So, Ypsilanti, should we repair or remove the Peninsular Dam?

As you may have heard, over the next several months, members of our City Council will be debating whether we should remove Ypsilanti’s aging Peninsular Dam, or invest approximately $640,000 in its renovation… Following, in hopes that it might help some of you to better understand the various issues at play in the “remove vs. repair” debate, is my recent conversation with Laura Rubin, the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

[Seen above, the Peninsular Dam, near the intersection of Huron River Drive and LeForge Road, was initially constructed in 1867 by the now defunct Peninsular Paper Company.]

MARK: As I know the City of Ypsilanti is currently reviewing its options relative to Peninsular Dam, I was hoping that I might be able to ask you a few questions. Assuming that’s something you’re amenable to, I’ll just jump right in… Let’s start with the big picture. How many dams do we currently have along the Huron River?

LAURA: There are over 100 dams in the watershed, on the river and tributaries. There are 17 dams on the main stem of the river.

MARK: And would it be safe to say that you’re of the opinion that these dams are bad for the watershed?

LAURA: Yes. The fact is dams are bad for rivers. A river’s job is to move water and sediment. Dams prevent both of these fundamental functions. They stop and warm the water. They change the natural flow variations of the river. They foster weed growth and algae blooms. They reduce biological diversity. Having said that, dam removal decisions must be weighed against many variables, not always, or only, what is best for the river.

MARK: And why were these dams installed? Were the solely put in place for power production, or were they installed, at least in part, to help regulate the flow of the river, reduce flooding, etc?

LAURA: Many of the older dams were installed to generate power for mills and communities. There are only 4 dams left that generate power. Most of the dams have transitioned for recreational, municipal water supply, and property value enhancement purposes. None of the dams on the river manage flooding.

MARK: By “recreational purposes,” you mean that dams increase shoreline, and create lakes, where people can swim, fish, hunt, have boats, etc…

LAURA: Yes.

MARK: Am I correct that the Peninsular Dam is not one of the four that still produces power?

LAURA: That’s correct. It no longer produces power.

MARK: I may be mistaken, but, as I understand it, people these days rarely dam rivers the size of the Huron, not solely because of the damage they do to habitats, but because they aren’t economically feasible. Is that correct?

LAURA: In Michigan, we don’t have the elevation drops to make hydropower electricity economically feasible. The height or drop of the dams in our watershed tend to average around 6-16 feet. It is difficult to make enough energy to pay for the cost of generating power and to meet the Federal Energy Regulatory Control (FERC) regulations. The hydropower dams on the Huron either lose money or barely break even. Dam removal is therefore becoming the economical choice.

MARK: OK, so, from what I’ve heard, it would cost us $650,000 to repair the Peninsular Dam, and that wouldn’t include work on the power generation components… In other words, that would just give us a functioning dam, not one capable of producing electricity. Is that correct?

LAURA: Yes. And that $650,000 is an estimate from 2014, so it will likely increase. The City of Ypsilanti, as dam owner, is responsible for its maintenance and repairs. A 2014 dam inspection report projected maintenance costs of over $650,000–not including any park or powerhouse repairs nor the installation of hydropower. In 2016 the DEQ told the city to complete the work within 10 years.

MARK: And would I be correct in assuming that, given the condition of the dam, we might not be able to put this “repair or remove” decision off until 2026?

LAURA: I doubt it. The MDEQ asked for a schedule of the repairs.

MARK: I seem to recall that, not too long ago, we had people in Ypsi city government who thought that they could bring the dam back online, making it profitable as a producer of hydroelectric power…

LAURA: Yes. Over the past 10 years, the City has explored restarting hydropower at the dam. After years of discussions with potential energy companies and buyers, however, it became clear that hydropower was fiscally unwise–it just wouldn’t pay for itself.

MARK: How would the river change if the Peninsular Dam were removed? Do we know how far the water level would drop above the dam, and how much higher it would rise below, if at all?

LAURA: Usually the river goes to about ⅓ the size of the impoundment (the pond) closely following the original river bed. But, a dam feasibility study would give a better sense of where the river would return to. The City is commissioning a study to explore the feasibility of dam removal. That doesn’t commit the city to this path, but allows them to weigh the options. The study will look at the sediments behind the dam, infrastructure, and land ownership issues, and will provide a conceptual design of the river after removal, plus a range of costs for removal.

