Repair or remove? Residents weigh options for Ypsi's Peninsular Dam

Ypsilanti city residents and those in surrounding communities have a variety of opinions about what city council should do with the aging Peninsular Dam over the Huron River, but both the pro-removal and pro-repair sides agree that the issue comes down to priorities.


The dam, located inside Peninsular Park at 1249 LeForge Rd., was constructed in 1867 to provide power for manufacturing paper at the Peninsular Paper Company. The dam failed in 1918 and was rebuilt in 1920, but all electricity-generating equipment has been removed from the powerhouse and it no longer produces power.


The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) inspected the dam in 2014 and required the city to come up with a timeline for bringing the dam up to safety standards. The city recently commissioned twin studies analyzing the options of repairing or removing the dam, and city council is set to vote on the issue May 7.


In 2017, the city began discussing whether removal might be the best long-term move, but some have concerns with that plan.


"The costs to remove the dam are seemingly unmanageable, especially if there are other priorities," says Brian Athey, a resident of Superior Township who lives on the river and is a member of the Friends of Peninsular Park group.


Athey thinks that, instead of spending a couple million dollars on dam removal, the city would be better off working with Amtrak and the federal government to put a commuter rail line in Ypsi back in business or investing in cleanup at the city's Water Street site.


Ypsi city resident Beth Gibbons says the dam wasn't high on her priority list when she first heard about the issue.


"But as the conversations have unfolded, and I've learned more about the dam and the condition of the dam, the more I sat and listened to arguments about what to do or not to do, I found myself caring enormously about this topic," she says. "There's no question in my mind that the most appropriate thing to do with the dam is remove it."


The nonprofit Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) has strongly recommended removal based on the benefits other communities have seen after a dam removal, but HRWC officials know that it's a balancing act for the city.


"Every community thinking of dam removal has to weigh the practical challenges with benefits of removal and come to its own conclusion," says Dan Brown, watershed planner with HRWC. "It's a case of where does this fit into city's priorities."


Should the city prioritize moving quickly or taking its time to accumulate more data and run the numbers for each scenario? Should it prioritize improving the river's ecological health or preserving a piece of the city's history? City council must answer these and other questions as the dam's fate is decided.


The case for repair


Anne Brown, an Ypsi resident who has been active in local and state politics, says her first impression of Peninsular Park was that it was "hidden and neglected," full of trash and covered in graffiti. Her daughter, who was in the car with her at the time, was frightened and wanted her mother to back out and leave immediately.


Since then, Brown has become active with the park's Friends group and has helped organize quarterly cleanup days at the park. Most Friends members were not happy when it became clear that the city was seriously considering removing the dam.


Brown says her top concerns about removing the dam are the economic impact, the presence of toxic sediments that could be released during the removal, and historic preservation.


She and other members of the Friends group say that city reports have not compared numbers on removal versus repair in an "apples to apples" way, and that is skewing public perception.


The city contracted with Livonia-based OHM Advisors to provide a cost analysis for repairing the dam, while HRWC and independent third-party firm Princeton Hydro were asked to conduct a study on removing the dam. The total cost for the repair project was estimated at $807,000 with a 20 percent contingency built into the budget, while removal is likely to run around $2.6 million or $2.7 million with a 30 percent contingency.


Brown says those numbers don't tell the whole story, though, because the figure of $807,000 included line items that were not included in the removal estimate. She and the Friends group think the final figure for repair should be less than $600,000.


Removal proponents have pointed out that it's likely that grant funding would be available to offset the higher cost of removal while the cost of repair is likely to be left entirely up to the city, but Brown isn't convinced. She says that, for one thing, cities can apply for state funds for repair.


Additionally, dam removal will create more than 100 additional acres of dry land along the river, raising questions of ownership of the newly-exposed land and city liability for management and cleanup of that property.


"In the current plan for removal, no provisions have been made to reimburse homeowners affected by dam removal regarding the cleanup and redevelopment of the newly exposed land," says Margery Dosey, another Friends of Peninsular Park member who lives in Superior Township. "If removal happens the exposed … mudflats ... will need cleanup."


The Friends group is also concerned that toxic sediments building up under the dam for 100 years will be released during dam removal. The Princeton Hydro study showed that contaminant levels were within human health and ecological standards, but an earlier study in 2013 showed higher figures than the Princeton study. The Friends group would like additional study of sediments before the city votes to remove the dam.


