Letters to the Editor About Argo Dams

The following letters regarding Argo Dam are included on this page:

  • There are several good reasons Argo Dam must be removed (HRWC, May 2009)
  • Is Argo Dam really in trouble? (HRWC, June 2009)
  • Removing Argo Dam doesn’t mean it’s the end of rowing (HRWC, June 2009)
  • Clarifying the science behind Argo Dam debate (HRWC, June 2009)

There are several good reasons Argo Dam must be removed

By Laura Rubin: Ann Arbor News, May 7, 2009

Argo Dam is failing.

That’s one reason the City of Ann Arbor is considering removing it.

The Michigan DEQ found that part of the dam has deteriorated to the point where it could collapse and has ordered the city to fix or remove it. A plan must be in place by July 30.

The second reason Argo’s future is being debated is that a city committee has just completed a thorough two-year study of Ann Arbor’s four dams (Argo, Barton, Geddes, and Superior). The committee recommended that the others be maintained, but it could not agree on Argo’s future. The main sticking point: Rowers use Argo Pond, and they would have to find another location for their sport if Argo Dam goes.

I served on that committee and studied the issues in depth for two years. Figuring out what to do with Argo Dam is difficult. There’s no perfect solution. But there is a best solution. The Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) strongly recommends that Argo Dam be removed. Here’s why:

 Argo Dam is bad for the Huron River. It slows the natural flow of current, warms the water, and reduces its oxygen content. That hurts fish, insects and the rest of the river ecosystem. The pond behind the dam is also filling in with sediment and weeds, choking off animal life and entangling boats, paddles, and fishing lines.

Removing Argo Dam would immediately and dramatically improve the Huron’s health. Free-flowing water will provide better habitat for fish and wildlife, restore natural plant growth, and help keep invasive species out. It will reduce the impact of pollutants such as phosphorous – the main threat to the Huron.

Argo Dam is an expensive relic. No dam was ever meant to be permanent. Repairing Argo Dam as the DEQ demands will cost a whopping $500,000. Beyond that, every year the city must pay to maintain the dam and take care of Argo Pond – and pay insurance for the massive liability of a potential dam failure. The total annual cost to keep the dam: $60,000. Beyond that, every decade or so, the city must replace the dam’s chains, gates and other major components at around $250,000 – a cost that will come due in two to three years.That’s a looming $750,000 hit on the city budget, over and above the $60,000 in annual costs. Rowers pay none of the expenses. And the costs are not going away. If the city keeps Argo Dam, it will be paying these bills for decades.Finally, Argo Dam does not provide benefits that some dams do. It does not generate hydropower, and a 2008 city study concluded that it would cost far too much to install electrical generation at Argo. Nor does it provide flood control. On the contrary, because the structure is decrepit, Argo Dam has become a threat to public safety.

Taking out Argo Dam will not be as difficult as some have suggested. Rowing is an important part of this community, and we want to be sure it continues to thrive. But Argo is not the ideal rowing venue that some have suggested, and Gallup and Barton ponds and Belleville Lake can support rowing.Part of our mission at HRWC is to help people enjoy the Huron, and we will help the rowers develop outstanding facilities away from Argo Pond. In fact, the Skyline rowing team is already requesting the city’s help to start rowing at Barton. And in the long run, with fewer dams to maintain, the city can focus its resources on keeping the ponds in better shape for all users.Other potential problems have not materialized. Preliminary studies, for example, have found no contamination of dam sediments.High-end cost estimates for removing the dam run to $1 million. However, those are one-time costs, and the city projects that over the long term, removing Argo will cost less than keeping it.What’s more, there’s financial aid for dam removal. The federal stimulus package and state parks funds include money for dam removal – but not for dam maintenance. If the city wants to keep Argo in place, it’s on its own. Remove it, and we can apply for funding from the state and feds.

Removing Argo Dam is a terrific quality-of-life opportunity. If you’ve ever been to Delhi Metropark, next to the old Delhi Bridge, you’ve seen what the Huron River would look like when Argo Dam is gone: a lovely, fast-moving current tumbling over light rapids.Better yet, when the water level drops, a full 30 acres of land will emerge. The city already owns it. The result: a large riverfront park on the northern gateway to the city.More green space within city limits. New running paths and fun paddling. Natural buffers to protect the river from pollution. And a revitalized North Main corridor.It’s time to make a decision that will impact Ann Arbor for a generation or more. The reasons for removing Argo Dam are clear: a healthier river, cleaner water, tax money saved, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a gorgeous natural area in the heart of the city. It would not be easy or fun for the rowers to move. But Ann Arbor’s other ponds can serve them well, and so the benefits to the city and the environment should take precedence.In coming weeks, the city Parks and Recreation and Environmental Commissions will be considering the issue, and the question will come before the City Council this summer.We encourage their members to seize this opportunity and leave a cleaner, greener legacy for the next generation. Remove Argo Dam.



