By LORAINE ANDERSON
TRAVERSE CITY — Dam removal, like dam building, is not easy.
It realigns rivers. It changes ecosystems. It plucks human heartstrings. It generates questions, concern and debate.
The Boardman River dam removal and restoration project, initially estimated at $5 million to $8 million, is considered the largest such project in Michigan and certainly is among the area's most significant projects of the last century, or since the hydroelectric dams were built along the river from 1894 to 1921.
More than 500 aging dams in the United States have been dismantled over the last two decades for various reasons — to improve public safety, to restore river health by allowing a more natural flow of water and sediments, or to create more recreational opportunities.
In Michigan, about 90 percent of the state's 2,500 dams will reach or exceed their intended life by 2020. Brown Bridge, Boardman and Sabin are among them because they no longer are profitable and it's too expensive to bring them up to federal and state safety requirements. The youngest, Brown Bridge Dam at 90 years old, is slated to go first. Demolition probably will start in late summer and continue into 2013.
The project enjoys a wide base of support from many quarters. Its list of "partners" include Rotary Charities, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Watershed Center Grand Traverse, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Traverse Association of Area Realtors and some fishing groups.
Among area residents, it has its believers and non-believers.
"Is it progress? I don't think so," said Ed Flees, a River Road resident who fished almost every day on Brown Bridge Pond before it was partially drained last year.
Ed and his wife, Mary, grew up in Traverse City and have lived along the river near Brown Bridge Pond for 40 years. Mary ran an animal shelter at their home for several years. Ed served on the city's Brown Bridge Advisory Committee for 11 years and was its chairman last year when he resigned.
"I can't be part of something I don't support," he said.
They have many concerns about dam removal, among them possible flooding, sediment washing downstream, what happens to pond wildlife, and the possible commercialization and overuse of the river.
John Wyrwas, a retired Ford engineer and River Road resident who lives about two miles downstream from Brown Bridge Dam, originally opposed the removal and facilitated meetings of opposed property owners. He also attended early Boardman River Dam Committee meetings during initial study phases.
"As it went on, I began to develop a deep appreciation for the damage caused by these dams," he said.
He is saddened by the plight of property owners along Boardman Pond and wants to see their riverbanks and property values restored. But he now supports the project.
"I feel empathy, but we're part of a historical process," he said. "The historical use is as a natural river. The pond is not a natural part."
He has high hopes for the Boardman River sub-watershed management plan to be developed over the next 18 months, and for public input decisions planned for this spring.
Broken hearts on both sides
Barbara Wright, who lives along Boardman Pond, has a different take on the project. She's part of the original property owners group, the Boardman River Preservation Society, a small group of neighbors opposed to the dam removal.
She thinks the dams should be left in place, not operating but cleaned and maintained. The single-lane Cass Road bridge, built into Boardman Dam's foundation, also needs to be replaced. She's concerned about continuing river bank erosion as the Boardman finds its new course.
Norm Fred, a retired dentist and Traverse City Area Paddle Club member who runs the annual Clean Sweep on the river, said it "breaks his heart" to see Brown Bridge Pond vanish.
"But it would break my heart more to see the dam fail," he said. "It would be devastating. This isn't new, the dams were dangerous back in 1980. I think it's a good thing that we're doing it right."
Bob Carstens, an Audubon Club member and a member of the Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation board, also is sad to see Brown Bridge Pond go.
"I'm a birder and I really appreciated the wildlife in the ponds," he said, adding he understands why the city and county decided it wasn't economically feasible to upgrade and maintain the dams.
Carstens regularly attends the project's monthly bottomland meetings and recreational trail discussions because he's interested and also serves on the board of the Grand Traverse Natural Education Reserve.
Some people want varied transportation opportunities through the river corridor and others support more hiking trails, he said.
"What kind of trails go down there is a challenge now for people making the plan for the Boardman River Valley," he said. "You want to accommodate human activity, but you also need to protect wildlife and their habitat. We can get our water and food easily, but birds and the rest of the animals can't.
"That corridor is a prize and it is to be protected," Carstens added. "I think it will end up OK."