MARK: And do we know when we might have the results of this study, showing how the river will likely change with the removal of the dam?

LAURA: The City committed some funds to the study in April 2017, and the plan is to move ahead with the study this fall. They hope to have it completed over the winter.

MARK: So, am I to understand that, while the river levels would decrease above the dam, assuming we move forward with removal, they would essentially stay the same below the dam, once things had reached an equilibrium? I ask because, as you know, we’re discussing the commercialization of the City’s Water Street property, much of which sits in the 100 year floodplain. And, if the river level goes up even by a little bit in that area, I’m thinking that it could affect the development.

LAURA: Yes, the dam is operated as “run of the river” which means that it is operating on the flow of the river and not storing or regulating water flow. So the downstream flow will not change.

MARK: Have there been comparable dams removed along the Huron that might give us some indication as to what things might look like after removal?

LAURA: A good place to see a dam removal is in downtown Dexter. The City of Dexter removed the Mill Pond dam in 2008, after years of discussion. I recommend that if you are curious about dam removal, to visit downtown Dexter to see how the river and community has responded to dam removal.

MARK: Would I be right to assume that, in your opinion, the results in Dexter have been positive?

LAURA: Yes, the free-flowing river is the centerpiece of downtown revitalization efforts. The City of Dexter embraced the dam removal project by building trails, a public performance space, fishing piers, a new library, and encouraged mixed use development along the creek. The Dexter dam removal sparked a recreational, economic, and cultural revitalization.

MARK: As I understand it, most of the opposition to the idea of removing the dam here in Ypsi comes from homeowners along the river, most of whom don’t live in the City…

LAURA: To date, there hasn’t been much of a community discussion about Peninsular Dam, the cost, and the decision the City has to make, but most of the homeowners on the pond upstream of the dam are opposed to removal. Most of them don’t live in the City, but in Superior and Ypsilanti Townships.

MARK: And what’s their concern, just that it will change their views? Won’t it also increase their property as the river recedes?

LAURA: I have conversations with many of them regularly, but I wouldn’t want to try to speak for them. I think it would be good for the City to create opportunities for everyone to be heard on this issue. We want to find solutions that work for everyone and ultimately it’s up to the community to make the decision. That said, when people talk about dam removal there are some common concerns: what will the river look like, will property values decline, will there be increased activity on and around the river. What we’ve found in Dexter, and other communities where dams were removed like Diamond Dale, Big Rapids, Traverse City, is that these fears rarely come to fruition and people find that a free flowing river is a great asset to the community.

MARK: Can you speak just a bit about how we might see fish populations change as a result of the Peninsular Dam removal?

LAURA: Going from a still pond to a free-flowing river habitat would result in a reduction of carp and suckers and an increase in bass and sunfish populations. Historically, MDNR studies show a good smallmouth bass population in this stretch of the river. Additionally, with the recently completed HRWC fish habitat restoration project in Ypsi from Frog Island to Factory Street, the Peninsular Dam removal would open up the whole stretch to fish runs from Ford Lake up to the Dixboro dam.

MARK: And, going back to what we were just discussing about how most of the opposition seems to be coming from property owners outside of Ypsilanti, I think it’s worth reiterating that it’s the citizens of Ypsilanti who are responsible for the dam’s upkeep, correct? I mean, this $650,000 would have to come out of our City budget, assuming our City Council decides to keep the dam and repair it, not the County budget…

LAURA: Yes, the City owns the dam and is responsible for maintenance and safety, including liability insurance.

MARK: And the alternative, of course, would be to remove the dam altogether, which, as I understand it, may be covered by grant funding.

LAURA: It’s much easier to get funding for dam removal than for repair. That’s because the state and federal government and many foundations recognize that dams are bad for rivers. They are not good sources of energy. They are safety hazards and they are expensive. That’s why there all kinds of state and federal sources of grants for dam removal. I am not aware of any grant funding for dam maintenance or repair–those costs are all on the city.

MARK: Assuming people read this and they want to get more involved in the movement to remove the Peninsular Dam, what would you suggest?

LAURA: Councilmembers and the Mayor need to hear from City of Ypsilanti residents, businesses, and community leaders who want to see a study conducted and a measured evaluation of the future of Peninsular Paper Dam.

[For those interested in learning more about the current state of the Huron River watershed, check out episode twenty-one of The Saturday Six Pack, where I talked with Rubin at length about the history of the river, and the progress we’ve made toward restoring it over the past 50 years, after nearly a century of abuse.]

