Working to protect, rehabilitate and sustain the ecological makeup of the Coldwater River Watershed
Freeport Dam Removal
Partnerships instrumental in restoring fish habitat near Freeport / 3-1-14
by Constance CheesemanStaff WriterAn effort is underway to remove a former hydroelectric dam and all of its man-made structures on the Coldwater River. The intent is to restore the natural spawning habitats of trout and 33 other species of fish while improving the health of the surrounding watershed. This was the subject of a Feb. 13 meeting at the Freeport community center.Property owners Robert and Gloria King were in attendance, along with Coldwater River Watershed Council members Ron Barch and Samuel Pyle, biologist Aaron Snell, and approximately 30 guests.The idea of reclaiming the dam site and surrounding natural habitats came to Barch, Pyle and Snell in 1996. Barch, one of the original founders of the Coldwater River Watershed Council, started off the evening’s presentation by giving some background on the watershed group.“In 2000, the Coldwater River Watershed Council launched a river stewardship project funded by the Steelcase, Frey, Grand Rapids Community, Wege, Vogt and Barry Community foundations,” said Barch, “The one overarching goal of the project was to protect and enhance the 18-mile Coldwater River and its tributaries for the enjoyment and the use of future generations.”The efforts have involved hundreds of volunteers, especially young people, and have drawn recognition by groups such as the West Michigan Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which recently named the council its Conservation Group of the Year.Barch described the historic dam site to the audience while Snell showed several antique and recent pictures of the former Consumers Power Hydro-electric dam, first built in 1910. The dam is located on a 26-acre parcel of land owned by the Kings.Robert King took a few minutes to share his memories of the dam, saying the property was purchased by his family in 1942, and it is where he grew up.“Swimming and fishing and all sorts of fun were had,” said King, recounting how summers brought dozens of families to the dam to swim and picnic, with Snell showing black-and-white photos of kids jumping off the now-decrepit abutments. Originally constructed out of wood and replaced with concrete a few years later, the dam foundations remain today but are in severe decay, causing liability concerns for the Kings. The debris that piles up on the dam side of the structure forced the Kings to spend large amounts of money to have it cleared. The Village of Freeport assessed the Kings to have the debris removed.Old photos provided by the Kings showed the structure with the powerhouse nearby. King explained that the powerhouse was turned into a residential home when the property was bought. His elderly mother was the last person to live in the building.Barch said the project is important to Freeport, Barry County and the state because it is situated in a unique eco-system.In 2012, the Coldwater River Watershed Council applied for and received a grant of $84,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the old structures and restore the land to its natural condition, especially removing barriers to local species of fish that travel upstream to spawn.The work is being supported in part by using local contractors, with the blessings of the Kings; CRWC; four separate Trout Unlimited groups; the DNR and DEQ; Kent, Ionia and Barry counties; local drain boards, Kent and Barry Conservation districts; and Kent County parks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish Passage Organization support efforts to remove the barrier to spawning trout and other fish habitats, such as the white sucker, smallmouth bass and northern pike. Barch said a lot of people are drawn to the area for hunting and fishing.“The old dam and the absence of maintenance has added to bank erosion, causing log jams and interrupting the transport of sediment and organic materials necessary to the natural cleansing properties of the river and its shed area,” said Snell. “Now, the old dam is about to be released from the immediate environment and the property returned to the ecology, animals and fish that live there.” Snell shared his enthusiasm of the progress the groups have made.“The benefits of the dam removal, besides improved habitat, includes reduced maintenance and liability, which, in turn, allows for additional grant availability for continued ecological enhancements to the area,” said Snell.Pyle said financing the restoration required a couple of actions by the group and volunteers to satisfy grant guidelines.“One condition of the grant being used to deconstruct the dam site is that the funds be matched by the local community,” said Pyle. “The good news,” Pyle added, “is that the grant allows for local volunteers to work on the project, donating their time and efforts and, in turn, receiving credit for the hours worked, known as in-kind services.”“We used GPS equipment to measure the river valley instead of hiring someone to do this. We trained watershed members so we could receive the credit for in-kind hours. Coming up with matching funds will not be a problem,” maintained Barch.The other requirement, a the public demonstration, was satisfied by the evening’s presentation.The Coldwater River, designated as a natural agricultural drain, is 24 miles long and is the outlet to the Jordan River. “It is a tributary to the Thornapple River and gives testament to the health of the area,” said Pyle.Additional project goals besides the trout habitat improvements, include providing all species passage through the area, improved natural habitat of more than 1,400 feet of river frontage, reduced potential for log jams, and ensuring the use and enjoyment of the site. “The Coldwater River watershed is 200 miles in total area,” explained Barch. “The watershed council exists because rivers don’t follow political or county property lines.” The council has raised more than $500,000 toward this and other projects in the area, Barch said.Barrier-removal activity began in August 2013 and is continuing, with hopes of having all structures removed before spring thaw.”The first permit to remove vertical abutments has been issued, said Snell. “Work is scheduled to start removing the buildings as soon as the weather cooperates, with plans to have all buildings removed completely by spring floods. All the concrete will be gone,” said Snell.Future plans for the old dam include site stabilization by adding logs into the river to improve habitat, shoring up banks and restoring natural flows to the river geometry, all anticipated to be complete by mid-summer.“All the real, physical work must be done by Oct. 1,” said Snell, noting that is when spawning season begins.The nearby Tyler Creek Watershed saw 700 hundred percent increase in trout after a similar project, Snell said.Snell shared the long-range vision of the Coldwater River Watershed Council.“ Our goal is to be able to purchase the property with money raised through grants, and to turn it into a 26-mile rustic park. The council wants [raise funds] to buy the property, with the blessing of the Kings, but the dam and all man-made objects, liabilities must be removed first.”Addressing concerns of neighbors to the property, Barch assured those directly south of the dam that flooding potential will not increase but rather decrease.“The channel of the river will shrink after the work is complete — a normalizing of the river path — and making the water flow faster,” he explained. “This is the best condition to prevent flooding in the spring.”Noting that volunteers are always encouraged, Barch thanked guests, landowners, and the efforts of many different groups who are working together to improve the habitat.