Meanders and Dam Removals: Restoring the Dowagiac River

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Kevin Bunch
July 20, 2022
pucker street dam

The Dowagiac River, which flows in southwestern Michigan in the Lake Michigan basin, has seen a flurry of restoration activities in recent years thanks to efforts of local municipalities, federal and state agencies, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians (a Potawatomi Tribe) and other outside organizations. This work offers valuable insight and lessons for restoration efforts elsewhere in the Great Lakes, officials say.

The Pucker Street Dam Removal

The Pucker Street Dam used to sit on the Dowagiac near the city of Niles. The dam lacked any kind of fish passageway, blocking migratory fish from habitat in the cold-water river’s upper reaches. In a 2011 study on fish migration barriers in the St. Joseph River Watershed, its removal was found to be the top priority, according to a recent Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting conference presentation by Marcy Hamilton, senior planner with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.

The dam removal took place in the summer of 2021. Efforts to restore the river channel where it formerly stood are ongoing.

The dam’s removal took years, more money than expected, and buy-in from the entire community around the river – including local residents, the Pokagon Band and fishing guides who rely on the river for their livelihoods, Hamilton said. While originally the city expected it to cost $3.4 million, the total price tag has come out to nearly $12 million, funded through grants, a utility surcharge and local bonds.

“This 3-mile stretch from the St. Joseph River to the dam is considered the golden waters of the Dowagiac River system because of the intact habitat, since this area was not dredged and straightened in the early 1900s,” Hamilton said. “The fish were contained in the river here as they were unable to cross the dam.”

To remove the dam, the city had to get about 50 landowners to agree to construction easements on their property, which took time and money to negotiate. For the fishing community, the city and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources agreed to renovate the boat launch at the dam site (with the state maintaining the site beyond that) and local experts volunteered to map out fish habitat below the dam site, before and after the dam’s removal. The $232,800 grant  for the boat launch restoration is pending before the Michigan Legislature as of June 2022, and, given the timing, construction would likely begin in 2023, Hamilton said.

Another dam on the Dowagiac River closer to Lake Michigan, the Berrien Springs Dam, serves as a blockade against invasive species, including sea lamprey, said Jennifer Kanine, director of the Pokagon Band’s Department of Natural Resources. Since that dam has passage opportunities for native and desirable fish species, the Pucker Street Dam’s removal should not have any adverse effects on invasive species proliferation. The invasive Asian clam already exists in the river system, and Kanine said the Tribe’s priority is to ensure native species can reestablish and take advantage of newly available habitat.

While there isn’t any monitoring of fish populations using the newly opened crossing, Hamilton said steelhead and king salmon have been spotted moving further up the river past the former Pucker Street Dam site.

dowagiac river pucker street dam removed

The Dowagiac River along the stretch where the Pucker Street Dam was removed. Ecological restoration efforts are ongoing. Credit: City of Niles

The dam removal provided an opportunity to clear a logjam further upriver that was preventing passage by kayaks and canoes. Hamilton said this was done in conjunction with the county parks department and local nonprofit group MEANDRS, or Meeting the Environmental and Agricultural Needs of the Dowagiac River System. Hamilton said fishing guides and a landowner are voluntarily clearing the logjam to ensure good fishing and recreational boating can take place in the area.

Meandering Down the River

Aside from the dam, restoring the Dowagiac River’s original meanders is a priority for the Pokagon Band. To do that, the Tribe is working with neighbors to reconnect former flood plains to the river and redirect its flow away from fast-moving channels created in the early 1900s.

On its online project page, the Tribe indicates that straightening the river and draining the wetland was seen as “progress” at the time, but that dramatically reduced the amount of habitat open to wildlife, taking away a natural filter that helps keep the river clear of excessive nutrients and shifting where floodwaters go during high water events. Restoring these natural meanders and the wetland will increase resiliency in the system and help reduce future flooding, according to the Tribe.

After applying for initial grant funding in 2010 and following a decade of studies and analyses to determine if restoring the river was feasible, the Pokagon Band contracted with MJ VanDamme Trucking to begin river restoration this spring.

Work started on the first two meander bends during March 2022 and should be largely complete this year, said Kanine. The physical work reconnecting the river to the flood plain to recreate meanders should be substantially done in August, while replanting native trees, shrubs and other plants will take place in the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023 to begin recreating wetland habitat that used to exist along the Dowagiac River.

A second phase with three additional bends will go out for proposal this summer, with work taking place either this fall or next year, depending on the bids. The project has cost $543,383 so far, Kanine said, with this current first phase of work coming out to an additional $1.4 million. The meandering effort is funded with grants from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Agriculture, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust.

As part of the state permitting process, the Tribe must ensure that the reconnected flood plains are a “functioning ecosystem” within five years of the second phase’s completion. Kanine said this includes ensuring that bare patches and invasive species are kept to no more than 10 percent each of the overall flood plain. Since the Tribe will be along the river in perpetuity, Kanine said the Pokagon Band intends to maintain these reconnected wetlands and ensure that native flora and fauna are able to live and thrive.

dowagiac above

Above: The southern meander as of May 7, 2022.

Below: The same site on June 7 after additional restoration work. Credit: Pokagon Band Department of Natural Resources

dowagiac below

“In late February, we knew we were starting the project in March, so we held a ceremony with a blessing in order to let all the spirits know that, within the phase one and two area, that this was going to look really bad for a little while, but we were setting right a wrong that has been done over time,” Kanine said. “We let the spirits know that we were moving forward in a good way and that we’re doing good for the next seven generations, so that what they see in the future will be better than what it is now.”

Down the line, Kanine said the Tribe is working to identify additional areas where meander bends could be restored, which will require working with the landowners along the riverbanks in those areas.

With the habitat restored, Kanine said this would provide more space for plants important to the Tribe to grow and for recreational canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

“Who wants to canoe or kayak down a straightened river when you could do that down a nice meandering river with plants on either side that are attractive to birds, bats and other mammals and amphibians?”

Lessons for Other Watersheds

Kanine said the process of restoring the river meanders has been a long one and encouraged people undertaking restoration work in other areas to “not get discouraged.” She added that the work to fully restore the watershed could take decades, but that every step in the right direction is a good one.

Similarly, Hamilton noted that the Pucker Street Dam removal also was a long process that required buy-in from many different people and organizations. While it took time, ultimately everyone with an interest in the dam signed on and has been working to ensure the river’s restoration is a success.

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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.