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28 Comments

  1. Jcp2
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    A fine dam story, but if this comes to pass, then you won’t be able to keep Ypsi weir’d.

  2. J.J.
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Interesting discussion, but a little one dimensional. I’d like to hear more discussion on the power generation possibilities. Clean energy is an important issue, and there are ways to increase power generating efficiency besides elevation drops. If it truly isn’t viable, then removing it sooner than later would be best.

  3. M
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Nice pun, J. Much appreciated.

    Curious if anyone has a map showing where the other dams are on the main trunk of the river, as I’d like to know how many miles one might be able to canoe down the river without portage, should we remove this dam.

  4. Murf
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    The caption to the first photo is incorrect. It’s Huron River Dr., not Huron Parkway.

  5. Pete Murdock
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Upstream is the DTE dam at Superior Road and downstream is the Ford Lake Dam. Both of these produce power and are unlikely to be removed.

  6. Tom
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Power generation is not really feasible. The city would have to pay to repair the dam and then add power generation capabilities. Then the amount of power generated wouldn’t even pay for the cost of installation.

    The few dams that do generate like superior and barton struggle to break even and they already have the capability.

  7. site admin
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Murf. Please accept my apologies. Mark can be a dummy sometimes.

    The issue has been resolved.

  8. Tom
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    M, there are maps. The Huron River water trail has maps with dam locations. Most are portage-able, but some of the downriver ones require you to call the owner so they can open the gate to let you around the dam.

  9. Brooke Ratliff
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    It ruins a day of kayaking….remove.

  10. murph
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    A while back (2010?) there was some discussion of in-stream turbines below the dam — things that sit in the turbulent water coming over the dam rather than a traditional hydro-turbine that uses a spillway in the powerhouse — and there was some possibility this might be economically viable, if and only if EMU bought all the power coming off of it. (Because they could buy it for slightly less than what they pay DTE per kWh, while still paying substantially more than DTE would pay to buy the kWh.)

    From recent discussions, it sounds like even that option is off the table since EMU has since upgraded and expanded the capacity of their on-campus power plant, and no longer need to supplement their own generation? (that’s a question seeking verification, not a statement of fact.)

  11. M
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Murph, if I’m not mistaken, the kind of in-stream turbines that you refer to, if put in the Huron, would likely also cost a great deal to keep operational and free of debris, given the nature of the river and what we see flowing through it.

    And thank you, everyone, for the information on other dams along the Huron.

  12. JM
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Seems pretty obvious – get rid of the dam. Find as many grants as possible to fund the removal and be done with it.

  13. Donald Wilson
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Ideally… Repair. It’s infrastructure, and just because it’s not profitable now doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

    But I don’t think the city has the funds to do that, so remove.

  14. Kim
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Do we know where members of City Council stand on this? Are there any that are opposed to removal?

  15. Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    This post sent me on a mini-google spree this morning researching small scale hydro. Thanks, Murph, for bringing the history of investigating what sounds like run-of-river turbines instead of traditional dam power infrastructure. It sounds very unlikely power generation in any form is likely to be long-term economically viable and dam removal the most prudent financial option, with some environmental benefit.

    I’m very curious to see what effects this has on river-adjacent land ownership & land uses, especially given that many of the adjacent properties are outside of the City limits but the City is solely responsible for the dam. I can understand if someone would be upset at losing their pond-front property. Water views and easy paddling access are nice to have! (Which is not to say the public & ecological benefits of removal shouldn’t supersede those concerns but they’re understandable)

  16. M
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t those living along the river still have waterfront property? My understanding is, if the water recedes, their property still goes to the water’s edge. Is that correct?

  17. Jcp2
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that property owners will lose their pond/riverfront property at all, but that their structures’ previous proximity to the water will be increased. My limited understanding of riparian property rights in Michigan is that the property line of riparian properties extend to the center of the riverbed, and that newly revealed “dry land” still belongs to the property owner, with a transition of definition from bottom land to uplands. There is a public right to the use of the waters within the river, as well as temporary incidental use of the bottom land beneath the water, but walking or other use of the shore or bank would be considered trespassing.

