Construction set to start, but it’s only the beginning for controversial FishPass project
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Construction on FishPass, a selective two-way fish-sorting system slated to replace the Union Street Dam in Traverse City, could start in mid-January.
That’s a huge leap for an idea that Dan Zielinski, Great Lakes Fishery Commission project lead, said he’s been working on since 2016 and goes back years.
“To finally be to the point where shovels are really going to be in the ground at the start of the new year is a fairly monumental achievement,” he told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
An Oct. 24 groundbreaking ceremony was only one milestone for the project in 2020. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weeks earlier selected Spence Brothers’ $19.3 million bid to construct the project, as previously reported.
And in December the state DNR’s Natural Resources Trust Fund recommended a $300,000 grant to build new amenities on bordering parkland. Other funding fell into place for the project during the year, including $1.83 million in federal grants announced in July for research.
Controversy over the project remains, with some objecting to the look of the design and the alteration of Union Street Dam Park, and others concerned about the future of the Boardman River’s wild brook trout fishery.
Construction plans will be finalized at an early January meeting with the city, GLFC, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and project partner Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. For now, the first step is to relocate a city water main that runs through the current dam.
Then, construction crews will wall off half the river to build a labyrinth weir – a dam shaped like gear teeth – then a nature-like channel, Zielinski said. That new channel will carry water while the other half of the river’s blocked to build the 400-foot channel that’ll house fish-sorting equipment.
Spence Brothers will have to follow plans for blocking parts of the Boardman River, which were verified by an independent engineer to ensure the existing dam can hold up, Zielinski said – contractors typically pick their own dewatering process, he said.
Construction should wrap at the end of 2022, Zielinski said.
Then starts a 10-year search for an autonomous way to selectively sort fish headed upstream, Zielinski said. Those that do make it through the sorting equipment in that time won’t be allowed any farther, save some controlled releases.
The DNR in consultation with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are working on deciding which species can ultimately pass, with Michigan State University’s assistance, he said.
That decision, and the process leading to it, has some anglers worried.
Tom White is a Brook Trout Coalition board member, and said the nonprofit doesn’t oppose FishPass but doesn’t want to see Pacific salmon or steelhead – as migratory rainbow trout are called – allowed upriver
“The Boardman is home to one of the best wild brook trout populations in the state, and brook trout and Pacific salmonids don’t go well together,” he said.
He and other coalition members have weighed in but suspect the DNR has already decided on allowing steelhead, both to create more fishing opportunities and to take pressure off state fish hatcheries.
Letting steelhead into the Boardman River would benefit the Great Lakes, DNR Fisheries Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator Jay Wesley said. Plus, the DNR wants the Boardman – also known as the Ottaway – to be a “destination” fishery.
He acknowledged inviting steelhead groups to the decision-making process, but denied any decision has been made. He reached out to trout angler groups as well, and said the process needs multiple opinions to work.
“You just wouldn’t want to have brook trout people in the room or just steelhead or just salmon, they all need to be in the room to discuss the options for the river,” he said.
Steelhead and brook trout coexist in Michigan rivers like the Jordan, Wesley said. Steelhead do cut into brook trout numbers, but the remaining fish, with young steelhead to eat, are larger – a tradeoff not all anglers accept, he acknowledged.
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa tribal council wants only fish native to the Great Lakes let upriver, said Brett Fessell, the tribe’s river ecologist and restoration section leader. The Treaty of 1835, and the Great Lakes and Inland consent decrees that implement it, give the tribe a role in the decision.
He defined native species as fish that evolved in the Great Lakes and not those introduced and naturalized there, although he acknowledged the river’s resident brown trout _ a species brought to Michigan in the late 1800s – are there to stay.
Fessell said letting steelhead through would raise lots of social and environmental issues. He wants the decision made based on what’s best for the river ecologically, and not on money and power, as he fears could be influencing the state’s ultimate choice.
Steelhead in the river could complicate the possible reintroduction of arctic grayling there.
Wesley said the river is one of four in the state that’s a candidate for the Arctic Grayling Initiative, as is the upper Jordan.
While White said steelhead would rule the river out, Wesley said grayling could hold their own if they could grow in headwaters far from both steelhead and brown trout.
FishPass plans also include extensive work to Union Street Dam Park, drawing objections from some over the cutting of 63 trees and what they see as an ugly, overbuilt design.
City resident Rick Buckhalter is suing, claiming among other things that the city should have facilitated a public vote on what he argues is disposal of parkland that, by city charter, can’t happen without certain approvals – a contention city officials previously denied.
Buckhalter said 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power rejected his request for a preliminary injunction against the project, but he still is pushing forward. A trial is set for May. He hopes the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, with so much funding on the line, will hear him out before then.
“If they feel their interest in the project … if they feel there’s a danger that that might not be completed because the case is still active for whatever reason in May, they may take pause and at least listen to what I’m saying,” he said.
City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht wasn’t available to comment.