Robert Laitinen: Behind-the-scenes on restoring the Little Rapids in the St. Marys River

This piece is made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with support from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

When the St. Marys River was developed for shipping and industry, rapids that once defined the river were mostly destroyed. That destruction has negatively affected fish habitat and reduced the potential of the area's commercial, sport, and tribal fisheries.

Although it's impossible to restore rapids in places like the Soo Locks, the opportunity still exists to increase fast-flowing water in certain areas. A $9 million project through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has done that in the Little Rapids area on Sugar Island. The project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), replaced a causeway and two culverts with a new bridge, allowing water to flow freely. The objective is to increase spawning area and habitat for fish. Construction was completed in fall 2016, and follow up paving, plantings, and monitoring will happen this year.

The project has been in the works since the early 1990s. It's the result of a broad community partnership between U.S. and Canadian federal and state agencies, local governments and community organizations. They include NOAA, the Great Lakes Commission, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning Commission, Lake Superior State University, the St Marys River Sportsman's Club, and the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority.

Habitat restoration is an important part of removing nine beneficial use impairments on the St. Marys River, which is one of 43 federal Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) deemed the "worst of the worst" when it comes to legacy industrial pollution. A beneficial use impairment is a change in the biological, chemical or physical integrity of the ecosystem that prevents beneficial uses such as fishing, swimming, drinking water use and more. Once all impairments have been removed, the area will be “delisted,” or removed from the program. Work on the U.S. side of the AOC is expected to be complete in 2019. You can find out more about the AOC program and the St. Marys River here.

To find out more about the project, UP Second Wave spoke with Robert Laitinen, a superintendent of the Chippewa County Road Commission. He talks about how this project, which he describes as the "highlight" of his career, was achieved.

This interview is lightly edited for clarity.

Upper Peninsula Second Wave: How did the county road commission become involved in this project to restore fast-flowing water at the Little Rapids?

Rob Laitinen: The Chippewa County Road Commission became involved because we are the owner of the roadway that sat on top of the causeway that was in place. We had thought about turning jurisdiction over to the Army Corps of Engineers or another agency. But we felt we could better represent our local population here if we stayed involved in the project, so we took it on.

There were arguments during the public vetting process. Many questions came about at several town hall-type meetings and being a local agency; I think we had a little more credibility than would have an outside agency.

Upper Peninsula Second Wave: Tell me what was involved with construction. What kind of effort and resources were put towards this on behalf of the road commission? How did you keep the road open during the construction project?

RL: Keeping the road open was one of the very early demands of the Sugar Island residents. It was one of the requirements I had early on before we would even consider entering into the project. We had to have a temporary roadway around the project site so the traffic would remain unhindered. That's the only access point for residents to and from the island. People have to get to and from the ferry to stay on their schedules, so it warranted constructing this temporary roadway at a huge cost.

UPSW: Give us a behind-the-scenes on how this work proceeded over the summer.

RL: We began in early May. In this region, we have seasonal frost restrictions on our roadways, so as the thaw progresses in the spring, the roads get unstable, and we restrict the weights you can haul on them. That period typically ends around late April, early May.

On May 9th we broke ground on the project. We had just salted the roads for hauling. At that point, we blocked the flow in the existing two culverts in that causeway and began construction of the temporary roadway, which involved moving approximately 40,000 cubic yards of rock. We also had to complete temporary utility installations, both electric and telephone. They were buried within the roadway.

Then we shifted traffic onto that temporary roadway and began excavating the existing causeway down to a level near the waterline. Once excavated down to that level, that became the work platform, and all the foundations for the new bridge were then constructed from the land. We finished up on the foundations by late July.

Then the remaining earth that was between each of the piers of the bridge was excavated to create the waterway underneath the bridge deck area. Once that was excavated, the bridge girders were delivered. The waterway had to be excavated before setting those girders. After the girders had been placed, there was a lot of carpentry work to form the concrete deck pour, and tying of rebar. We poured the deck, the walls, and installed handrails. We ended the project in late October prepared and opening for traffic.

Once we opened to traffic, then came the excavation of the temporary road and letting the water go, letting it flow through and under the structure. That was quite the milestone, in my mind.

It was a pretty dramatic moment. We had achieved the ultimate goal.

UPSW:  What did it look like when the water was released?

RL: Within the construction site and inside of our erosion curtains, the water was fairly dirty and turbulent. From any construction activity, it's going to have that. There's no way to avoid it completely.

But as soon as that flow began to come through, you could just watch it cleaning and clear up. You could see the power behind the water, just how much there was there. You realized how big an impact we were going to have. The water began to clear up immediately, and it began flushing out and clearing out that entire bay on the south side of the structure. It was noticeable, you could watch it happening, and by the following morning, the water was crystal clear.

UPSW: What does this mean to the community? Have you noticed more people fishing?

RL: I haven't noticed anyone fishing there yet. I think it's a bit early. I don't believe that the impact of the fishery will happen that quickly, but I have heard good comments from those in the know from MDNR Fisheries Division. My hope is that it will have the intended impact, but I have a feeling that it will take a little bit longer for it to come to fruition. It's not going to be immediate.

UPSW: Have you ever done a project like this before, or is this unique to your career?

RL: I've done bridge projects before, but the size and scope of this project are pretty unique. You don't get a chance to do this very often, so I'm certain this one will be the highlight of my career.

Most of our projects are between say $500,000 or million-dollar highway projects, that's pretty typical, and we may do one or two of those projects a year of that size. To take on and complete an $8-million-dollar project in one season, that's a pretty big accomplishment I think.

UPSW: What were some of the big challenges; things that didn't go right, and how did you overcome them?

RL: Delivery of materials was a big challenge, because of the ferry boat. The ferry operators were very, very cooperative with us; it's just there are limitations to that ferry boat. Delivery of those bridge girders was one of them. They would not fit on the ferry boat. They had to be delivered via barge, and the very swift current prevented our barge landing where we wanted it to. So we then ended up having to interrupt ferry service two nights in a row to use the ferry dock and unload those girders.

The site itself has very clay, soft soils. There's a stony cobble river bottom, and you would think it would be pretty stable, but actually, just underneath that stone layer is a very, very soft red clay, and it made things very difficult. Even in the temporary roadway, it took extra material and extra monitoring. We watched it closely, because failures could happen in those clays pretty easily.

UPSW: How have people in the community received the project?

RL: We've had a lot of support. We did have a few very vocal residents opposed to the project. Some of them philosophically disagreed with dollars being spent in this fashion. They saw better use, in their mind, for tax dollars.

But I've actually heard quite a few compliments from some of those folks that I never thought I would hear them from.  We did have one gentleman there that was pretty vocally against the project. Once we opened it to traffic, he walked his dog across the walkway and looked around. I asked him what he felt, and he said he thought it was a very nice structure which would serve the community well.

Learn more about the Little Raods restoration project in this video:

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