positively identified” in that area.)

    In a hypothetical future in which the Argo Dam is removed, the Cascades obviously go dry. At that point, the 60cfs designed to go through the Cascades (re:”how low”) go through the main channel. Under what range of flow rates does that marginal flow make a difference? I really don’t know, but that seems to ballpark about a 50% increase in main channel flows from “normal” summer lows.

    Which I think leads me to conclude the whitewater wouldn’t be rendered inconsequential by dam removal, either for fish or recreation, but dam removal would still leave a main channel vastly better for fish than the current situation, even with the whitewater.

    I understand the rationale of placing the burden of proof on the party who wants to make the change, but it seems like measuring the consequences of the change from some hypothetical future state–and using an absolutely-no-detriment standard from that hypothetical state–isn’t quite the right way to measure this.

  5. By John Floyd
    September 20, 2012 at 10:42 pm | permalink

    I’m not certain that small mouth bass, pike, red eared suckers, blue gills, crappies, etc. have the same leaping instinct/abilities that salmon have. I think that water birds may carry eggs on their feet, and that this might spread fish species in this part of the world more than migratory fish.

  6. By Ordmad
    September 20, 2012 at 11:49 pm | permalink

    Note that virtually every crit by the HRWC includes the word “can”. Just feels like a continuing case of sour grapes from losing the damn fight. Makes one wonder whether any one entity coordinated this rush of outside negative interest, particularly the “unusual” interest of the EPA. Come on Chronicle, dig!

  7. By johnboy
    September 21, 2012 at 7:45 am | permalink

    I agree with the above comment by Ormand. This all smells like a case of childish revenge on the part of Laura Rubin and the HWRC for losing the dam in / dam out fight.

  8. By Laura Rubin
    September 21, 2012 at 9:03 am | permalink

    The EPA commented due to the clean-up on the MichCon/DTE site. The whitewater features are part of the permit and activity going on with the clean-up. Among other things, changing the velocity (flow and speed) and scouring of the river could expose and break the cap being placed over the contaminated sediments.

    “Childish revenge”– I would say anonymous public name calling is where the attack should be pointed.

  9. By Silent Knight
    September 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm | permalink

    ORDMAD is 100% correct. However, look at DNR not the HRWC.

  10. By Rod Johnson
    September 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm | permalink

    Who cares if it was “coordinated” or who coordinated it? Coalition building is part of public policy making. It’s not a conspiracy.

  11. September 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm | permalink

    HRWC lost the dam in/dam out. Who can forget “Argo Dam is failing”? Ha!

    Argo Dam is an important urban amenity. The chances that it will be removed in our lifetimes are close to zero.

  12. September 27, 2012 at 10:46 am | permalink

    Mr. Cahill and others:

    The Huron River Watershed Council exists for the purpose of protecting and restoring the Huron River system in cooperation with the communities and businesses of the watershed. HRWC’s mission and programming are based on involving all stakeholders (anyone who drinks from, recreates and fishes in, and sends waste to the river). We strive for a collaborative approach to decision-making based on research and education. HRWC’s website at http://www.hrwc.org will give a sense of the breadth and depth of our work, nearly all of which requires partnerships, including with the City of Ann Arbor and DTE.

    With a river that’s more than 100 miles long flowing through 75 communities and cover more than 900 square miles, there are many, many issues to address. We don’t take our positions on issues lightly and only when we deem the impact to have a significant impact (positive or negative) on the Huron River system. Even with a professional staff of 10 and hundreds of dedicated volunteers, we have to be selective.

    Is the Argo Dam the most important issue for the Huron River? No. Would the Huron River be impacted positively by its removal? Yes. But this article isn’t about that issue. It’s about the proposal to construct a whitewater park in the river itself (not a constructed mill race as in the case of the cascades) — waters of the state belonging to all of Michigan and protected by federal and state laws.

    If any of the commenters to this article have specific questions about HRWC’s comments to the MDEQ about the proposed permit application to construct the whitewater park, then you can reach me at 734-769-5123 x608 or visit our offices at 1100 N. Main Street.

  13. By jason tharp
    September 28, 2012 at 8:44 am | permalink

    Maybe the Huron Watershed Council needs to look at their own website. The Mallets Creek project seems to do the same thing as this one. Change the natural flow of sediment and possibly fish passage. Was the same standards applied to that project?

  14. By MB
    September 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm | permalink

    This whitewater project is not only unnecessary – there’s a whitewater facility literally right next to the site – but it eliminates what is currently the only way for canoeists who aren’t whitewater experts or who don’t want their boats getting pummeled on boulders to get through that part of the river system. Now that the portage at the lower end of the Cascade park has been removed, where and how would the canoeists portage around this area? They wouldn’t be able to go through either the Cascades or this new whitewater section, effectively making that stretch of the river kayak-only. That seems extremely unfair and selfish, at least to me.

  15. By Rork Kuick
    September 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor: The river is not your toy.
    I hate to use a naturalistic argument (and HRWC and fisheries folks are careful to avoid them), but I think I’d find toying around with the river bed to be hideous, and a monument to stupidity. Like the dam still being there.

