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Ypsilanti's dam decision looms, Huron River could see a major change

Posted at 6:02 PM, Mar 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-05 18:02:42-05

YPSILANTI, Mich. (WXYZ) — Tear down a dam, or put another high-priced band-aid on it. Those are the options before Ypsilanti’s decision-makers in the weeks ahead, and the public has only a day left to weigh in.

Since 2014 it’s been known that the Peninsular Paper Dam in Ypsilanti would need repairs, at a minimum. Eventually the question morphed into: should the dam be removed for a one-time cost, or would the city make repairs knowing more repairs would be needed in the future. Recently the city council got reports indicating that a complete demolition of the dam would come with a price tag of $2.7 million, while repairs would cost $800,000 in the immediate future.

“Essentially that would be a band-aid fix to a long-term problem,” explains Dan Brown, part of the Huron River Watershed Council. “As we’ve been seeing stronger, and more frequent storms, all of this puts more stress on the dam. As they age they’re more prone to fail — so removing the dam improves public safety and removes the liability to the city.”

Brown is among those fighting to get the dam removed. From an environmental standpoint, it makes more sense. While the HRWC wouldn’t green-light every dam removal, many are thought to be detrimental to wildlife. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s Michigan built hundreds of dams — more than 2,000 stand today; however they’re not looked on as kindly as before.

“Removing a dam, generally speaking, is one of the best things you can do to restore the health of a river.”

Brown notes that removing the dam would change the look of the river. It would also improve the fish habitat, give wildlife more room to expand and wash away concerns of a potential dam failure. A recent study by the Army Corps of Engineers listed the Peninsular Paper Dam as “high hazard.” That means that if it failed the repercussions would be catastrophic to communities nearby — Brown said that while the label doesn’t mean the dam is expected to fail soon, it could potentially mean loss of life in the event it were to break.

Of course, a $2.7 million price tag is a sticking point. And while arguments have been made that a complete tear down would help beautify the surrounding riverside park — locals admit it’s tough to say goodbye to a historical landmark in the city.

The paper mill is long gone, but one of the original buildings — complete with signage — still stands opposite the apartment complex that sprang up across from the mill. For several decades the dam served as a power plant for the mill, though the infrastructure to generate power is long gone. In fact, hydro-energy once considered "green energy" is now viewed as a dirty way to create energy because it reroutes natural flowing rivers, essentially fighting Mother Nature.

The Peninsular dam -- known as the pen dam to many -- failed in the early 1900s only to be rebuilt. The dam has become a tourist attraction for long-time Ypsilanti residents. Wade Waters, who grew up in the area, said he still remembered walking by the river after football practices.

“We’d take bets on what color the river would be that day based on the color of the paper they were making that day,” said Waters.

While the memory speaks to the changes in regards to pollution, Waters said he’d be sad to see change happen so quickly.

“I’d rather see it left,” he said, “but if it’s going to take so much to replace it, it doesn’t make sense to keep putting money into repairs.”

Elaine Ponce said it didn’t matter how much it cost — she didn’t want the look and feel to change: “They should keep it. It’s part of Ypsi. Every time I go by it I just kind of smile, you know that feeling? It brings back memories.”

That’s the challenge for those hoping to convince the city that the dam is better gone, than patched up. Brown said the push-back to a complete removal plan is mostly tied to nostalgia, but he argued that they could still remove the dam while keeping the original paper mill building that remains. There is also hope that federal funding grants would help foot a portion of the cost to do a complete removal, where the repair route would require local funding.

“Any dam removal is tough,” said Brown. “It brings a lot of challenges — it brings a lot of change to an area, so it can be scary.”

Locals can still get involved with the decision making process about what Ypsilanti ultimately does with the Peninsular Paper Dam. An online survey is open for comments on the city’s website. It remains open through Wednesday night.