Traverse City News and Events

What's Next For FishPass?

By Beth Milligan | May 10, 2022

Traverse City commissioners received an update Monday on the city’s stalled FishPass project at the Union Street Dam, which remains tied up in a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Appeals but is still inspiring research-related work along the Boardman/Ottaway River. Project representatives said they hope to move quickly on FishPass construction if the city eventually wins in court, though cost estimates will likely be revised given material and supply chain issues that have worsened in recent months.

Representatives from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and other partners in the planned fish-sorting research project at the Union Street Dam in downtown Traverse City expressed eagerness Monday for the project to move forward, despite a lawsuit that has currently blocked construction at the site. The lawsuit – filed by resident Rick Buckhalter challenging the city’s ability to build a research center on parkland property without approval from city voters – is still winding its way through the Michigan Court of Appeals after Judge Thomas Power ruled against the city in Thirteenth Circuit Court last spring. The city and other parties to the lawsuit submitted required filings to the Michigan Court of Appeals earlier this year, but a timeline for the city’s appeal being resolved is still unknown.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes Program Manager Carl A. Platz reminded commissioners that a $19.3 million construction contract for FishPass was awarded to Spence Brothers to originally start work in October 2020. “We have put that contract under suspension (until court proceedings are resolved),” said Platz, though he added the agreement is “still open, it’s still a viable contract.” However, Platz noted there have been “cost increases across the board” in the construction industry over the last year-and-a-half, and that he “would not expect this contract to be immune to that.” A court ruling in the city’s favor would still require renegotiating the Spence Brothers contract before FishPass work begins, though Platz said project partners “are going to do all we can as quickly as we can to make sure construction” moves ahead as soon as possible.

In the meantime, research related to the FishPass project mission is still taking place on the Boardman/Ottaway River. The goal of FishPass is to install a barrier with different fish passage technologies that will help improve passage of desirable species and eliminate passage of undesirable species, such as sea lamprey. Successful technologies could eventually be used in other areas around the Great Lakes and permanently installed at the dam site. Project partners including the city, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians recently approved an agreement to conduct a limited research study and allow two species of native Great Lakes fish – common white and longnose suckers – to pass upstream into the Boardman River.

Customized traps have been installed at the DNR weir on the lower Boardman this spring to capture up to 135 individuals of each sucker species, with the goal of tagging and releasing them into Boardman Lake. No work will take place at the Union Street Dam site due to a court injunction at the property, but releasing the fish in Boardman Lake will simulate their passage through the dam. The relocated fish are first being tested for viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a deadly fish virus, to ensure diseased fish aren’t released into the watershed. They will be outfitted with transmitters that will allow researchers to track their movements through the Boardman.

According to the agreement, the goal of the study is to “understand energy and nutrient connectivity (via movement of native migratory fish) between the river, bay, and Lake Michigan proper and to determine how it influences fishery production. Findings of this study will be critical to measuring the success of FishPass and establishing future fish passage objectives that align with management objectives for the Boardman/Ottaway River fish community.” The project will “track the eventual destination of native migratory fishes in the upper Boardman/Ottaway River…to simulate future passage at FishPass,” the agreement states. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Windsor will conduct a study of energy and nutrient dynamics in the river thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

City Director of Public Services Frank Dituri said in a memo that the study will “allow for scientific data collection to occur in the time frame that was initially expected” for FishPass work to be underway, calling the project “supportive and complementary to the FishPass project.” In a May 2 update, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission wrote on a Facebook page created for FishPass that 77 white suckers and 13 longnose suckers had already been captured at the weir. The group is asking for the public’s help in the project by following closure laws and reporting the capture of any tagged fish.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission also noted other FishPass-related projects are underway, including fishery assessments recently conducted on the north branch of the Boardman/Ottaway to determine whether the watershed could eventually accommodate the reintroduction of Arctic grayling. “It may be possible to reintroduce a once-plentiful native fish, like the Arctic grayling, upstream,” the group posted. “And downstream, lake sturgeon may return. Good things to come!” According to the Facebook page, a new film called “The Ottaway: A River Reconnected” is also set to be released later this year. The film is a sequel to “A River Reborn,” a one-hour documentary released in 2017 about the Boardman/Ottaway river restoration project. A trailer for the sequel film has been released online

Meanwhile, while waiting to see what the future holds for FishPass – or alternatively, some other type of repair project to address the deteriorating Union Street Dam – the city has hired engineering firm AECOM to monitor the dam on an ongoing basis after a recent state inspection downgraded its safety rating to fair-to-poor condition. Work, which has already begun since commissioners approved the contract last fall, will include establishing a topographic survey and survey monuments on the dam, investigating slope stability and seepage, evaluating spillway capacity, evaluating and planning for tree removal, inspecting submerged portions of the dam through dive/video inspections, and quarterly inspections of the dam and project structures, among other assessments.

Pictured: The Union Street Dam site prior to FishPass construction (left); rendering of site with FishPass built (right)

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