  16. September 28, 2012 at 12:09 pm | permalink

    Re: [14] The whitewater feature is to be located upstream from the entry into the river from the Argo Cascades. To recreate in the new river whitewater feature, you’d need to descend the Cascades, turn right, paddle upstream a bit and that’s where you’d ride up and down the rapids. For non-experts who want to do the river trip from Argo to Gallup, they’d just descend the Argo Cascades and continue (left) downstream, without needing to navigate the planned whitewater feature.

  17. By K Henry
    September 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    It seems to me that the collaborative effort between the various concerns needs to continue. Take agreed upon concerns into consideration during the design process of the water park to minimize its environmental impact and to help deflect water from the containment cap. With so many knowledgable people involved, the water park has the potential to do more than just provide recreation.

  18. By David Cahill
    September 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    The HRWC suffered a serious decline in membership because of its position on Argo Dam removal. Is that organization’s view that the Huron River ought to be restored to its “pre-European state”, or is it not?

    The Huron as it passes through Ann Arbor plays an important role in our lives. We citizens are not going to disappear, much as some groups apparently want us to. I hope that the objections to this new project will be overcome.

  19. By RS
    September 30, 2012 at 11:24 am | permalink

    The trouble with user comments on stories like this is that people who have no inherent background or knowledge (on matters regarding rivers and waterparks such as this project) are free to add their uninformed knee-jerk reactions. Concern was expressed about canoists no longer being able to portage. HA! The people who would use the whitewater park have to portage their boats upstream to run and play the features over and over . . . those in canoes heading downstream who do not wish to run the stretch would carry the same place these folks carry upstream! Another user-comment expressed concerns about increased flow velocity causing scouring. There is a PROFESSIONAL team of people designing the course. They would be very aware of the concerns of flow and scouring, and would account for that with their design. Failure to do so would otherwise very quickly destroy the very course they built.

  20. By scott newell
    October 1, 2012 at 10:53 am | permalink

    It is of my opinion that we should keep the argo dam structure, eliminate argo pond at current size and open/alter the dam sluices permanently by removing and regrading them to accommodate flow needs of the river and wildlife. Canoes and wildlife could float up or down past the dam structure naturally, while keeping a beautiful part of our industrial and engineering cultural heritage. I think this would be a great and economical solution. Although I don’t know how the new waterway would fit into all this.

  21. By Laura Rubin
    October 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    In the spirit of open communication, I just spoke on the phone with David Cahill about his comments. HRWC, in fact, has not seen a drop off in membership and the trend is going up. HRWC’s membership and operating budget has increased over the past dozen years. And HRWC is NOT working to restore the river to a “pre-european state”. David had heard this from a “member”. HRWC works to protect and restore the river and not go back to some idyllic state. The reality is the river and watershed have changed dramatically over the time. We have a beautiful natural resource and clean drinking water. The Huron River Watershed Council’s mission is to inspire attitudes, behaviors, and economies to protect, rehabilitate, and sustain the Huron River System.

  22. October 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm | permalink

    Yes, I did just talk with Laura Rubin over the phone. I suggested that she post a correction here. She said she would not do so because she did not want to engage in a “back and forth”.

    Apparently she changed her mind.

    The Chronicle should be flattered that she went to the trouble of calling me up and posting a comment.

  23. By Rork Kuick
    October 2, 2012 at 8:59 am | permalink

    Nice nopology there, Cahill.

  24. October 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm | permalink

    Nothing to apologize about. Of course, HWRC could apologize for trying to get Argo Dam removed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

  25. By Rod Johnson
    October 3, 2012 at 11:26 am | permalink

    What’s to apologize for? Even if you disagree, dam removal isn’t some kind of fringe position; It’s one that hundred of communities and agencies have pursued in the last couple decades. Dams have a negative environmental impact that *may* be outweighed by their positive economic and cultural impact, but this isn’t a given, and in the case of Argo Dam, there were strong arguments on both sides. Dams have a limited lifetime before silting renders them unusable anyway. All we’ve done by de facto deciding to keep the dam is to kick the can further down the road. At some point, and sooner rather than later, either expensive dredging and repairs or removal are going to be our only options. I don’t understand why why you’re trying to portray HWRC, which has had an enormous positive impact on the river, as some kind of villain here.

  26. By abc
    October 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    I recently met a man who told me how his grandfather was adamant that steam engines were the best kind of engine. The grandfather hated gasoline engines and only used them reluctantly. But used them he did, well into a time period where it was obvious that the steam engine was a much less useful tool.

    I am reminded of that as I consider some of the above comments. In the 60’s and 70’s hydropower was being sold to schoolkids as ‘clean’ energy without any negative impact. Dams were also being pitched as a great ‘flood control’ method. Once again, there was no downside. Fast forwarding a few decades finds us hearing engineers and environmentalists lamenting dams for all the reasons any reader of this thread already knows.

    But what you may not know is that all of the negative impacts of dams were well known, and being discussed, back in the 60’s and 70’s when big engineering companies were also busy marketing and building dams all around the world. An engineer I know, who worked on some of the monster dams at the time, will go on and on about how they all knew just how devastating a dam is in the environment.

    What does this have to do with steam engines? I was just thinking that some people think, and learn new things, and adapt. Others learn one thing, and never question it again. They go to their graves believing that the sun goes around the earth, despite the evidence to the contrary.