What's Left Ypsilanti

► Listen  

Dam Displacement

Brian Geiringer

Today, the Peninsular Paper Dam sits on the northern edge of Ypsilanti next to Pen Park and a shell of the old Paper Company. In ten years, it may not. In one of two high-profile decisions under consideration at the moment, City Council may choose to begin a process to remove Pen Dam in the coming years. If it’s not removed, the dam must be repaired. An influential group supports each possible outcome: The Friends of Pen Park (FPP) urge Council to repair and keep the dam, while the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), consulting with the city, has backed the opinion to remove the dam. Council has seven years to decide.

📷 Aaron Apsey

Many factors complicate this choice for city council. HRWC and others who support dam removal cite multiple ecological benefits; FPP and others in support of dam repair question how the city could pay for removal and how much the two options really cost. Folks on both sides wonder why the city is rushing to make a choice.

Council has seven years to decide. Folks on both sides wonder why the city is rushing to make a choice.

Many Friends of Pen Park are homeowners living on the impoundment above the dam — their properties will undergo unwanted changes if the dam is removed: the riverfront will recede away from their homes. At the same time, Ward 3 Council Member Pete Murdock says HRWC “is a champion of the removal of dams” and “[a]pproving a contract with such a biased entity was a mistake.” He asks residents to “consider the source” of the report by Princeton Hydro (PH), the firm hired by HRWC to evaluate the prospect of dam removal.

At the February 20th dam town hall discussing the issue, Ward 1 Council Member Lois Allen-Richardson questioned the same report by PH — especially the evaluation of the sediment in grounds above the dam. Amidst concerns of downriver contamination, PH sampling found low levels of harmful materials. Allen-Richardson recalled how expert opinion encouraged the city’s purchase of the Water Street property. She said “once everything was out of there” toxin levels were found to be much higher than the original estimates, and “[now] we’re in trouble.” On Dec. 4 after PH presented their report to Council, newly appointed Ward 2 Council Member Steve Wilcoxen, a career biochemist, “explained [that] his concern is the limited core samples included in the survey regarding the toxicity of the sediment,” according to city minutes.

Additionally, some members of FPP claim that the report underestimates the cost of dam removal, perhaps drastically. Brian Athey, who lives on the waterfront above Pen Dam, stated that FPP found the city of Ypsi would be legally bound to pay almost $9,000 per acre of uncovered land were the dam removed. At an estimated 118 acres, that cost would sum to more than one million dollars on top of the $2.7 million dam removal estimate concluded in PH’s study. On December 4th Princeton Hydro engineer Laura Wildman described their survey, on which council is expected to base their weighty decision, as “very preliminary.”

To compare, OHM Advisors’ 2014 listed evaluation of dam repair estimates summed to about $650,000. Oddly their 2019 estimate had the same exact list of items as their previous estimate, but each item’s individual cost estimate had been increased by between 5 and 20% — with 13 of 19 items increasing by exactly 20%. With increased licensing and contingency, their new estimate was $807,000, amounting to a five-year increase at 312% of national inflation. This fact is hidden since the 2014 report is missing from the PH report’s appendices, despite being listed as the first item. Moreover, at the February 20th town hall OHM project manager John Tanner refused to give any range of time estimates before a hypothetical dam repair would need further work, putting the firm’s role in a questionable light. Multiple members of FPP have noted repairs could be paid off over ten years, leaving the city with an estimated yearly cost of between $65,000 and $81,000 — or about 0.5% of Ypsi’s ‘19-’20 budget.

On February 5th Brian Steglitz reported that Ypsilanti would “not be [at] the top of the list for getting grant funding.”

Meanwhile, members of HRWC claim that the almost $4 million estimated cost for removal would be manageable with the help of grant money; PH name 15 possible grant sources to help the city fund that prospect. However, on February 5th Brian Steglitz, a Water Treatment Services Manager for Ann Arbor, reported to Ypsi Council that Ypsilanti would “not be [at] the top of the list for getting grant funding.” He says that for environmental reasons, “when they are ranking dams for removal [funding], they’re looking at how much river [will be gained] in… a straight run that’s unimpounded. When you remove Peninsular [Dam], you’re not gaining that much.”

Still, there are compelling environmental reasons to support Pen Dam removal. In their Dam Removal Support Guide, HRWC notes removal will “[i]mprove ecological habitat,” “[v]astly improve water quality,” as well as “[p]rotect[ing] Ypsilanti from extreme weather and climate change”— an important factor since Pen Dam’s collapse has been deemed a potentially lethal event. These ecological claims are widely supported, for instance by online sources McGill University, Scientific American, and The Guardian. Further, wetlands would likely be created were the dam removed; the Association of State Wetland Managers explains wetlands are excellent at sequestering carbon, a major upside in a world in which atmospheric CO2 levels are still accelerating upward. On the other hand, unless a significant portion of the removal bill comes from grant money, Ypsi residents may wonder why the city would pay millions for a different environmental project while the Water Street property lies unremediated in the heart of town.

Some, like Murdock and former Ypsi city councilmember Bill Nickels, express interest in generating hydropower at Pen Dam — a possibility that would offset some of the environmental downsides of keeping the dam. Though Steglitz attests that such an option seems financially unfeasible, depleting global levels of fossil fuels along with treaties like the Paris Agreement could heighten demand and price of alternative energy sources in the future.

It’s also uncertain how human-made land development could affect the Peninsular Park ecosystem if Pen Dam is removed. While many may be wary to build on a waterfront above a dam, which would change were the dam removed, the prospect of being the first to build on the new land revealed by removal could motivate developers into supporting removal.

The post-removal attraction of new businesses and river walks is a common theme around the state in places like Big Rapids, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Detroit. In Ypsilanti, that could accelerate gentrification. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, “park investments can lead to displacement of existing residents” as “[r]esearch... shows that investment in parks can lead to substantially increased... housing prices.” Former City Manager Darwin McClary stated there’s been “some talk of interest in establishing a brewery” at the Peninsular location.

The post-removal attraction of new businesses and river walks is a common theme around the state in places like Big Rapids, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Detroit. In Ypsilanti, that could accelerate gentrification.

According to February 19th city minutes, “Council Member Murdock stated Mayor Bashert has been lobbying [for] dam removal,” which may explain her urging for the decision to be made this year. At the same time, regarding community feedback Mayor Beth Bashert said city officials haven’t reached out to folks in the area, though it’s “a great idea.” Notably, Black residents are more represented in communities adjacent to Pen Park compared with Ypsi overall, but a large majority of residents attending the dam town hall were white.

One remaining question is why McClary recommended Council should decide whether to repair or remove Pen Dam by Spring of 2019. The 2016 evaluation by the Department of Environmental Quality agrees with a previous report that the dam is in “fair condition overall,” and clearly gives the city “10 years” to “plan and budget for implementation of repairs.”

Despite Ypsilanti having seven more years to make a decision on whether to repair or remove Pen Dam and their lack of outreach, the city’s two-week window for residents to fill out a survey has come and gone, and Council may hold a first vote as early as May 7, according to Sarah Rigg of Concentrate. Residents are still encouraged to reach out to their Council Members with their opinions.

Back to Top