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WMEAC: The paradox of Grand River Waterways

• Jul 30, 2019 at 2:00 PM

Take a camera and suspend it a few thousand feet over a section of river. Watch it wind and shimmer. Any section of any healthy river will do. Each river, while different in specifics, will always mirror a snake’s curving.

Now, let the camera hang there for a few hundred years. Go off and read a book or found a civilization. When you come back to review the footage, you’ll find that the course of the river, though not its basic shape, has changed. Compress the footage into a minute-long clip and watch it slither over the land.

This is normal behavior. Nature rarely draws her lines straight, and even if she did, it wouldn’t last long. This is because rivers constantly collect earth as they flow. Encountering an irregularity in its path, a stream will either pick up or drop off part of what it’s carrying. Over time, this deepens the curves that are already there, making new land in some sections and nibbling away the banks in others.

Trees fall over in the short term, their roots undermined by the water’s relentless flow. But rivers are voracious; over centuries, forests fall little by little and are carried away. These come to rest on new shores, become part of new landscapes: marshes, wet meadows and other forests.

Humans, as always, have a way of accelerating things, though much of the time we don’t intend it. One of the quickest ways to change a river’s character is through dredging, a process that Dan Hibma has proposed for the Grand River. On the surface, Hibma’s plan seems economically sound: Make the Grand River navigable to large boats from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids, create new recreation, new business opportunities, and watch the cash flow into the pockets of West Michigan residents.

But the sense this plan makes is only superficial. Many others have already highlighted the damage dredging causes to the ecology of a river. In the case of the Grand River, it would destroy the habitat of many species, endanger seasonal fish migration and degrade the river’s water quality. But dredging’s destructive costs go far beyond the species whose habitat it directly disturbs.

Take the same river from before that you filmed with such patience. Now, remove several feet of silt from its bottom in a 26-mile section. Zoom in until you can see the leaves of the redbud along its bank. At first, nothing drastic happens. The water level in the river section drops, the river clouds with silt, but nothing appears out of balance.

Then, let clouds cover the land and watch the rain pelt down. Watch as the runoff flows into streams and wetlands, then rushes in cascades down the banks. You’ll need to speed up time here, but not by much. The runoff, now flowing down steeper banks, scoops out more soil than it used to, widening the river valley. Because you have deepened the river, the flow accelerates, cutting even deeper into the bed. Marshland and bayous in its proximity drain, presented with a lower water table. Increasing the speed of your time lapse, the river writhes, carving out the land around it, lashing out like an injured animal. Houses, bridges, walls and businesses collapse into it. People wake up one morning to find the water knocking at their back door.

This scenario may be a bit hyperbolic. The river you’ve created represents a situation where nearly everything goes wrong, the natural world’s equivalent to a Hollywood blockbuster starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But the truth is that dredging the river will change more than its depth. It will cause unintended harm, not only to the natural world around it, but to projects that our society has poured its time and energy into, like trails, parks and natural harbors. According to Dan O’Keefe of the Michigan Sea Grant, dredged areas of the Grand River already experience “bank failure, substantial loss of park land and the loss of many mature trees.”

And here we come to the paradox of Grand River Waterways: Hibma and supporters of his project base their arguments on increased recreation along the riverbank, and cruises where folks can take in the river’s natural beauty. However, the project is virtually guaranteed to alter that beauty, contorting the ecosystem until it is as twisted as a face in a broken mirror. It will alter current infrastructure, and any business trying to take advantage of the new opportunities the plan offers will risk building on unstable ground. West Michigan may experience short-term economic growth, but the plan promises long-term costs that we can’t take back.

Currently, our lawmakers are vacillating whether or not to allocate money for this publicly funded project in next year’s budget despite opposition from nearly every corner. Though the governor promises her veto, the fact that it’s happening at all is still troubling.

This proposal should be, if you’ll excuse the pun, dead in the water. Yet for some reason our representatives continue to offer us a choice that no one should need to make. In one future, the river meanders wide, its banks colonized by unfamiliar species. The other’s movements are calmer, almost predictable. Its banks are green with native foliage, its flow serene.

About the writer: Dan Christman is the journalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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