Prepared for
The Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed
Bay City, Michigan

Executive Summary

In October 2003, The Partnership for the Saginaw Bay Watershed, a local stakeholder group comprising citizens, government representatives, and environmental groups, hired Public Sector Consultants Inc. to conduct an assessment and develop information for communities and resource managers to help identify the most cost-effective options—including dam removal—for enhancing fish passage over barrier dams to achieve the targeted, sustainable fish population goals for Saginaw Bay. This report is intended to help dam owners make informed and collaborative decisions about the future of their dam. It strives to establish social, economic, and ecological contexts for decision making and describes potential costs and benefits of enhancing fish passage in several key tributaries in the Saginaw River watershed.

Until recently, installation of dams was a widely supported method of river management in Michigan and the United States. The current consensus among river ecologists, however, is that dams are the single greatest cause of the decline of river ecosystems (World Commission on Dams 2000). Community and public reaction to dam removal at the local level appears biased toward socioeconomic and value-laden judgments that perpetuate the status quo and undermine opportunities for ecological restoration. Consideration of dam removal often incites significant opposition because a dam often is viewed as a site of historical significance, a civic icon of sorts—revered and cloaked in nostalgia and romantic history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with minimal regard for contemporary environmental objectives. In addition, the water impoundments created by dams may be viewed as an economic stimulus for recreation or downtown development.

In Michigan, almost 2,500 dams obstruct fish passage and reproduction on key rivers and streams, all of which drain to the Great Lakes. Approximately 315 of these dams are located in the Saginaw River watershed, with the largest number, approximately 96, occurring in the Flint River sub-basin.

The primary goals of the project were to:

  • Increase awareness and understanding of both dams and natural river systems in the Saginaw River watershed
  • Improve the process of decision making at the local level so that alternatives to improve fish passage, including selective dam removal, are considered and accepted or rejected on their own merits
  • Identify a suite of financing options for enhancing fish passage, including dam removal, by-pass channels, or other innovative approaches such as rock ramp installation

The City of Frankenmuth participated in the project as a demonstration site to assess opportunities and cost estimates for fish passage at its local dam. Cost estimates were developed for fish passage alternatives at this site. In addition, the Chesaning Dam on the Shiawassee River and the Dow Dam on the Tittabawassee River provide a focus for some of the analysis. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the ability to move fish past these three barriers, and others, represents one of the most significant opportunities to help reestablish and sustain desirable fish populations in the Saginaw Bay watershed.

The report concludes that improving fish passage and natural reproduction and considering selective dam removal in tributary streams is limited primarily by:

  • Lack of understanding and knowledge on the part of dam owners and local citizens of the value and type of ecological restoration techniques now possible
  • Lack of public support for dam removal as a viable tool for river restoration
  • Lack of complete and accurate information when decisions on dam removal are made, often in an emotionally charged and divisive atmosphere
  • Lack of financial resources to achieve desirable fish passage techniques, including dam removal

The report also concludes that enhancing fish passage in tributary streams is not incompatible with local socioeconomic goals. In fact, interaction among fishery managers and local community officials at the earliest stages to assess opportunities for fish passage and consider dam removal may lead to enhanced recreational opportunities while stimulating local economies.

Removing dams to reestablish free-flowing tributary rivers and providing fish passage over remaining useful structures offers a major opportunity for restoration of certain Great Lakes fish populations that have historically relied upon rivers for spawning and nursery areas. Restoration of the natural flow regime of tributary rivers and their watersheds continues to emerge as a significant component of recovery efforts throughout the Great Lakes region and Michigan in particular.

A copy of the full report is available below.

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