Battle Creek

Rising tide of optimism eddies around Battle Creek river naturalization project

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

BATTLE CREEK, MI  — Ripples of hope are being felt by an organization that has been working since 2014 to naturalize a portion of the Kalamazoo River in the city’s downtown.

In late April, Battle Creek Unlimited issued a press release about the city’s acquisition of buildings that formerly housed Ralston/TreeHouse and Graphic Packaging International. Members of  Battle Creek Whitewater Inc., the nonprofit that wants the river restored to a natural-looking state, say they are encouraged by these latest developments.

“Those acquisitions are the result of gifts made to the city by the developer that acquired those properties,” says John Macfarlane, founder of Battle Creek Whitewater and an attorney in Battle Creek. “That’s significant because the state of Michigan allocated $13 million in 2022 to acquire property, accomplish demolition, and do environmental work. The fact that the city has received these properties gratis clears more money for other work. There’s considerable expense for the demolition work.”

There are approximately 3,800 feet of concrete river channel with an additional 1200 plus feet of river restoration to the Monroe Street Dam and the Dickman Hwy River crossing, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited (BCU) which is spearheading the effort to naturalize the river.

“This will not only address a wide variety of fish and wildlife ecosystems and related environmental issues, but it will also increase recreational opportunities by connecting 46 miles of river, improve pedestrian access, and connect the downtown with the surrounding businesses and neighborhoods to spur economic opportunities in and around the downtown Battle Creek community,” he says.

John GrapThe Kalamazoo River flows to the west south of Hamblin Avenue near downtown Battle Creek.Proponents of a plan to remove that channel say that it has exceeded its life expectancy. They use words like “ugly,” “eyesore,” and “a detriment,” to describe the 4,000-foot channel and the way they view the concrete embankment constructed as a flood deterrent during the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“This project is located in the downtown Battle Creek area of the Kalamazoo River from the Dickman Highway Culvert going downstream northwest approximately one mile to the convergent with the Battle Creek River,” he says.

Macfarlane says he's heard from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and they support the project. However, that was not always the case.

ACE was at one time reluctant to endorse modifying the river because they didn’t believe there was an alternative design within the existing footprint that would accommodate for possible flooding.

“The acquisition of the former Ralston/Treehouse and GPI structures allows for a lot of other options to be explored for widening the river and creating little floodplains or oxbows as ways of dealing with increasing water levels when rain or snow is dumping water into the river,” Macfarlane says. “The Army Corps  appreciates that the city has that property.”

Ted Dearing, Battle Creek Assistant City Manager, agrees there is reason for optimism.

“I’m glad we’ve reached a point where the logistics and land ownership in that area have put us in a position to move forward,” Dearing says. “This is going to take a while. The last couple of years we’ve been studying the feasibility of the project and had to have the Corps of Engineers on board saying ‘Yes, it’s feasible.”

Courtesy of Battle Creek WhitewaterOne possible way the river could look if it were freed from its concrete channel.“It is very important to help restore the downtown vibrancy by removing abandoned industrial facilities and allowing for the river restoration to take place within this project area,” Sobieralski says. “This allows the project to be feasible by having more land to restore the river, create a linear park, and redevelop adjacent property with mixed-use development.” 

The estimated timeframe for the project is between seven and 15 years because there are so many moving parts, he says.

“The Army Corps of Engineers needs to have this project authorized and to have this project be included in the final Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) passed by the Federal Government. Then after the WRDA is passed the second big goal is to have Federal funding appropriated to this project. Then the United States Army Corps of Engineers would be able to conduct its GI (General Investigation) study,” he says. “We are hopeful that this could take place within the next three to five years. The GI study could take up to three years to complete. Then the project would need to seek additional federal appropriations and local funding match needed for the implementation of river restoration that could include the removal of the concrete channel. So, this final completion stage could take place in the following three to seven years.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has a program that provides financial support and assistance for river naturalization projects.

Under the authority provided by Section 1135 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, the Corps may plan, design, and build modifications to existing Corps projects, or areas degraded by Corps projects, to restore aquatic habitats for fish and wildlife, according to the Army Corps of Engineers website.

Sobieralski says BCU will be seeking additional funds to augment whatever the Corps of Engineers contributes.

“The large amount of federal funding we are pursuing is through the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), followed by state funding grant opportunities from the DNR Department of Natural Resources and EGLE (Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) and pursuing other local and community grants.”

John GrapThe Kalamazoo River merges with the Battle Creek River southwest of downtown Battle Creek.Part of Battle Creek Whitewater’s involvement in the naturalization project as it moves forward will include fundraising, Macfarlane says.

“While there are many grant opportunities and funding at the state and local level, any grant sources want to see some level of local involvement and the way to do that is fundraising and showing people in the community who are willing to donate to the cause.”

In addition to the fundraising, Macfarlane says he believes his group also will be involved in the selection process for a consultant who will focus on creating a comprehensive design for the project and pre-engineering work.

“I’m very interested in doing that because I have very definite ideas about the type of engineering firm we should be looking for. There are several companies in the country devoted to river restoration work and they create kayak courses.”

Dearing says project stakeholders will want to engage the public in the design and what the possibilities are when the project is at that point.

Although still very much in the planning/feasibility design phase, Sobieralski says once completed there is the potential for recreational activities that “could include but are not limited to, non-motorized trail to connect into the Battle Creek Linear Trail, a fishing pier, universal design boat launch for kayaks and canoes, playground and youth-focused recreational activities.”

The naturalization project is vital to continuing efforts to increase a sense of vibrancy in Battle Creek, Macfarlane says.

“I think it’s going to have a huge transformative effect on the city and invigorate a real sense of community pride — and give the community a wonderful gathering space,” he says.

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.