Boardman River: A Unique Take on a Watershed Plan

“The Boardman River is a life. It’s not just about human development but the opportunity to restore wildlife and enrichment,” says Kimberly Pontius, executive vice president of the Traverse Association of REALTORS® in Traverse City, Mich. “When you restore these ecological systems to where they should be, you’re breathing life into the system,” he says. That’s the sentiment behind the restoration and dam removals of a historic northern Michigan waterway. This amazing river project looks at new definitions of the term “prosperity” and how reimagining the natural realm can impact the regional economy for future generations in terms of smart growth on a very different scale.

River Refresh

This project is not only different; it’s a huge undertaking. Currently underway, the Boardman River Watershed is developing a new approach to natural resource planning over the 291-square-mile watershed.

The resulting work product — a prosperity plan — will leverage the economic and community development of the watershed, taking into account dam removal and restoration of the river that courses through it. The plan will engage the region to find common goals and activities for the long-term protection of natural assets within the watershed, along with job creation and business.

“The Boardman River Prosperity Plan is a living document that identifies current and potential problems in the watershed, and offers locally driven solutions that leverage the region’s ecologic, recreational, economic and social resources,” according to Becky Ewing, associate director of Rotary Charities of Traverse City, which is helping fund the project.

It will provide a vision for the entire watershed which includes dam removals and restoration of the 160-mile Boardman River. The plan also has the potential to be a model for the state and country on how to truly integrate economic and environmental vision and planning. once complete, three dams will be removed and one dam modified, and 3.4 miles of the Boardman River will be restored to a more natural, cold-water, free-flowing river, leaving huge opportunities for smart development, recreation and more. “It’s the largest dam removal project in Michigan and the largest wetlands restoration in the Great lakes Basin,” says Pontius.

An Economic Model

Obviously a project of this magnitude is being watched closely by other states hoping to find a balance between economic and ecological prosperity. Along with a healthier ecosystem, the team hopes to see enhanced recreational opportunities and carefully planned development along the river. In fact, because of its focus on smart growth, this project is supported in part by a smart Growth Action Grant of $15,000 from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. other funding for the project comes from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the Great lakes Fishery Trust, National Association of Counties (NACo), Freshwater Roundtable, Frey Foundation, and other sources.

The leadership team includes organizations ranging from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® to the Rotary Camps & services and the Grand Traverse Conservation District. In all, 12 local organizations are represented. Consulting partners include Public sector Consultants, a Michigan-based research and management firm with a focus on environmental policy; Beckett & Raeder of Ann Arbor, an environmental, economic development and community-planning firm; and law-ton Gallagher Group, a Traverse City communications firm. “We procured a leadership team that was reflective of the community,” says Tim Ervin, a trustee on the Board of the Manistee County Community Foundation and a consultant to the Alliance for economic success. “The prosperity plan is not a regulatory document. It’s intended for use by communities through volunteerism to protect the watershed and enhance economic prosperity.”

All Encompassing

What makes this project and watershed plan different from others is that a typical watershed plan focuses solely on the environmental aspects of the rehabilitation of a watershed. “our plan is the only case I know of where watershed planning tries to wrap itself around more than the silo of natural resources,” says Ervin.

The Boardman River Prosperity Team’s watershed plan hopes to find an accord that balances the triple bottom line for the Boardman Watershed: the economic contributions, social responsibility and environmental demands that this natural resource provides to the region and the two primary communities located on this waterway. “This was unique because it doesn’t just look at the natural resources,” says Ervin. “It looks at social, economic and cultural impacts. In looking at a watershed plan, you must meet the requirements of the U.s. environmental Protection Agency and protect the use of waters. The Boardman River and its watershed is the focus of all of the communities in 17 townships. We wanted to broaden the scope so we would end up with a plan to protect the natural resource and provide direction in terms of priorities for economic and community development. It’s about the prosperity of the natural resource.”

John R. Iacoangeli echoes that sentiment. “Typically, watershed plans have citizen engagement, but those citizens are focused on improving water quality,” says Iacoangeli, principal of Beckett & Raeder. “The Board-man Prosperity Plan includes that component, but also stakeholders were presented with business and economic development prospects. It’s not just about improving water quality. It’s about improving economic prosperity along the watershed,” he says.

