Two Kayakers are Building a Greener, Grander Grand Rapids

Will Grand Rapids, Michigan, soon become the Boulder, Colorado, of the Midwest? Two paddlers are on the path to making it happen.

    Photo: Courtesy of Chris Muller and Chip Richards

"A healthy environment is tied with outdoor recreation, they're both seen as economic drivers. It's a complete flip-flop from15 years ago."

Kayakers Chris Muller and Chip Richards met in Grand Rapids—population 188,000, located 25 miles east of Lake Michigan in the south-central part of the state—through their common interest in whitewater. "We wanted to have a whitewater park-and-play spot," says Richards, a retired commercial photographer. "And we'd each been asking the same question that people here have been asking for decades: Why do they call this place grand rapids if there are no rapids in the river?"

Turns out, the town was aptly named. The river loses 18 feet of elevation over two miles as it moves through downtown, but the rapids this formed were squelched 150 years ago after a large dam was built to run a logging mill and the riverbed was dredged. But the city now has plans to return the rapids by removing the dam (as well as four smaller dams) and restoring the riverbed by depositing 100,000 tons of boulders, cobble, and gravel—and the plan has caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

Last month, the agencies included the Grand River in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which provides regulatory and political support to watershed projects in urban corridors. Though initially focused solely on restoring the rapids, the renewal of the Grand River is now also about improving the economic and aquatic health of the city by boosting the numbers of lake sturgeon in the river, fighting the invasive sea lamprey and making Grand Rapids an attraction for everyone from weekend warriors to professional athletes.

What started as an effort to improve boating on the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has morphed into a $27 million river restoration project that backers say will turn this small, post-industrial city into an outdoor sports haven.

"We're just two guys with an idea. We started locally, it got picked up by the Governor and next thing you know, we were at the White House," says Richards.

Simple Beginnings
A couple years ago, when they started to cook up the plan to restore the rapids, Muller (a real estate consultant by day) and Richards studied restoration projects in other parts of the country, including the Ogden River in Utah. This led them to a small organization in Carbondale, Colorado, called RiverRestoration. Led by engineer Jason Carey, RiverRestoration helped turn the blighted waterway into a healthy river that attracts boaters and anglers.

Carey says that after he joined the project, its scope and goals quickly expanded. "Everyone has their own special interest in the river," he says. That includes parties such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is tasked with keeping the invasive sea lamprey from tightening its grip on the river. Because the dam acts as a natural barrier between Lake Michigan and the portion of the Grand that this parasitic fish has claimed, the agency was not thrilled with the notion of removing it. "The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of dollars to control sea lamprey, so they looked at this [dam removal] as a big problem," says Carey. 

On the other hand, the dams create barriers that hurt other populations, such as lake sturgeon and the endangered snuffbox mussel. Carey argued that restoring the river's ecosystem will help its native fisheries, which, in turn, will boost the resiliency of the river. "We went to the next level and started talking to people who say that a healthy river needs connectivity," he says. "There is the idea that you manage the river for single issues and then there is a idea that resiliency comes form diversity. "If more fish can get through the river, these other species will keep the sea lamprey in check."

That's great, in theory. But getting buy-in on this untested plan from the government agency that is mandated to control the sea lamprey (not to mention other agencies with a stake in the game) is another thing. That's why the Obama Administration's support of the project—which Muller and Richards formalized under the non-profit Grand Rapids Whitewater—is key, if it is to succeed.

While the Urban Waters Federal Partnership does not include any financial incentives, it does provide vital inter-governmental agency support. Participation in the Urban Waters program "aligns technical expertise" from the various permitting agencies involved and also provides a platform for information sharing and streamlines permitting, say Muller and Richards.

Through the program, says Muller, "The Fish and Wildlife Service is told that this project is a priority. It also gives us the go-to people in Washington, D.C, who are working on our behalf [to advance the project]."

Play on Top
Muller and Richard's initial wish to play on some whitewater in Grand Rapids has clearly crept beyond its original scale, but they understand how integral the river restoration is to the revival of the river's fisheries and the city's overall economic health.

"If we fix the bottom," says Muller, "we can play on top."

That play will be had in large Class III waves, with some inching toward Class IV. The river, which ranges from 450 to 600 feet wide, is not dependent on spring run-off, so the waves are consistent all year.

Muller, Richards and the other local proponents of the project foresee a time when Grand Rapids will become such a draw for boaters that it will host professional contests—and not just in whitewater. Rowers and scullers say the flat water upriver makes for great racing. Considering the nearby mountain bike trails and road riding, as well as the steelhead and salmon fishing that are already draws for anglers, Grand Rapids Whitewater sees bringing Grand River back to its former glory as the final push to put the city on the national outdoor sports radar.

To the mayor, the governor and local tourism-based businesses, this project also reads like an economic revitalization plan. 

"A healthy environment is tied with outdoor recreation, they're both seen as economic drivers," says Carey. "It's a complete flip-flop from15 years ago," when cities like Grand Rapids were still focusing on attracting industry as a means of driving the local economy.

The Bill
Grand Rapids has an excited community of river rats, bipartisan political support, the backing of the Obama Administration, and plenty of businesses ready and wanting to prosper under a restored Grand River. Now all it needs is $27 million to do the actual river restoration.

The Urban Waters program provides invaluable political support, but it does not provide something equally as important: money.

That's why much of Muller and Richards' time is now spent finding sources of financing for the project. But Carey says the financial hurdle is one the city should be able to clear, given the larger promises of what the project can do for the city. "Grand Rapids is redeveloping its downtown and there is a big philanthropic effort" behind current revitalization efforts, he says, noting that the environmentally-focused Wege Foundation is based in Grand Rapids.

The city government is also working on a placemaking campaign right now. Placemaking is an urban planning buzzword that refers to cultivating a city's unique assets and drawing like-minded people together toward defining or redefining a place. In the case of Grand Rapids, those like-minded people are likely to be young urban professionals who could bring with them young families, intellectual capital and the momentum to make Grand Rapids a larger draw for others.

As Carey says, "What could be more placemaking than putting the rapids back in Grand Rapids?"

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