Michigan dam removal could improve environment, recreation and storm protection


Peninsular Dam is one of over 90 dams along the Huron River, and the only dam within Ypsilanti city limits. Image: Elinor Epperson

By Elinor Epperson

The most exciting part about removing a dam in a small Michigan city isn’t the demolition, but what comes after.

The Huron River Watershed Council recently estimated the 148-year-old dam In Ypsilanti could come down in 2025 or 2026. The plan includes investing $10 million to revitalize a nearby public park that will grow as the river narrows.

Peninsular Dam was first tapped for removal almost 30 years ago. It’s normal for dam removal projects to span several decades, said Dan Brown, a planner with the council. Despite efforts to engage with local residents about the project, misconceptions among some of them persist.

“People think we’re going to dynamite the dam and then there’s going to be this wall of water that goes down (the river,)” Brown said. “It is painstakingly boring.”

The Huron River Watershed Council is a coalition of nonprofit organizations and governments that act as stewards to the river and has advised Ypsilanti on the dam’s removal for more than 10 years.

Brown and other officials cite improved river health and safety and the opportunity to revitalize the adjacent park as reasons for the project.

“This is a once-in-a-generation climate resilience project,” Brown said.

A local landmark

Home to Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti is a city of 20,000 in southeast Michigan between Ann Arbor and Detroit. It sits along the Huron River, an important source of recreation in Washtenaw County.

Peninsular Dam, called Pen Dam by local residents, is one of more than 90 dams along the length of the river. It was built in 1867 to  power the adjacent Peninsular Paper Co. mill. The plant closed in the 1970s. All that remains are the dam, the concrete shell of the powerhouse and a red sign bearing the company’s name.

The Peninsular Paper Co. powerhouse and its sign are symbols of Ypsilanti’s heritage. Image: Elinor Epperson

Ypsilanti acquired the dam in 1986 with plans to use it for hydropower generation. Local lore claims it was so worthless that it sold for $1.

Most of the land along the impoundment is privately owned. Brown said the only public access point to that section of the river is Peninsular Park, a small city-owned park adjacent to student housing.

“It’s a minimalist park,” said Steve Wilcoxen, who represents Ypsilanti’s Third Ward that includes the dam and the upstream impoundment where slowed water forms a pond.

Removing the dam will drain the impoundment and narrow the river. This means both the public park and private properties will gain land that is now submerged. Restoring the impoundment could include adding ADA-accessible boardwalks, better fishing platforms and even a canoe livery.

But some residents are still critical of the project.

Continuing resident concerns

Misinformation about the dam usually starts as reasonable, legitimate concerns, Brown said. Residents worry about sediment toxicity, property taxes, how the faster river will affect recreation and the cost of the project.

In 2021, the city held town hall sessions and surveyed residents for feedback.

A summary of survey results published in October 2021 captured some of the concerns residents raised about the project. Some were excited about the prospect while others worried it would degrade the park.

Most people – and several feasibility studies – support removing the dam, Wilcoxen said.

Friends of Peninsular Park, which opposes the dam’s removal, say repairing it is better for the environment and cheaper.

Members of the group claim the city’s plans have not been vetted and that the dam can be restored more cheaply. The group did not respond to requests for comment.

Environmental impacts

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy advocates dam removal to improve river health. Dams impede fish movement and the warm water in the impoundments they create can be uninhabitable for coldwater fish. Removing Peninsular Dam is on the priority list for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division.

But when removed, dams leave nutrient-rich soil in the impoundment that is an excellent home for vegetation, native or not, Brown said. Removing the dam provides an opportunity to address invasive species in the park and surrounding area.

“You want to put that ecosystem in the best position possible to thrive after the removal,” he said. Brown authored a restoration plan that outlines how to replace invasive plants with native ones. It will take years to implement.

“Invasive species are an ongoing slog,” Brown said. “The invasive species pressures are still going to be there just like on all the other stretches of river.”

Residents opposed to the dam’s removal are also concerned about the release of toxic sediment from the paper mill’s operations. There are a couple spots in the river with contamination above state regulations, according to two recent sediment studies.

That sediment will be moved as part of the dam removal.

“The data is pretty overwhelmingly clear,” Brown said. “Removing dams is good for river health.”

Sticker shock

Brown estimates it will cost $3.7 million to remove the dam and $10 million to restore the impoundment.

The city has earmarked $500,000 to support the project. That amount won’t increase, so Ypsilanti will need to raise the rest from state and federal agencies, Wilcoxen said.

The 2021 federal infrastructure bill includes millions of dollars for dam safety and removal. In 2023, the state awarded $3.78 million from its own funds to the city for the dam’s removal – the largest single award of the $15 million given to 16 dams across Michigan.

With other grants, the city has amassed approximately $5 million so far. The latest estimate also noted $16.8 million in other grants for which the project is eligible.

Opponents of removing the dam have suggested restoring its hydroelectric capabilities instead. That’s not feasible, said Thomas Horak, a dam safety engineer with the state.

“It would take a lot to bring [the dam] into satisfactory condition,” he said.

Repairing the dam would cost $659,000, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the watershed council. That’s about $864,000 now when adjusted for inflation.  It doesn’t include the hardware needed to generate hydropower. And a 2018 report says the dam is unlikely to produce enough power to cover operating costs.

Renewing the dam’s 30-year federal energy permit alone would cost at least $600,000, according to a 2019 estimate. None of these estimates include the year-to-year costs of maintaining the dam.

Those costs are a far cry from the current $13 million goal. But Wilcoxen said removal of the dam and restoration of the river are better long-term investments.

“We’d be kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Safety first

Brown, Wilcoxen and Horak said the biggest reason to remove the dam is safety.

“The safest dam is the dam that’s not there,” Horak said. The state classifies the dam as high hazard on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scale based on the damage it could inflict if it fails.

Inspections every three years and dating to 2001 detail Pen Dam’s deteriorating abutment walls and structural threats to the earthen embankments.

The latest inspection in 2022 downgraded the dam to poor condition. While not in imminent danger of failing, climate change is creating stronger storms that it may not be able to handle, Brown said..

“We’re seeing these more severe, potentially dam-breaking storms at higher frequency,” he said. “Every time we get one of those door-busting storms, I always worry at night, ‘are the dams going to be okay?’”

Some dams can minimize flooding, but Pen Dam isn’t one of them, Horak said.

Preserving heritage

Affection for and attachment to a dam can make it more difficult to remove, Horak said.. Some residents may feel it is like removing the city’s heritage.

But Wilcoxen said it’s more complicated.

“There are multiple heritages for this city,” he said. “There’s heritage that predates the dam…that heritage has been obliterated by the Pen.”

Revitalizing Peninsular Park could transform it into another community center, similar to thriving city parks downstream, Wilcoxen said. The powerhouse could become a community meeting place or a canoe livery.

Residents of nearby low-income housing set to open this fall would gain green space for recreation.

The city plans to hold more public meetings about the future of the park.

“We want creative visions for what [residents] want to see in this park,” Wilcoxen said.

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