Is Argo Dam really in trouble?

By Eunice Burns: Ann Arbor News, June 5, 2009

I’m writing to explain HRWC’s statement that Argo Dam is failing, and to respond to criticism of it.

My background is that I was on City Council when we bought the Detroit Edison properties, including Argo. I have been a member of the Watershed Council for many years and have been educated about the health and the future of the river by the studies and research done by the staff with technical help from many experts in the community and state.

Some people have said that the dam is in “excellent condition” and others have accused HRWC of being “hysterical” in our concern. I believe this is because parts of the dam–the concrete section–is indeed in good condition, and most people believe this is the full extent of the dam.

However, the toe drain is also part of the dam, covered under the permit and all technical descriptions, as are the gates, chains, mill race, mechanics, etc. The reality is that the toe drains are deteriorating and not draining the water in the earthen embankment adequately. These drains reduce the elevation difference, and therefore the water pressure, between the mill race and the river. The risk is that parts of the earthen embankment will liquefy and fall into the river. The water in the mill race will then rush into the river, carrying loads of sediment with it and creating a new channel. This may cause flooding downstream, obstructions and back-ups in the river due to large sediment islands, and kill plants and animals.

Similarly, the upstream portions of earthen embankment add stability to the Argo impoundment, which is the reason we can’t simply fill in the mill race to solve the toe drain problem (not to mention the livery and portage costs). If the upstream earthen embankment breaches or slumps, the impoundment could also rush into the river diverting the dam gates.

Finally, we believe this is of great concern as the MDEQ and MDNR staff have been dogging the City for about 5 years on this issue. Over the last 5 years, staff and budget cuts have led the MDEQ to publicly announce that it would not be able to respond to minor pollution concerns, review wetland permits, or review minor applications for new permit discharges. In short, MDEQ has been forced to take action only on significant environmental dangers. MDEQ cannot afford to be “hysterical” about minor problems. The fact that they have expressed this raised level of urgency about Argo dam and the risks associated with an embankment collapse causes the Huron River Watershed Council great concern. We would fail in our mission if we did not inform our citizens about the findings.


Removing Argo Dam doesn’t mean it’s the end of rowing

By Richard Norton: Ann Arbor News, June 12, 2009

Because of Argo Dam’s failing toe drains, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has ordered the City of Ann Arbor to either fix the dam or remove it. Both of these options will be expensive, although removing Argo might actually cost the city less than fixing it given the availability of federal stimulus funds, so the option of removing it and returning a significant stretch of the Huron River to its natural state is under serious consideration.

Here is the rub. Argo Pond currently serves the region’s organized competitive rowing community (crew), which consists of about 400-600 dedicated rowers. The vast majority of these are Ann Arbor high school and University of Michigan students. Crew is a fall and spring varsity sport at Pioneer and Huron High Schools, one of the most popular in terms of student participation, as well as a popular men’s club sport at U-M. In fact, Argo Pond is already overcrowded with rowers, and it will only become more so once Skyline High School offers crew.

The rowing community is justifiably fearful of losing the one viable venue for crew currently available (see Jeff DeBoer’s “Other Voices,” May 22), and so the battle lines have been drawn. Unfortunately, the debate over Argo Dam’s fate has become stubbornly framed in win-lose terms: either the rowers lose so the Huron River can win, or the Huron loses so the rowers can win.

It doesn’t need to be that way. At least one resolution could be a win-win, one that improves the health of the Huron while creating equivalent facilities for rowing. For that to happen, however, all of the stakeholders to this debate need to be willing to accept change and commit themselves to working together.

Rowing is a great use of the Huron River, and it makes great sense for Ann Arbor to support a high-quality rowing experience where it can. Even so, Argo Pond is not the only place that crew can or should take place.

The rowable reach above Argo Dam extends for just under 2 miles, with numerous “pinch points” and turns. Right now, the rowable reach above Geddes Dam extends a little more than a mile, up to a pinch point at Gallup Park where large boats cannot pass. But with some modification-minor in the scheme of things-that pinch point could be opened to allow safe passage for boats, extending the rowable reach to about 1.5 miles. This stretch wouldn’t be as long as Argo Pond, but it would be wider and virtually straight. Moreover, potential conflicts with other paddlers could be readily managed given the timing of crew and the width of the river.

In other words, with some modification, Geddes Pond could serve crew as well or better than Argo Pond. Similarly, by the rowing community’s own account, Barton Pond – with some improvements – could serve crew even better than Argo Pond currently does. Most importantly, the city needs to work with the rowers to create viable alternatives. All of these changes could almost certainly be done for less expense over the long term than what it would cost to fix and maintain Argo Dam.

So what’s standing in the way? Mostly, it’s the fear of what could be lost and skepticism about what would be gained. Beyond fears about relocating crew, at least three different arguments are being made for keeping Argo Dam.

