GRAND RAPIDS — Officials expect to begin the $45 million project to restore the rapids in the Grand River by July 2021, later than they had originally projected.
Grand Rapids Whitewater, the nonprofit organization leading the river restoration project, is currently revising a biological assessment submitted in 2018 that will ensure the necessary federal approvals for the project, as well as pave the way to apply for state permits needed for the first phase of the project to begin.
Once the appropriate state and federal permits are approved, $4.1 million in funding from the federal National Resources Conservation Service will be issued to help remove four of the five dams in the river and improve river habitat and recreational opportunities from Bridge Street to Fulton Street.
Grand Rapids Whitewater has been working to obtain funding and permits to restore the river since its creation in 2009, although the amount of intergovernmental coordination the project has required has contributed to extended timelines. Officials had previously projected the work to begin in 2020.
Even so, the project partners believe restoring the river will bring huge economic and social benefits to the city of Grand Rapids.
“We think that with this project, and the investment in the community spaces along the river, the river then really has the opportunity to become the central gathering place,” said Matt Chapman, project manager for Grand Rapids Whitewater.
But before the work and benefits are seen by the general public, Grand Rapids Whitewater is working behind the scenes to coordinate the large-scale project that is estimated to be finished in four or five years.
Working in phases
The first phase of the project will take about two years of construction after the permits and funding is obtained. This part of the project involves the removal of four dams between Bridge Street and Fulton Street.
It will also bring in rock and boulders to create some engineered whitewater for recreational purposes.
Next is building a barrier that blocks sea lamprey, a harmful invasive species. Multiple agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are evaluating the proposed structure that will be built to block the lamprey. Once a structure is approved, installing the barrier will take another two years, Chapman said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is leading an environmental impact study for the lamprey barrier to find the proper structure and method of installation that does not harm other species in the river, including the endangered snuffbox mussel, all of which play a key role in the river’s ecosystem, Chapman said.
The last phase of construction is to remove the Sixth Street Dam, the largest of the dams, to restore Grand Rapids’ namesake water feature.
The project has many partners, including local engineering firms, environmental groups and others. Grand Rapids Whitewater has been working for months to file the assessment for the first phase.
“Our engineers are working 80 hours a week trying to get this done, because as soon as (an agency) changes and says we can’t have a wave right after the bridge because it doesn’t seem safe — or something — it might block some other things,” said Steve Heacock, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater, who joined the organization after leaving his position at Spectrum Health earlier this year.
The nonprofit has secured funding from multiple government agencies and is still seeking other funds. It also has gained financial support from the Kent County Board of Commission, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and private donors. Its private funding goal is $20 million; Chapman said there is still about $7.5 million to raise.
“This community is astoundingly supportive of these projects,” Heacock said. “Some of these major foundations have stepped up in a very, very big way. It’s made it go smoothly, and allows us to continue what we’re doing.”
The aim is to submit the application for the first phase by the end of this year, Heacock said.
Outside the river
While Grand Rapids Whitewater’s work consists of river restoration, another arm of the overall river corridor work is taking shape along and near its banks.
Conceptual plans for redesigning public spaces on both banks of the Grand River were unveiled last fall as part of the “River for All” project. This part of the restoration involves a wide range of stakeholders, from city planners to real estate developers and property owners who see further economic opportunities along the riverfront.
The River for All plan includes six “opportunity” sites along the river, including the former municipal water department storage site south of Riverside Park, Fish Ladder Park on Front Street at the Sixth Street Dam on the west side of the river, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum at Pearl Street.
The plans could leverage nearly $20 million annually in economic activity, according to an analysis by Anderson Economic Group LLC.
There is still the question of how those projects will be funded, and who will manage them. The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority in August approved entering into negotiations with two consultants with the goal of hiring the two firms to perform a study that helps answer those questions.
The point is to restore the river as much as possible while embracing the recreational and economic opportunities of today, Heacock said.
“The river was very different. There’s now a city in the way, so that’s what we’re dealing with,” Heacock said. “We’ve gotten to the point where all the agencies are working together with us, with the private interest, with the city’s interest.”