  18. Katy G
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I’m a homeowner on the pond upstream of the dam, and I’m in favor of removal (we exist! at least in my household). My understanding from when we bought our place was that the property line is technically the middle of the river. So dam removal would result in properties along the pond being embiggened, but peoples’ views would change (houses would be further from the river itself). IMO the ecological and economic benefits of removal outweigh any concerns I have about my own property. Not to mention, I imagine the river will look somewhat like it does running downstream of the dam (e.g. through Riverside Park) and that’s just lovely as well.

  19. Lynne
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    The only real good reason that I can think of to keep the dam would be power generation and that looks like it is not feasible.

    One reason for removal that hasn’t been mentioned is safety. Every so often EMU students drown playing on the dam’s spillways and removing the dam will remove that particular danger.

  20. Posted October 3, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Even if they still have river-front property, they may lose their views and easy access to the river. As I said, I don’t think that should be an over-riding concern relative to others, but I’ll at least acknowledge the sense of a “loss.”

  21. Jean Henry
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Given the threat of the dioxane plume heading towards Ypsi, and the reality that oxygenation from a more free flowing river will remediate the toxicity…

    “free the river”
    https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0776/3623/files/free_the_rivers_large.jpg?5789790727505091852

  22. Scott Schaffer
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Replace. Build a rapids course for kayakers and a sluice-way for less-adventurous canoes.

  23. Bill Meabrod
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    From what I gather from the article…

    hydroelectric power isn’t economically feasible in Michigan. The river drops are not high enough. And these dams are damaging to the environment because they prevent a free flow which is valuable to a river habitat.

    The dam is not producing power. So it shouldn’t impact our bills.

    Removing the dams would decrease carp populations, and increase bass populations. Makes for better fishing. And a free flowing river makes for better kayaking.

    Sounds like overall we’d have a better river, improve the local environment, and there is very little downside.

    I of course would like to wait for an environmental impact study. But this seems like it would be pretty beneficial to just remove it.

  24. Jean Henry
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    FWIW, I hate the Argo cascades in A2. Billed as a solution for the fishery; it’s not. It is a tourist draw for sure. Just like a water ride at an amusement park. Crowds of unskilled boaters and tubers, floating this way and that, directed via engineering to the drops, drinking, smoking, throwing bottles, etc in the river. No supervision on the cascades themselves. Someone will be seriously injured there in high water one of these days. The cascades encourage people with no skills to think they have them. In water sports, especially combined with substance use, that’s a dangerous scenario.

    The very expensive project was compromise to crew rowers who couldn’t bear to lose their very expensive, dam-provided playground. The cascades offered a supposed compromise to kayakers, but any committed boater would prefer a free flowing river any day to a gated faux rapids. Luckily, Ypsi is probably too poor for such a disneyland project. There are no environmental grants available to re-enforce stupidity for the sake of recreation.

  25. Jean Henry
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Luckily EMU’s crew practices at Ford Lake, so removing this dam should not meet resistance from them.

  26. Erin
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    HRWC gave presentation at City Council in April to introduce the possibility of dam removal. It seems like a no-brainer in terms of cost (maintenance will continue to need to be paid for, whereas removal is a one time expenditure), environmental benefits, etc. One issue I recall – the presence of contaminated sediment increases the cost. Given this location’s proximity to the former paper mill, I wonder how likely it is that environmental contamination might be problem.

    Here’s a link to the minutes from that particular meeting – http://cityofypsilanti.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/1053?fileID=2104

  27. Canoes
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    To answers M’s question, the next dam is only about a mile upstream at Superior Rd, but the portage at Peninsular Place is much trickier than the other two between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It involves stairs. If Peninsular was gone, there would be about a 7 mile stretch without dams. This map shows the whole river: http://www.metroparks.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/huron_river_canoe_map-sm2.pdf

  28. anonymous
    Posted October 4, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    City Council voted last night to delay the decision to pursue a dam removal study for approximately two weeks, while they consider the possibility of pulling the Friends of Peninsular Park into the study as a partner, along with the Huron River Watershed Council, and the streamlining of various items related to the dam’s possible removal.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By #DocumentYpsi2017 this weekend on October 6, 2017 at 8:22 am

    […] years of neglect. And I suspect I’ll also spend some time around Peninsular Dam, given that it might be removed in the not too distant future. But, really, almost anything is fair game… especially the minutia of present day life in […]

  2. By #DocumentYpsi2017 is now underway on October 7, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    […] Peninsular Dam… I thought, given the fact that we’ve been discussing the possibility of removing the nearly 150 year old dam, it probably made sense to document its existence while we […]

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