The Michigan Engineer News Center

Restoration and collaboration

A field trip to the Boardman River presents a unique opportunity to see dam restoration and cross-disciplinary collaboration in action.| Medium Read

Amazing things are happening on the Boardman River.

From its head waters nearly 40 miles southeast of Traverse City in the northern Lower Peninsula, the Boardman River comprises 160 miles of river and tributary streams. Besides producing one-third of the water volume of Grand Traverse Bay, it is also an important trout habitat. And since the late 1800s, it has been home to several dams for hydro and mill power production.

When three of these dams were shut down in 2005, the dam owners – The City of Traverse City and Grand Traverse County – faced an interesting decision: whether to leave the dams there, or remove them. Ultimately, they decided that removing the dams was best for the community and the environment.

EnlargeThree people plant small tree by river
IMAGE:  Students plant trees near the Boardman dam

But removing dams is no easy task. In fact, the project on the Boardman River is more about “restoring function” than “removal,” with the ultimate goal of restoring 5.1 miles of cold-water stream channel and reconnecting over 170 miles of high quality river habitat to the Great Lakes over the course of around 15 years.

The project has obvious benefits for the local ecosystem, but it also had a surprising benefit 200 miles to the southeast, in a small class of 15 University of Michigan students in Ann Arbor.

Time for a field trip

The course “Restoration Fundamentals and Practice in Aquatic Systems” looks at restoration practices in rivers from both the ecological and engineering standpoints and attracts students in both Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Program in the Environment.

One student in the class, Dennis Sugrue, previously served as a commander for the Detroit office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervising the Boardman River Restoration and other projects in the state. He suggested that the Boardman River would make a perfect field trip for this class, and Associate Professor Aline Cotel agreed.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, with unmatched access to the project and technical staff,” said Cotel.

In October 2018, the class piled into rented vans and began the nearly four-hour drive north.

EnlargeMap of dam restoration sites on Boardman River
IMAGE:  A map of dam locations along the Boardman River

The big picture

By far the largest dam removal project in Michigan’s history, the Boardman River Restoration project provided a unique opportunity for students to see stream restoration at different stages in a single day. The Brown Bridge Dam area (removed in 2012) continues to mature and the stream has settled; construction of stream restoration features has just finished on the Boardman Dam (removed in 2017); and the Sabin Dam (removed 2018) is still under de-construction, with the impoundment almost completely drained and the river nine inches from its pre-dam channel.

“We were able to visualize the entire process of a restoration project by visiting different sites, all part of the same river system, each in a different construction phase,” said Hannah Bashore, civil engineering student in the Sequential Undergraduate/Graduate Studies (SUGS) program.

At the Boardman site, the students even got to help with the project, planting trees that will stabilize the adjacent riverine slopes, offer cover and habitat, and provide shade to regulate water temperature in the summer.

  • River and dam under construction
    In the early stages of dam removal
  • River with some grass around it
    The dam has been removed, but the area is still recovering
  • River in field surrounded by forest
    A site well on its way to recovery after dam removal

Ecology and engineering

Guiding the students throughout their visit were Brett P. Fessell, River Restoration Ecologist in the Natural Resources Department of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and Frank Dituri, Director of Public Services for the City of Traverse City and certified river restoration professional. Throughout the visit, they emphasized the importance of balance and collaboration in the project.

“Above all, I feel the opportunity exists for students to learn the absolute importance of synergy, connectedness, balance, natural order and how all lead to sustainability and health in natural systems,” said Fessell. “The opportunities abound for engineers, biologists, ecologists, economists, sociologists, and all the other ‘ists’ and disciplines to learn from each other.”

Dituri agreed. “The ecologist/biologist seeks to understand the conditions and behavior of the living things that require movement through a system, and the engineer needs to understand the variables that will guide the design…no single discipline can capture this task,” he added.

This collaboration among disciplines was particularly evident at the Union Street Dam site, where the group learned about future plans for the FishPass project, a selective fish passage that would allow native Great Lakes species to pass through but would prevent the movement of sea lampreys, an invasive species in the Great Lakes, and other non-desirable fish species.

The opportunities abound for engineers, biologists, ecologists, economists, sociologists, and all the other ‘ists’ and disciplines to learn from each other.Brett P. Fessell

An irreplaceable experience

The Boardman River Restoration project gave students a chance to experience real-world examples of what they learned about in the classroom.

“This trip definitely reinforced the idea that restoration attempts will not be successful unless both the physical and ecological characteristics of streams are considered in the design process,” said Bashore.

The experience left a strong impression on the students.

“This type of experiential learning is irreplaceable,” said Sugrue. “In ten years we might not remember how to apply Bernoulli’s Equation or the Manning Equation, but we are going to remember our experience on the Boardman River.”

And the guides?

“Send more students,” said Dituri. “I know I can speak for Brett when I say, ‘We live for this!’”

EnlargePeople near concrete fish passage
IMAGE:  The group poses near an existing fish ladder on the Boardman River
Three people plant small tree by river
Map of dam restoration sites on Boardman River
People near concrete fish passage
Jessica Petras


Jessica Petras
Marketing Communications Specialist

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

(734) 764-9876

GG Brown 2105E

  • Aline Cotel

    Aline Cotel

    Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

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