Union Street fish ladder still open

The Record-Eagle

Aug. 25–TRAVERSE CITY — The Union Street Dam fish ladder remains open despite an agreement among state and local officials that it would be closed before Sabin Dam’s removal began, a project now underway.

Local trout advocacy organizations raised the alarm this week about the fish ladder still left open, and now both state and Traverse City officials are working to get the structure closed by Monday. Miscommunication between Michigan Department of Natural Resources and city officials allowed the effort to be overlooked, yet fisheries and local trout advocates remain hopeful the remedy will be in place before any damage is done by non-native fishes moving upstream.

“It hasn’t been closed yet but it will be,” said Scott Heintzelman, local DNR fisheries division unit chief. He said there was confusion about whether city or state employees would close the fish ladder, a process that involves placing boards into position and locking them down to prevent tampering.

Heintzelman said during conversations about fish passage with trout advocacy groups prior to Sabin Dam’s removal that DNR fisheries officials agreed to close the fish ladder to all migratory fish to prevent access to the upper stretches of the Boardman River before the dam’s removal began. Ideally that would have been in July, he said.

Michael Sipkoski, president of the local Adams Chapter of nonprofit conservation group Trout Unlimited, said city and state officials quickly responded to address the issue and it’s expected to be a good outcome.

“The only issue we have is it’s late in the game,” Sipkoski said. “Hopefully it’s not too late in terms of non-native fish going into the river and on upstream.”

Marc McKellar, board member for nonprofit Brook Trout Coalition of Traverse City, said that while it would have been better for the fish ladder to already be blocked — as agreed upon — it would be a more dire concern two weeks from now during the expected salmon run.

“I think the threat is averted if it goes up in the next few days,” he said.

McKellar said this miscommunication between city and state officials is a “perfect example” of why advocacy groups must stay “vigilant” about the dam removal process. Had concerned citizens not notified dam removal officials, he said “who knows how long this would have gone on?”

Sipkoski said the goal is to protect the native brook and brown trout populations now thriving in the Boardman River behind the Sabin Dam structure. “The dams effectively protected the river from what all we’ve done to the Great Lakes,” he said, specifically the introduction of competing salmon and steelhead species and the threat of invasive sea lamprey.

Heintzelman said he doesn’t believe the fish ladder oversight is a “big issue or controversy” because the salmon run has not yet begun.

“There isn’t any significant number of fish running or moving right now,” he said.

Nevertheless, Heintzelman said he understands why anglers may be on “high alert” after recent northwesterly winds pushed fish in Grand Traverse Bay closer to shore and into the area around the Boardman River’s mouth.

Marty Colburn, city manager, confirmed that workers will block the fish ladder on Monday.

The breach and removal of the dam and earthen embankment is underway. Soon, the powerhouse, spillway and intake works will be removed. The coming third phase will be the restoration of the river banks both upstream and downstream from the demolished structure, a process expected to last into next year.

The end goal of the Boardman River dams removal effort is a restored fish passage to Grand Traverse Bay, improved native plant areas and restored wetlands. The Brown Bridge Dam was removed in 2013, while Boardman Dam was removed last year. Union Street Dam is the only one on the river not to be included in the river restoration project.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.