First, some argue that we shouldn’t remove Argo Dam because doing so won’t really improve the river. Removing Argo will restore more than two miles of the Huron to a shallower, swifter, and narrower – that is, more natural – condition. The ecological benefits of keeping an ecosystem like a river in as close to its natural state as possible are many and real. Will the Huron suddenly become a world-class trout stream if Argo is removed? Certainly not. Will it be healthier for having that stretch restored? Absolutely. There simply are no credible arguments that maintaining Argo Pond will keep the Huron as healthy as it could be, or that removing the dam will not make it healthier than it currently is. The HRWC has prepared numerous materials providing detailed explanations for why this is so.

Second, some argue that removing Argo and restoring part of the Huron isn’t worth the trouble and expense because doing so won’t restore the whole river. But the Huron didn’t reach its current state in one fell swoop; it took a lot of dams and other assaults over a long time for that to happen. Restoring the Huron to its natural health (as much as possible given other constraints) will also require a lot of steps and a long time. The argument that we shouldn’t act now to restore part of the river because it won’t solve every problem all at once is essentially an argument for never doing anything to restore the Huron River-not a good argument for either the Huron or the city.

Finally, some argue that it would simply be cheaper to fix Argo than remove it. But that argument holds – if at all – only with regard to short-term costs. It completely ignores the fact that fixing Argo also means incurring perpetual costs for: ongoing maintenance, because the Huron itself is constantly working to dismantle the dam; increasing river maintenance, because of the growing problem with weeds in Argo Pond; and ongoing liability costs. Again, there are simply no credible arguments that keeping and maintaining Argo Dam would require less expense and effort by the city during the long term compared to removing it.

In the end, I favor removing Argo Dam, because it is the environmentally sound thing to do, while providing crew a home on Geddes or Barton Ponds, or both, because in the long term it is the cost-effective thing to do – and it could serve crew as well or better than Argo Pond. So when City Council makes its final decision, it should clearly decide to do two things simultaneously: first, remove Argo Dam and restore a substantial reach of the Huron River to its natural state; and second, in conjunction with the Ann Arbor Public School District and U-M, commit to supporting high-quality rowing at Geddes and Barton ponds. This would be a win-win success rather than a win-lose failure. It won’t be easy but it can be done, and it would yield a better outcome—both for the Huron and all its users—than what we have today.


Clarifying the science behind Argo Dam debate

By Catherine Riseng: Ann Arbor News, June 16, 2009

I am writing to try to clarify some of the environmental facts and science behind the Argo Impoundment and dam removal issue that have been raised in “Other Voices” columns and at public meetings. I am a research scientist at the University of Michigan studying river and lake ecology and have studied the available data, documents, and current operational practices.

One public claim was that Argo Impoundment doesn’t trap sediment and won’t need to be dredged because the sediments are organic materials from plant growth. Unfortunately it is likely true that a large part of the current sediments deposited in Argo are generated within the impoundment from the extensive aquatic plant growth – and the rowing community can attest to the extensive plant growth, since they need to mow it periodically during the summer to be able to row on the impoundment.

But this organic deposition is actually a cause for concern because organic matter returns more nutrients to the water when it decomposes, stimulating further plant growth. The decomposition process uses some of the oxygen dissolved in the water that is needed by other aquatic life, adding to stressful conditions for fish and invertebrates.

Several lines of evidence have been reported to support the claim that Argo Impoundment does not warm the water and harm the fisheries. Unfortunately, these are not correct. The City Water Department has confirmed that the warmest top layer of Barton dam water is discharged from Barton dam to Argo. Further, Trout Unlimited data collected during the summer of 2006 show that water leaving Barton dam is clearly warmer than the river water entering it.

Argo Impoundment has a similar effect: slow-moving water with a large surface area absorbs solar radiation resulting in increase water temperatures and evaporation. Water temperature is important for aquatic biota because it controls the amount of oxygen in the water available to the animals: warmer water, less oxygen, more stress for aquatic organisms.

Does Argo Impoundment harm the fish community? The evidence suggests yes. The MDNR used to stock the pond with warm-water fish for an urban fishery but no longer because the MDNR considers the Impoundment too ‘eutrophic’ or impaired by nutrient enrichment. Recent fish records from MDNR surveys show loss of fish species since the last stocking and relatively few fish in the pond.

The fish community of the Huron River in Ypsilanti has 33 percent more species and 15 times as many fish as the dammed impoundment. Argo Impoundment does provide an urban fishery although dominated by bluegill (based on MDNR data) but the data suggest that the Argo fishery has degraded over the last decade and this trajectory is likely to continue.

I am a river ecologist, so I am aware of the damage done to rivers across the world, the state, and in the watershed by dams and of the potential benefits of dam removal. I favor Argo dam removal. I also support the commitment to establish rowing on another of the city impoundments since rowing has become an important sport for high school, college, and beyond. This will be a tough decision for City Council—even more important that the environmental issues surrounding Argo Impoundment are as clear and fact-based as possible.

Dave Wilson
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