On Sept. 22, Matt Diana from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) came to Albion College to give a presentation on the state’s plans for possible dam removals. Diana is a fish biologist who has worked for the DNR Fish Department for six years. The purpose of this presentation was to answer the questions: Why are the dams are being considered for removal and what factors are playing into that process? The dams in question are located on the Kalamazoo River throughout the city of Albion. The presentation, as a result, was open to both college students and community members.
Before introducing Diana as the speaker, the Center for Sustainability and the Environment (CSE) Director Dr. Thomas Wilch spoke about the national attention surrounding dams. He said that there are over 400,000 dams located in the United States and that many of them are creating hazardous conditions in communities, sometimes leading to the loss of life.
“Dam removal is a really vibrant topic in the United States right now,” Wilch said. “It has huge environmental and social implications, so this is a very important issue.”
At the beginning of the presentation, Diana said that the DNR mostly gets involved in dam removals through advisory and collaboration efforts with other organizations. When problems arise in the removal of the dams, the DNR steps in.
According to Diana, the DNR primarily focuses on dams that they own. Though, it is possible for the DNR to engage in other dam projects if the need arises.
The DNR Fishery Division cares about dams because the green energy source that they generate comes with negative impacts, Diana said. Impacts tend to include damage to fisheries, recreation, temperature increase and risk of failure.
“When we install dams, it blocks upstream fish migrations,” Diana said. “As a result, their numbers decline.”
Diana added that not only do these dams harm fish habitats, but other animals living in a body of water where a dam is placed. Dams also block the movement of sediment by slowing down the water moving through the structure. When sediment is blocked by a dam, new rivers cannot form and old rivers dwindle down.
“Dams age every day,” Diana said, adding that there are costs associated with repairing and removing dams that are falling apart. The cost of maintaining a dam is more expensive than simply removing it as each repair is only a temporary solution. Dam removals are upfront payments and are more of “a band-aid fix.”
“There isn’t a lot of money for repairs,” Diana said. There are a lot of grants that can be put forth towards the removal of dams, but not much for repair, he added.
Invited speaker Suzannah Demeau, who was unable to make the presentation on Sept. 22, is a project manager/engineer at Wightman.
“Wightman is the project lead,” Demeau said via email on Sep 28. “We have assisted the city with finding grant dollars, collecting on-site survey data, organizing the project team, running feasibility studies and coordinating with the subcontractors.”
Repairing or replacing a dam is expensive. Wightman estimated that repairing a dam costs about $1.5 million and $5 million for replacement.
“The benefits of dam relocation include: Eliminating hazards for boaters and other users, removing barriers so fish and other animals can move upstream, improving site aesthetics, habitat value and recreational opportunities, reducing flood risk, restoring riparian and riverine habitat, increasing habitat diversity and improving water quality,” Demeau said via email.
The city of Albion has made no decisions yet to remove all five dams, though Diana provided three different alternatives for possible plans for the river following removal.
“The first option is removing all five dams, the second option is putting more water through the north branch and the third option is to look at meandering the Natural Channel into Victory Park and away from the neighborhood,” Diana said.
Jim Whitehouse, a member of the Albion community, said he has lived in Albion for 25 years. Whitehouse graduated from Albion College in 1969 as a biology major and is an advocate for the environment as well as dam removal.
“Dams are environmentally bad, in terms of what they do for wildlife,” Whitehouse said. “There’s also a big issue with energy transfer.”
There have been no decisions made on dam removals in Albion. It is still an ongoing process. The DNR will be continuing communication with the school and community to figure out what the best option will be.