Economic Development, Government, and Sustainability

Work to restore the Grand River surges ahead

City commissioners approve complicated permit submissions.

November 13, 2015
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Grand River hotels
Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids city officials approved an important next step in the process of restoring and revitalizing the Grand River during the Committee of the Whole meeting last week by authorizing the city engineer to sign and submit all permit applications for future improvement projects related to restoration, flood control and mitigation.

City engineer Mark DeClercq said the approval was necessary in moving forward with the river revitalization and rapids restoration plans initiated by Grand Rapids Whitewater.

“In the project development and delivery process, there are permits we have to sign and submit with various local, state and federal agencies,” said DeClercq. “These are really because of the construction activities that are involved in interfacing with land and water.”

The authorization by the Grand Rapids City Commission during the Nov. 10 meeting will allow the submission of necessary permit applications, which would ultimately let the city’s contractors perform work within the river channel and riverbank, such as dam removal, restoration of the rapids, improvements to the flood protection system, installation of a trails network and public green spaces.

“In some cases in the project delivery process, those review agencies may move them up to a higher level within the state or federal organizations in order for others to review,” said DeClercq.

Chris Muller, co-founder of Grand Rapids Whitewater, said the city has been a great partner and the authorization to move forward in the permitting process cements that partnership.

“I think it is a great step in highlighting where we are with the project, with it going toward implementation. We have been planning and designing for quite some time,” said Muller. “It is very exciting for us. It is nice to see progress.”

Muller said the permitting process is complicated, and while some of the state-level applications are combined, there are a lot of nuances involved, such as dealing with endangered and invasive species, and ensuring the project has a positive impact on improving the flood protection system.

“There is a great group of folks who are on the team to work through the permitting process,” said Muller. “There are a number of agencies that have jurisdiction over the river. It is super complicated.”

During the last two years, Grand Rapids Whitewater has regularly organized state, federal and international advisory groups with representatives from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to advise on project design and to prepare permit applications.

DeClercq indicated during the Committee of the Whole meeting one of the biggest applications involved is a joint permit with the Michigan DEQ and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Grand Rapids Whitewater is a nonprofit organization advocating for returning the rapids to the Grand River; the group emerged after the introduction of the Green Grand Rapids Master Plan in 2011. Since it began working to restore and revitalize the Grand River, Grand Rapids Whitewater has received support from state and federal agencies, local businesses and the philanthropic community.

Chip Richards, co-founder, said he appreciated that the grassroots effort took hold.

“Without the support of the community and the city, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We assembled a dream team; we captured lightning in a jar.”

During the Committee of the Whole meeting, Jay Steffen, assistant planning director for the city, said he is thrilled to be a part of the project and his “hat is off to all the team members and the mayor and City Commission” for the support.

“(Chip Richards and Chris Muller) are the ones who had the vision for restoring and revitalizing this river, so we have been taking the lead from them. We have a team of employees — a village, if you will — moving this project forward,” said Steffen. “It is a public-private village, and we are working very well together and will continue to do so to see this project to fruition. It has been a great journey.”

The proposed design for the river was endorsed by the City Commission and the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council’s board of directors in 2014, and involves: removing the 6th Street dam, construction of an operable hydraulic barrier one mile upstream, the addition of boulders within the river, and replacing the river bottom downstream.

The tentative schedule puts the project on a three-year timeline for completion, with work beginning in the Grand River Corridor at the earliest in late 2016 or 2017, according to Muller.

“It is a process which is very complex, but we have been very thoughtful and we have a great team that has been working on it, both through the city and through Grand Rapids Whitewater.”

While the plan will allow for expanded public access and recreational use of the river from Ann Street to Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids, it is also expected to improve the river’s aquatic habitat diversity, as well as public health and safety.

The Grand Rapids Whitewater planning process has been coordinated with GR Forward, the Downtown Development Plan updates, and outcomes of the City’s Levee Analysis Mapping Procedure with the Federal Emergency Management for the flood protection system, according to the press release.

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