North Lansing Dam could be removed on Uncle Sam’s dime

Fish Ladder need not be altered, experts say

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The long-discussed removal of the aging North Lansing Dam and replacement with rock ramps and gentle rapids could be fully funded by the federal government, if the project meets requirements.

“The project could potentially be funded at 100 percent federal. We’re talking feasibility studies, design and construction,” Jim Luke, district outreach coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told a local group studying dam removal 

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Dam Removal Exploratory Workshop, or DREW, resumed discussions over the possible removal of the North Lansing Dam, which is adjacent to the Brenke Fish Ladder in Old Town. The effort is being led by Lansing’s newly hired hazard mitigation coordinator, Kenneth Hall.

In response to rising concern over the safety of the nation’s tens of thousands of aging dams, and increasing frequency of historic rainfalls and floods, the federal infrastructure bill signed into law last November included about $800 million for dam removal.

Susan Henshaw, a project planner for the Corps of Engineers, set a “very rough and preliminary estimate” of the cost of removing or modifying the North Lansing Dam at about $12 million.

Luke and Henshaw reported that the project has already cleared the first hurdle, a federal interest determination.

“We determined that removing or modifying the North Lansing Dam would be beneficial to the nation and a feasibility study would have a positive outcome,” Henshaw said. 

Hall was pleased, but not surprised, at the prospective federal windfall. “With everything that’s been happening, especially our two dam failures in Midland in 2020, and flooding across the U.S., I thought it was going to come in some form,” he said. “It put some smiles on the faces in the room.”

Aging dams across the country, including several in Michigan, are being replaced by rock barriers that “naturalize” a stretch of river, bring back native species of fish and other river life, allow kayaks to pass through the rapids and minimize the danger of drowning in the “boil” of rushing water below the dam. 

Dam safety expert and DREW participant Russell Hicks said that if the North Lansing Dam is removed, “local anglers will revel in the newfound increase in the number, types, health and sizes of an ever-expanding fish population, including salmon and steelhead in downtown.”

Lansing’s exploratory dam removal group stopped meeting in 2020, when the pandemic hit and the city’s former hazard mitigation coordinator, Ronda Oberlin, retired. The meeting Wednesday (Feb. 16) drew 26 stakeholders, including local, state and federal representatives, dam removal experts, environmental groups and representatives from private businesses — the most of any DREW meeting so far, Hicks said.

But the talks are still at the headwaters and could be diverted into several alternative channels in the coming months. Hall told the group the process could lead to “full removal, partial removal, maybe not anything.”

The North Lansing Dam, 20 feet high, cascades through the heart of Old Town, near the intersection of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Turner Street. The current dam, built in 1936, is the latest in a series of dams that go back to 1838. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lists the North Lansing Dam as having a “significant” hazard potential, meaning “no probable loss of human life,” but flooding “can cause economic loss, damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns.”

The state inspects the North Lansing Dam every three years, said Luke Trumble, supervisor of the state’s Dam Safety Unit, a part of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE. After a series of major fixes, from 2011 through 2016, “that dam has been largely rehabilitated” by the dam’s owner, the Lansing Board of Water & Light, he said.

The North Lansing Dam is designed to withstand a 200-year flood, Trumble said, but 200-year and even 500-year floods are happening more often, in Michigan and across the country.

“By removing the North Lansing Dam, a choke point and impediment to bank-full and flood stage events is removed, as well as a drowning hazard,” Hicks said.

Hicks said low-head dams like North Lansing’s have claimed multiple lives in recent years, swallowing multiple anglers and kayakers. A kayaker drowned going over the North Lansing Dam on Feb. 27, 2018.

Ryan Filbin, a Ph.D. geography student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, studied stream flow in the Grand River five years ago as a student at Western Michigan University. In a 2017 paper, Filbin declared Lansing’s two dams, including the Moores Park dam near the Eckert Power Station, “deteriorating structures presenting a threat to the downtown Lansing area.”

In May 2020, a deluge of up to 8 inches of rain in 48 hours swelled the Tittabawassee River in eastern central Michigan, sending a surge of water that breached two dams, damaged 2,500 buildings and caused over 10,000 people to evacuate the towns of Midland and Sanford.

“Hopefully, the Midland disaster serves as a lesson for Lansing, where the potential is there as well,” Filbin said. “If you get 10 inches of rain in a 12-hour span, and that water has nowhere to go and you have a catastrophic failure — it’s going to be more catastrophic in Lansing, just based on the population density.”

Bill Rustem, a member of the Dam Safety Task Force that investigated the Midland failures and an adviser to former governors William Milliken and Rick Snyder, called the Midland dam failures “a wake-up call for the state of Michigan.”

“You see more frequent, intense rainstorms and you’re going to see more in the future,” Rustem said

However, Laurie Baumer, vice president of the Capital Region Community Foundation, said at Wednesday’s meeting that she hasn’t heard enough hard data about what will happen to the river if the dam is removed.

“We do see the benefits, particularly environmentally,” Baumer said. “We care about the environment, but this community is going to be very upset if they take out a dam. It retracts the river to a trickle, and you can’t get a boat down.”

The Community Foundation led the funding, design and construction of the highly successful, $1.8 million Rotary Park on the downtown riverfront, just upstream from the North Lansing Dam and recently broke ground on a $1.8 million “universally accessible” playground at Adado Riverfront Park, even closer to the dam.

“We’re investing millions in riverfront development and what happens if we’re looking at mud?” Bauer said.

Hicks countered that dozens of communities across the country and in Michigan have removed dams and replaced them with rock rapids “with resounding success.”

“YouTube is filled with these success stories,” Hicks said. “And not one of them ended up with a ‘river trickle.’ It’s wiser and more cost effective to be proactive to protect the investment along the downtown Grand River.”

Baumer urged the group to consider a “holistic solution” involving the possible removal of the Moores Park Dam near the Eckert Power Station as well as the North Lansing Dam.

“We don’t want to do one piece of the puzzle and then start all over, at Moores Dam, because that’s what’s next,” she said.

Luke said there is potential to add a combined double dam removal project to the federal Water Resources Development Act, now being worked out in Congress, but it would require a special appropriation and could draw the process our for 10 years or more.

“If you’re looking for the 100 percent federally funded option, we should focus on the North Lansing Dam,” Luke said. “The more complicated we make it, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Removal of the North Lansing Dam calls into question the fate of the neighboring Brenke Fish Ladder, a state historical site and unique local asset. Hicks said the ladder was built in 1984 “at the height of the coho/steelhead craze.”

“It looks good, but fish don’t use it,” Hicks said. “Anecdotal salmon sightings have been four fish in five years.”

The fish ladder’s value as a “cultural asset” would be taken into account in any future feasibility study, Hemshaw said.

“We know the fish ladder’s there, and it’s a historic site, and that’s a complicating factor, but that’s not untypical with dam removals,” Luke added. “These projects aren’t new for us.”

As DREW settles back into harness, Hall said he plans to create another group “to welcome and engage community input from all residents of Lansing and the surrounding areas.”

He said a feasibility study will answer many questions about what would happen to the size and flow of the river upstream from the dam site if the dam is removed, but it’s too early to say when the study will be done.

“This is an exploratory group,” he said. “Once we have figured out whether we want a complete removal, a partial removal or modification — or we get a random unicorn out of the sky to tell us it’s best that we keep the dam — we will move accordingly. For now, we’re still exploring our options.”

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