Removal of dam on Muskegon River tributary to start next week
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Wednesday, 20 September 2006 13:49

One of Michigan's premier trout streams in the 1800s, before countless state rivers were ravaged by logging and bisected by dams, is about to get an extreme ecological makeover. Work begins next week on the removal of the Hersey Dam, which blocks the lower Hersey River, a major tributary of the Muskegon River, north of Big Rapids.

The original dam was built in the village of Hersey in 1858. Removing it will restore several miles of the 21-mile-long Hersey River, a cold-water trout stream.

By next spring, anglers could be catching brook trout in a stretch of the river that flows through the tiny village of Hersey.

"The Hersey Dam project is a big deal. The Hersey is a really premier cold-water stream that has a lot of reproductive potential for fish," said Sharon Hanshue, a supervisor and dam expert in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Removing the dam and tons of sediment that has accumulated behind it will restore the Hersey's natural flow and water temperature, improve fish habitat and increase recreational opportunities, state officials said.

"We're basically going to be restoring the stream to its original channel," said Rich O'Neal, a DNR fisheries biologist.

O'Neal said there are brown trout in a half-mile stretch of the Hersey River between the dam and its confluence of the Muskegon River, and brook trout in the upper Hersey. With the dam gone, trout and other fish species will be able to move freely between the Muskegon and Hersey rivers, all the way up to Reed City, where another dam bisects the Hersey.

The $274,600 dam removal project will take about five weeks to complete. The restoration of river banks near the dam will extend into next spring, said Jim Hegarty, the project manager for Prein & Newhof, a Grand Rapids engineering firm.

"In general, the project shouldn't be that difficult," Hegarty said. "I'm excited about watching this river come back to life ... we're expecting the river to be quite a draw for the village."

The project is also historically significant: One of Michigan's most spectacular fish species, the Arctic grayling, was first discovered in the Hersey River in the 1850s.

The grayling was eliminated from all Michigan streams by 1930, the victim of excessive fishing, log runs and dams that destroyed its habitat, according to state studies.

Hegarty said dam removals are still fairly rare in Michigan, which has about 2,600 dams. The Hersey Dam is one of 94 dams and lake-level control structures remaining in the Muskegon River and its tributaries.

Two other dams have been removed from the Muskegon River since the 1960s: The Newaygo Dam in 1969 and the Big Rapids Dam in 2001.

Hanshue said a lack of money has slowed efforts to remove more dams in Michigan that are either obsolete or unsafe. The Hersey Dam removal is being funded almost entirely by private foundations and fishing organizations.

Hanshue acknowledged that Michigan lags behind other states that have removed dozens of old dams, such as Wisconsin and Maine, but said, "I think we're making some good progress."

The recently formed Michigan River Partnership, which includes representatives from the state and Michigan Municipal League, hopes to make dam safety and dam removal more prominent issues among state lawmakers, said Mark Coscarelli, a senior Great Lakes policy consultant for Public Sector Consultants in Lansing.

Dam removal will become a more pressing issue in the near future because many of Michigan's 2,600 dams are approaching the end of their life expectancy, Coscarelli said.

The average life expectancy of a dam is 50 years, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. A well-maintained dam, like the Croton Dam built 100 years ago in the Muskegon River near Newaygo, can last a century or more, Coscarelli said.

One-third of the 94 dams in the Muskegon River and its tributaries are more than 50 years old, according to state data.

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