North Lansing Dam Repair Nearly Complete

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By Jack Crawley
Old Town Times Staff Writer

The construction project that Old Town residents and visitors have been seeing near the North Lansing Dam since September is a $1.2 million federal repair project.

Lansing Board of Water and Light Communications Director Mark Nixon said that water erosion on the dam has undercut the river bottom. This erosion process is also known as scouring, and Nixon said that if it continued it could eventually lead to dam failure.

“What we have done, and what we are doing right now, is actually installing new concrete piers which will help alleviate some of that erosion. Additionally, we’re going to be putting in some pretty large boulders, just plain old granite rocks, at the bottom. The combination of the piers and the rocks will, we think, alleviate any erosion in the future,” Nixon said.

By federal mandate, the North Lansing Dam undergoes a safety inspection every few years to ensure that it is still functioning properly and up to code. The 2007 inspection estimated repairs costing about $689,000 would be needed in 2011. Nixon said that the estimate was early on in the process, so the price was raised significantly before repairs began. According to Nixon there are no federal grants being given to help bear the cost of the project and it is all coming out of the BWL’s operating budget.

The work site for the North Lansing Dam repair on the west side of the Grand River.

According to the Lansing City Council’s Oct. 3, 2011 agenda, a major reason for repair costs being so much higher than the original estimate is the installment of cofferdams. A cofferdam is a watertight enclosure from which water is pumped in order to create a dry work environment and they were added to this repair project, in large part, to quell concerns about lowering water levels in order to do the work, which is a common concern with dam repairs.

It’s not so much dam repairs, or even the possibility of temporarily lowering water levels, that seem to bother most environmentalists, however, but the building of dams in the first place. Dams inherently have negative effects on the environment, such as soil erosion and harm to marine wildlife. The North Lansing Dam has the Brenke Fish Ladder to help minimize harm done to fish that live in the Grand River, but some damage is still inevitable. The Sierra Club, a national environmental group that has a local chapter office located in Old Town, has stood against dam construction for over a century because of the effects on the surrounding ecosystem.

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Patrick Lindemann does not support the building of dams in the first place, but believes that destroying longstanding dams (the North Lansing Dam has been around since 1936, but there was another dam in its place beforehand) can do more harm than good. Lindemann said that wetlands miles away from the dam exist only because of the dam itself.

“Now that we’ve put the dam in, a hundred years later, we have all of these ecosystems. If we destroy that dam, if we take it out, then what happens to all of those [ecosystems]?” Lindemann said. “There’s literally, I’ll bet you, hundreds of acres of wetlands because that dam has existed that long.”

One group adversely affected by the repairs, at least temporarily, are anglers (fishermen or fisherwomen) in the area. Sean McCue, a local fisherman who frequents near the dam and fish ladder, said that fish haven’t been around for about six months because of the construction. He is also willing to wait it out, however, and hopes that the project will be worth it and fish will be biting again soon.

One major positive impact of these repairs is the boost to the construction job market. Contrary to concerns about Michigan’s struggling economy and job market, the boost provided by this dam repair actually adds to a positive trend in construction jobs overall for 2011. The Michigan Labor Market Information Monthly Industry Employment Highlight for October 2011 points out that, “Over the year construction is up by 4,500 jobs (+3.7 percent).” October, a month when much of the preparation for the cofferdam was done, was the strongest month of 2011 for the construction industry since May, contracting a “significant” 3,900 employees. While national construction employment is up 0.2 percent overall in 2011, Michigan’s October construction employment numbers stand out compared to national numbers, which dipped 20,000 in October.

Those in and around Old Town hoping to visit nearby Burchard Park, which is directly east of the dam and has been closed since repairs began in September, will have to spend more time fishing or enjoying the sights along the river (although it should be noted that Lansing’s River Walk is and has remained open through the project). However, Nixon said that visitors will not have to wait much longer. Repairs should be wrapped and things should be back to “business as usual” by mid-December.

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