Skip to content

Keeping it

The GRPM Blog

The Renaissance of the Grand River


April 29, 2022

Grand River

By: Guest author, Jonah Strayer, Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, Grade 11 

In a city full of never-ending noise, there is one sound missing the rapids. The lack of this sound has created a stifling silence that is covering up the missing feature our city used to pride itself upon. Our city is grand indeed, but we are a city with no rapids. It is evident the rapids are gone, which leaves only one question Why?

What Happened to the Rapids?

The need to transport logs and utilize the river for resources led the founders and entrepreneurs of Grand Rapids to install a series of dams and remove the large slabs of limestone from the Grand River. The limestone was used in the construction of the city; you can find it all over in the forms of walls, floors and steps. In some locations, you can even see the remnants of fossils and indents of long-dead vegetation. The river also has a series of dams that control the water flow and level, as well as affect fish migration. Although Grand Rapids became a thriving tourist destination, its namesake feature is absent the rapids are a lost legend. Having the rapids would provide many environmental, social, and economic benefits, all of which our city could benefit from if we were to restore the rapids. 

Grand River and the Blue Bridge

How Do We Restore the Rapids?

The only way to give Grand Rapids its namesake back and to reclaim the benefits of the rapids is to reinstall the rapids and remove the numerous dams throughout the length of the river. This is the sole mission of the Grand Rapids Whitewater; they started a project to reinstall the rapids and restore our river to its previous glory. This project is being designed and run by a combination of civic leaders, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists and the general public. There is also a large focus on encouraging anyone who is interested in helping, to do so.

Restoration of the rapids will begin with dam removal and the introduction of substrate. GRWW explains the need for dam removal, 

“Removing the dams facilitates the restoration of the namesake rapids currently submerged in the area between Sixth Street Dam and Ann Street.”

Additionally, the dam removal will restore river connectivity for fish and other creatures and improve the river’s ability to transport sediment. Rivers, like arteries, need to be open to remain healthy. Once the dams are removed, fish and other creatures will be allowed to travel freely and access an additional 88 acres of historic habitat.” 

Substrates introduced will include limestone, boulders and gravel. When inquiries of why this is necessary were asked, GRWW responded, 

“Over the past 160 years, rocks and boulders were removed from the river bottom and used as fill for construction along the river or in the foundations of many buildings within the city. Installing boulders, rock and gravel would contribute to the aquatic diversity of the Grand River. Pocket water, eddies, seams, fast water and slow water all contribute to the oxygenation and overall health of a river. These features also provide healthy structure and habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The introduction of natural elements will help to restore the river to the state before the industry prevailed.

What is the Impact of this Project?

One of the opportunities this restoration will offer the community is to provide Grand Rapids with new, fun activities. With the addition of the rapids, there will be various activities available including white water rafting, recreational swimming and kayaking, as well as cleaner water. 

GRWW’s statement on the usage of the river post-restoration, 

“WhiteWater and adventure sports originally gave our project its name, but thousands of residents will enjoy the new waterfront even if they never get into a canoe or raft.”

The environment is undoubtedly the second most important thing to think about when considering the results and goals of this project. Reintroducing gravel and limestone into the ecosystem allows for better oxygenation of the water. 

“River water, richer in oxygen thanks to the turbulent rapids, will see increased microbial activity that will keep it cleaner and more hospitable to all.”

Improvements in the environment will also allow other threatened species to thrive and make a comeback against the race of extinction. 

“The 27 species of mussels (nine state-threatened and one federally-endangered) that have been discovered in the project area will find their habitat much improved”

One extremely large concern of the general public has been Lake Sturgeon. These fish are a core part of our community’s ecosystem and a large feature at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Grand Rapids WhiteWater reassures the community that these changes will only benefit the beloved fish and will not have any negative effects on them, as shown when they said, 

“When the Sixth Street Dam is removed, Lake Sturgeon will regain access to the bedrock beneath, which is their historic spawning ground.” “Fish and other living things in the river will thrive after decades of marginalization, and the river itself will be healthier for it.”

This shows that the community is not only engaged in the project but is working to make sure that it is done right.

Looking Ahead.

The effect the WhiteWater Restoration will have on Grand Rapids and the local community is tremendously positive. It appears as if the pros and cons of all aspects of this project’s triple bottom line are being taken into consideration and thought through. Arguably, the most impressive thing about this project is the thoughtfulness and careful planning that has been done and will continue to happen. 

Dr. Stephanie Ogren, VP of Science and Education at the Grand Rapids Public Museum shares, 

“It has to be done right as others will be looking at it for best practices as well as potential failures.”

It is this social pressure that continues to push the planners, builders and community to ensure that this project is done right and has a positive impact and results in the betterment of our community. 

Source: Grand Rapids WhiteWater: Restore The Rapids In The Grand River 2022,