River work has become a bigger project

May 20, 2012
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An effort to return the rapids to the Grand River is going forward, but the work has become more comprehensive and expensive than it was originally.

At the end of 2009, the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority gave Grand Rapids Whitewater a $25,000 grant to cover half the cost of a study to determine how the river could be improved so  it could host recreational activities, such as whitewater rafting. The project was part of the Green Grand Rapids plan, and the price tag then to bring the rapids back was estimated at $3 million to $5 million.

But the founders of GR Whitewater, Chip Richards and Chris Muller, recently updated the DDA on what they have learned from the engineering study, telling the board restoring the river could end up having a grand price tag of as much as $20 million.

“The Grand River is very dirty and contaminated from previous industries,” said Muller. “It’s a holistic river restoration. It’s not really a whitewater project; it’s more of a restoration.”

The study examined the river south from Ann Street to Fulton Street and found there was a natural rapid in the river, but it is buried under the bedrock. Muller said he and Richards have been in contact with the state departments of environmental quality and natural resources, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers as part of their effort. “We’re right at the beginning,” said Muller, who added the work’s cost could reach $20 million.

“We can’t raise the level of the river at all,” said Richards. “The Sixth Street Dam has a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. It’s never been inspected.”

Overall, Richards said the river was in pretty good shape and could be made whole again. “It’s going to be a run of the river project,” he said.

Muller told the DDA that this year and next year GR Whitewater, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, would work on getting the necessary permits and raising the necessary dollars for the project. Their goal is to get the restoration underway in 2014.

Muller said he and Richards would be going before the public a lot over the next few years to explain the project and hopefully find the financial support to do the restoration.

“We’re looking for support. We’re anxious to get this out, and we’re looking for opportunities,” said Richards. “We continue to get support from the business community.”

Founders Brewing Co., the Wege Foundation and the Grand Valley Metro Council have supported the effort.

“We have a whole binder full of potential grants. There is a grant that’s perfect for this. It’s for restoring urban waters,” said Richards.

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