Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Correspondent
They traveled from around the state to Traverse City to learn more about the largest dam removal project in Michigan history and to see the beginning of the rebirth of the Boardman River and its projected impact on the environment, tourism and economic revitalization of the region.
Enjoying a mix of lessons on wetlands restoration in the Great Lakes Basin and networking with fellow philanthropists interested in protecting the environment, family foundation members of the Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Green & Blue Network (GBN) enjoyed a recent two-day gathering filled with fun, facts and a scenic walking tour along the river.
The group met during this year’s summer program entitled: “The Challenge and Benefits of Removing Dams from Michigan Rivers.”
GBN is a CMF affinity group launched in 2011 that serves as a model of funder collaboration, bringing together like-minded foundations and philanthropic individuals interested in being more involved in and helping support issues facing the environment in the Great Lakes Region through policy work and more effective and intentional grants.
“The Boardman River dam removal project is a strategic and far-reaching effort to restore this natural wonder that not only will help protect this important watershed area, but will also stimulate economic revitalization throughout the Traverse City area,” said GBN Co-Chair Tom Porter, president of the Porter Family Foundation.
Fifteen Michigan grantmakers and family members learned the history of – and future plans for – the Boardman River area from local and regional environmental experts involved in the unprecedented effort.
Presenting information on different aspects of the ongoing project were Glenn Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy; Treenen “Tree” Sturman, executive director of the Grand Traverse Conservation District; Gary Whelan, president-elect and Todd Kalish, Biologist Manager, of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division.
Boardman River Dam Removal Project History
In 2005, Traverse City Light and Power determined that it was not economically feasible to produce hydropower at the Sabin, Boardman and Brown Bridge dams. The dam owners – the City of Traverse City and the Grand Traverse County – organized the Boardman River Dams Committee to gather community feedback, encourage community involvement and manage an engineering and feasibility study to assess the environmental, economical and social benefits and detriments of retaining, modifying and removing the Boardman River dams.
After thorough review and discussion the dam owners decided to remove the Sabin, Boardman and Brown Bridge dams and modify the Union Street dam. A $10,000 grant from Rotary Charities of Traverse City was the funding impetus that helped launch the effort, now estimated to cost between $5 million and $8 million once completed, not including transportation system expenditures, according to Whelan.
"The benefits, however, far outweigh the projected costs of the dam removal project,” promised Chown. For example, he said, once the three dams are removed and a fourth modified, it will provide:
All the presenters noted that the project offered an opportunity for foundations to help fund various aspects of the continuing work.
“For example, foundations can do what they do best and fund process-system building and can be a critical component in funding community capacity building,” suggested Whelan.
Kalish said foundations can also consider grants to help pay for new plant species needed as part of the bottom land restoration work associated with the dam removals.
“We’ll also need funding to help develop objectives and criteria for evaluating the success of this work,” noted Kalish.
Noting a separate presentation at the event, Betsy Dole of the Dole Family Foundation highlighted the information shared by The Nature Conservancy’s Matt Herbert, who detailed a separate reef restoration project his organization is conducting at four locations in Grand Traverse Bay.
“If successful, this project will demonstrate that it is possible to support natural spawning and growth of lake trout in these bays,” said Dole, whose foundation made a small grant to help offset the project’s $350,000 cost.
After the presentations, the GBN group discussed the possibility of collaborating to create a new fund to support various state environmental projects, including efforts to eliminate or modify existing road culverts that act as a barrier to fish migration. Next steps for GBN include planning a meeting after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder shares his anticipated message on the environment, said Tom Cook, president of the Cook Family Foundation. “We can then see what opportunities family foundations might have in supporting environmental public policy efforts,” added Cook.
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