One of Brown's main concerns, though, is preserving city history.


"That paper mill company was connected to the Chicago Tribune at some point, and that means that the city of Ypsilanti played a larger, significant role in the country," she says. "I would like to see our history preserved."


The case for removal


Gibbons says the Peninsular Dam issue looms large both in her personal and professional life. She is an Ypsi resident as well as the executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, a group that supports and connects people working on adaptation to climate change.


While the condition of the dam has been deemed "fair" by state officials, it's also considered a "high hazard" dam, in that it could lead to catastrophic property damage and loss of life if it fails as it did in 1918.


"People are exposed to the dangers of the dam if it collapses," Gibbons says. "With my work and with what I know about the increasing severity of storms in this area, that's going to continue to put stress on this dam. It's more 'when' than 'if' this dam fails. It's going to cause catastrophic environmental and economic damage and poses a risk to life and property, and that's all on the people of the city."


Environmental benefits tend to be high on the priority list of those who are in favor of removal, but they also say it's a matter of equity.


Dan Brown says removal "improves equity throughout the city of Ypsilanti."


"The perceived benefit of the impoundment benefits relatively few, affluent homeowners on the impoundment upstream," he says. "Generally, (those affluent homeowners) are not paying for maintenance for the dam. So a working-class city is essentially paying for the perceived benefits of a few wealthy homeowners. I think the equity argument is particularly strong for removal."


Additionally, he and Gibbons feel there's an economic case to be made for removal.


Gibbons says if enough grant money can be found to account for about half the cost of removal, it will bring it "closer to the ballpark of repair."


"Furthermore, repair is not a permanent solution," she says. "The dam is over 100 years old, and has had its maintenance delayed already and will require additional maintenance."


Removal would free up about 1.6 miles of river between the dams upriver and downriver from Peninsular Dam. Athey and other proponents of repair say they believe that factor may limit how much grant money is available for removal because dam removal projects are more attractive to funders when they free up a longer stretch of river.


But Dan Brown says those proponents are "cherry-picking one element of all the factors that go into what makes a river dam removal project attractive" to grant funders. For instance, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has said that freeing up this particular stretch of river will be good for fish in the river.


"This particular stretch turns out to be pretty valuable and somewhat unique in southeast Michigan," he says. "It connects two disconnected parts of the river to Ford Lake, which is also really important. There are a lot of factors that make a removal project attractive to funders, and we think that, in this case, there's a pretty compelling case for dam removal."


As for the historic preservation argument, Dan Brown says HRWC is committed to helping the city revitalize Peninsular Park, and the iconic Peninsular Paper Company sign can be preserved even if the city decides on removal.


What about the hydro option?


Throughout the debate, some residents have asked about the possibility of restoring hydro power to the dam.


Bill Nickels, a former city council member, has been strongly in favor of that idea for almost two decades. The city has explored this option both with Eastern Michigan University, before it built its existing generating station, and with a private company that had explored buying and restoring the powerhouse and paying the restoration cost. Both those deals fell through, however.


Dan Brown says that in order to know if hydro power is feasible at a particular dam, you must know how far and how fast the water flows. HRWC has compared conditions at the dam to other dams in the county and determined that the cost of restoring hydro power would outweigh the benefits of energy generated.


During a town hall meeting about the dam issue, Nickels told city council he felt they were dismissing the hydro option too quickly without running all the pertinent numbers. But Gibbons says conversations have been "misguided" when it comes to understanding what being an "environmental steward" means.


"I have found discussions about the idea of keeping the dam as having any environmental value as being misleading," she says. "Arguments about using the idea of hydro on the dam as positive climate action is a red herring in the discussion."


Despite his advocacy for returning hydro power to the dam, Nickels says there are "very good arguments on both sides."


"The city council has to do something with the dam," he says. "Let's look at both alternatives and see what's most feasible at this time. My fear is that they'll look at both and say they don't have the money to do either one of them, and they'll go to the fallback position of just doing the maintenance to answer what the state of Michigan wants them to do."


City council plans to vote on a resolution related to the dam at its May 7 meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the city council chambers, 1 S. Huron.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.