Economic Development and Sustainability

Whitewater project keeps flowing

Project engineer says he sees ‘nothing that should stop it.’

January 16, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids Whitewater is taking another step forward in its efforts to restore the rapids of the Grand River.

When the organization’s founders, Chip Richards and Chris Muller, announced the potential economic impact of changing the river in September — between $15 million and $20 million per year — they made sure to note the restoration was still several years away.

Now the effort has a lead engineer to take the reins of the estimated $27.5 million project that will remove five dams, create an 18-foot drop in elevation, expose a limestone shelf for natural fish spawning and re-create boulder-strewn rapids below the 6th Street dam.

Jason Carey, a member of the Colorado engineering firm River Restoration, was in Grand Rapids last week to talk with key groups about the project. Carey is in charge of the “wet” portion of the river’s transformation.

“We’re taking the project from concept and chasing out the feasibility, applying science, discovering the nuances and finding the hurdles of the project,” Carey said. “It’s really refining the project in engineering and design into something that can be implemented.”

Grand Rapids Whitewater will use the engineering plan to head through the permitting process, hopefully this year.

Restoring the rapids — otherwise known as activating the river — is a step in the process that will start a snowball effect, Carey said. The organization is pursuing a plan for both the river restoration and economic development; however, the activation of the river doesn’t stop with what is planned.

“Anytime you activate a river in an urban core, there’s a lot of exciting things that can happen,” he said. “The ideal is that we activate the river and the other things come along over time.

“We call it surf and turf.”

Initial concerns involved flooding, the effects on wildlife and how to enhance the overall health of the river and community.

Restoring the river was conceived with the hope for outdoor whitewater activities, but it’s taken a new direction with environmental stewardship taking the lead. Carey said the shift in thinking with quality of life aligns well with reasons to restore rivers.

“The ability to recreate as part of their lifestyle is creating a new economic reason that is aligned with the environmental goals,” Carey said.

Muller and Richards said they have seen their idea for the river open up plenty of other discussions that wouldn’t have been talked about in the past, as their view turned to the stewardship of the river.

Carey said his firm has worked on six projects in urban cores, but Grand Rapids is likely the most significant nationally.

Few major hurdles stand in the way of the project, and there’s nothing that should stop it from happening by the end of the decade, Carey said.

“The remaining hurdle is funding,” he said. “At this point everything is feasible and possible. There are no real red flags.”

Muller said conversations about money have been active since the beginning. It will be a mix of public and private funding, with money coming from local, state and federal levels and various local philanthropic efforts.

“It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing,” he said. “The more we figure out, the more it comes together. The next 12 months are pretty critical to figure out how everything falls together.”

Richards said he is excited to finish the project.

“Let’s restore the splendor,” he said. “The river area is definitely a jewel that needs to be uncovered.”

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