Economic Impact

To date, the Brown Bridge Dam has been removed. Two more dams will be removed in 2015-2016. “The dams are deteriorating, and it’s very expensive to rebuild them,” says Pontius. A 2006 report by the U.s. Army Corps of engineers pointed out that all four dams are damaging the ecosystem of the area and reducing trout populations.

At one time, during the logging heydays, the river was used as a means to float logs to Traverse City and the saw mills. once the logging industry faded, in the 1920s, hydroelectric dams were built. “Now, we’d like to return the fisheries back to what they used to be,” says Pontius. “Just one of many industries that will thrive under the new prosperity plan.”

The leadership Team has identified 26 initial metrics for tracking the status of water quality and other environmental health conditions; economic conditions; housing; arts, culture and recreation offerings; and educational achievement in the watershed in order to evaluate long-term success in achieving the Prosperity Plan goals.

At this stage, there are no hard and fast, or even estimated, numbers that speak to the economic opportunities the river revitalization hopes to bring to the area. That will come once the team meets with elected officials so they can “understand what they have in their backyard and can leverage that into economic opportunities,” says Iacoangeli.

Pontius agrees. “It’s too soon to tell [what the economic impact will be]. But, as development may start to occur, we have a plan now that provides guidelines for developers so they can make smart decisions. We tied it into the REALTOR® smart Growth Grant Program, because we want the community to see that REALTORS® care about the integrity of the region. We’re members of the community and have a vested interest in the outcome,” says Pontius.

Citizen and Policymaker Engagement

Already, the Prosperity team leadership has seen the possibilities from different areas. “Part of what came to light is that the western part of the watershed is more of a recreational asset, while the eastern part is used in a different way,” says Iacoangeli. “People on the eastern side of the watershed are hunting and fishing to supplement the food they provide their families. It’s a different dynamic for each side of the watershed.”

That’s why input from both citizens and policymakers is vital. “The goal is to have state and federal policymakers involved in following this project because we think we will learn things about planning that should be considered in future policy initiatives,” says Ervin.

“What we’re trying to get at is the economic potential,” says Ervin. “We want a plan that prepares the area for future projects and protects the natural resources. It’s classic placemaking — making these places where people want to come play and work.”

The collective action model will take about two years to complete. “We are looking at the top priorities of all the communities involved. Then, we will see what priorities are shared so that we can develop collaborative projects such as blue water trail systems, community developments and more. It is pioneering work and it makes sense. It is not just about putting a trout structure in the river. We are doing it while being mindful of the sustainability of the community,” says Ervin.

Pontius agrees, “What does prosperity look like? Beyond canoe rentals, a revitalized river will attract sports fishing and development. The Prosperity Plan was put together to use as a guidebook for the region. By returning the river to its natural state, there will be a huge impact on economic prosperity. It’s a game changer for the region. And, this game changer will have implications on a local, state and even national level.”

To download a copy of the Boardman River Prosperity Plan, go to

Economic and Environmental Benefits

In addition to the environmental benefits, the rebirth of the Boardman Watershed is also a community development project with many long-term benefits.

• Enhance and restore habitat for native and naturalized fish species and organisms preferring cold water.
• Restore over 3.4 miles and reconnect 160 miles of high-quality river habitat.
• Restore more than 250 acres of wetlands and nearly 60 acres of upland habitat.

• Impact the local economy by stimulating increased recreation and tourism.
• Promote business growth and new opportunities from increased interest in water-related activities, including fishing, kayaking and canoeing.
• Support the long-term goals of the Grand Vision guiding principle of “protecting and preserving the water resources, forests, natural areas and the scenic beauty of the region.”

• Engage all interests, cultivating a sense of ownership in the project and outcome, and ensure that the process is sensitive to community needs and concerns.
• Secure unparalleled cooperation among federal, tribal, state and local government agencies and nonprofit entities.
• Document and archive the process in detail as it unfolds, and initiate the development of a model that will be transferable for use by other communities faced with similar issues.
• Continue to involve a diverse group of individuals and organizations throughout the process, and into the future, to ensure the long-term health of the Boardman River.

• Create an on-the-ground laboratory for local schools.
• Support a variety of scientific research initiatives to assess the impacts of dam removal.

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